The Self-Publishing Insider

Learn what ISBN numbers are and why authors needs them from the self-publishing experts at Publish Pros

Understanding ISBNs for Authors

Confused about ISBNs, what they are, why you need them, and how they help you as an independent author? Let’s dive into the world of ISBNs and learn how important they are in helping you reach your audience.

What Is an ISBN?

ISBN, which stands for International Standard Book Number, is a 13-digit code that serves as a unique identifier for books. The ISBN identifies the book’s publisher, title, language, edition and version. The ISBN appears in the book’s interior on the copyright page and serves to generate the barcode for the book’s back cover.

Why Are ISBNs Necessary?

Libraries, bookstores, online retailers, distributors and wholesalers depend on ISBNs to identify and track sales of each separate version of your book (i.e. hardcover or paperback). In other words, if you intend to sell your work in any sort of print format, it’s necessary to have an ISBN for each specific format you’re going to offer. Distributors do not require ISBNs for ebooks or audiobooks.

You must apply for a new ISBN if you:

  • Plan to publish a book in print and do not want to share rights
  • Make substantial text changes to an existing book’s interior (i.e. create a new edition or version)
  • Change publishers (i.e. you are not listed as the original publisher)
  • Change your book’s title or subtitle
  • Translate your book into a different language

Should I Get My Own ISBNs?

You have two options when self-publishing—use a “free” ISBN assigned by your publishing service company or apply for your own ISBN.

When publishers “gift” you an ISBN, they’ve already purchased it from Bowker, the official ISBN agency for the United States. The purchaser is therefore listed as the publisher of record. This means they own the distribution rights of the property it is assigned to. For example, of you publish through Amazon KDP and accept one of their ISBN, you lose the ability to distribute your book through networks outside of While this does not mean your book will only appear on Amazon, it does greatly limit your options. Other major book retailers like Barnes & Noble and Walmart will not inventory books produced by a direct retail competitor.

While it may be tempting to use a publisher’s ISBN, especially if you are a new author and/or looking to save some cash for other publishing services, there are several advantages to getting your own:

  • You’ll be listed as the publisher of record, and your ISBNs will remain under your name indefinitely. This holds true even if you switch publishers or work with multiple companies.
  • Any specific book orders or inquiries will come to you directly.
  • You control your book’s metadata, including descriptions and categories, aiding libraries, bookstores, and readers in their purchasing decisions. This advantage enhances your marketing efforts, promoting your books and boosting their accessibility to your target audience.
  • You’ll have a way to collect and analyze book sales data. This further helps you understand how your audience is finding you. You’ll also see which versions are selling better than others.

How Much Do ISBNs Cost?

A single ISBN in the U.S. costs $125.00. You’ll need an ISBN for each print format of your book. So, buying your numbers in bulk provides the best value. Bowker offers a 10-number block for $295.00, making each number only $29.50, and numbers never expire. So plan ahead. Consider the number of books you plan to publish, the required formats, and potential future revisions.

In Canada, ISBN are issued by the agency of Library and Archives Canada (LAC) at no cost. Eligible Canadian authors who plan to publish in English must create an account online to request numbers. Authors who wish to publish in French only should contact Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec (BAnQ) at to get an ISBN.

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