July 14

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ISBN for Authors: 13 Things You Need to Know

By Boni Wagner-Stafford

July 14, 2021

publishing, self-publishing, traditional publishing

If you’re an author, or an aspiring author, sooner or later you’ll hear this mysterious term: ISBN. What is it and why does it matter? Let’s take a look and give you a short overview of the ISBN for authors .

1. What is an ISBN?

The abbreviation “ISBN” stands for International Standard Book Number. Every book that is published has one: since 2007, it’s been a thirteen-digit number. Before that, it was a ten-digit number. The ISBN is unique to that particular book and is like the book’s ID: booksellers, wholesalers, distributors, and libraries use it to identify the particular edition of the book. It helps them manage their inventory, to keep and update records, and track sales and inform ordering.

2. ISBN for authors: why do you need one?

Not all countries require that you have an ISBN to publish your book, especially eBook formats. However, booksellers and libraries usually require an ISBN. So, if you want to sell your book through any kind of retailer or have it in libraries, you need an ISBN.

3. What do the numbers mean?

You could happily wander the labyrinth of your author career without ever knowing what the numbers mean. But then, aren’t we often suckers for a bit of detail? And what would a blog on ISBN for authors be anyway, if we didn’t dig into what the heck the numbers actually mean? Exactly.

The ISBN is divided into five groups of numbers, each separated by a hyphen. Each group of numbers has a special function:

  1. PREFIX ELEMENT (three digits): always either 978 or 979.
  2. REGISTRATION GROUP (one to five digits): These digits tell us about the language and the country or region the book comes from. English-speaking countries have the number 0 or 1, while French-speaking countries share the number 2. Rarer languages usually have more digits in this group. The number may also identify a particular geographical region. For example, books from the South Pacific have the identifying number 982, while those from the Caribbean Community have the number 976.
  3. REGISTRATION ELEMENT (up to seven digits): This segment tells us who the publisher of the book is. Each country’s ISBN agency assigns publishers in that country with their own number groups.
  4. PUBLICATION ELEMENT (up to six digits): This is the group of numbers that identifies the book title and edition.
  5. CHECK DIGIT: A single digit that validates the ISBN.

4. Do all formats of one book title get the same ISBN?

The ISBN is unique to that edition of a book. So, if you publish your book as a hardcover, a paperback, an audio book and an e-book, you’ll need four different ISBNs: one for each format.

5. Do you need a new ISBN for a second edition of the same book?

Because the ISBN identifies the particular edition of a book, you need a unique one for each new edition. If you add a new foreword or other new material or if you do substantial revisions of the book, it will be a new edition and you’ll need a new ISBN. If you only make small changes like correcting typos, this will be considered a reprint and you won’t need a new ISBN. There’s an unwritten rule of thumb: if your changes represent less than ten percent of the content, you might not need a new ISBN for the new edition. Don’t quote us on that.

6. Does having an ISBN mean your book is copyrighted?

The ISBN is just an identifier and has nothing to do with copyright issues. Even though you have an ISBN for your book, you still need to claim copyright according to the copyright laws of the country you’re publishing in. (Read more about international copyright here.)

7. Where do you get an ISBN?

Each country has its own ISBN agency that issues ISBNs. To get an ISBN for your book, you need to contact the ISBN agency in the country where your publisher has its headquarters. If you’re self-publishing, you’re considered the publisher, so you need to contact the ISBN agency in your country. You can find the contact details for the relevant ISBN agencies on the website of the International ISBN Agency. Here are some country ISBN agencies:

8. How do you get an ISBN?

To get an ISBN, you need to obtain it from the ISBN agency in your country. You’ll have to provide information about the book, such as the title, the publisher, and the format. The ISBN agency will tell you exactly what process to follow, since this differs from country to country.

In most countries, publishers buy blocks of ISBNs for their own use. Self-published authors may be able to buy just one ISBN at a time, depending on the country. A book doesn’t have to be published yet to get an ISBN. In fact, you can get ISBNs for books that haven’t even been written yet.

9. What does an ISBN cost?

ISBN costs differ from country to country. It also depends on how many ISBNs you buy at a time. (Oh Canada. Gotta love Canada, where the ISBNs are free.) It’s usually more expensive to buy just one ISBN. So, it might be a better option to buy a pack of ten ISBNs. This way, should you decide to publish your book in different formats, you have an ISBN for each at the ready. Having those ISBNs might even motivate you to write your next book!

10. Can you reuse an ISBN?

Because each ISBN is unique to a specific edition of a specific book, you can’t reuse it.

11. Is a barcode the same as an ISBN?

A barcode and an ISBN are two different things. The barcode is a code that scanners read to get all the necessary information about the book. This includes the ISBN, of course, but it also includes information like the price of the book.

12. Where should you put the ISBN?

You must put your ISBN inside your book. When you do your book design and layout, it’s important to leave space for the ISBN. It should appear on the copyright page. For print or audio books, you’ll also have a barcode on the back cover. You can place the ISBN above or below the barcode. There are online barcode generators that will produce a barcode—including the ISBN— for you.

You will also want to include your ISBN in your media kit and any sell sheet, often provided by your publisher which you can take with you to local book stores and libraries when you’re promoting the benefits of having them carry physical copies of your book.

13. Should I use the free ISBN offered by Amazon KDP?

Amazon KDP (formerly Createspace) and other places like Smashwords offer a free ISBN for authors. If you’re self-published, that may or may not be a good thing. When budgets are tight, a FREE ISBN might be music to your ears! You don’t need to worry about giving up any rights or royalties if you go this route, but you will be holding up a big sign that says, SELF-PUBLISHED BOOK. That might be totally okay with you, and that’s all that counts. There are some bookstores and reviewers who won’t look at a book if there’s a hint it is self-published. But you’re the only one who can decide whether the price of buying your own ISBN or working with a publisher is worth the expense when compared to a free ISBN for authors.



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