ISBN Demystified: Answers to Common Questions

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Updated 4-22-2018.

ISBN codes are a mystery to some. In this article, we have ISBN demystified. This FAQ will give you insight about what they are, how to use them and a few of the pitfalls associated with them.

What is an ISBN?

ISBN (pronounced “Iz Ben”) is an acronym for “International Standard Book Number.” It the unique number used to identify each book that is published. It identifies the country, publisher and individual book. It is used in the inventory systems of distributors, libraries, bookstores and online bookstores.

An ISBN are also known, primarily in Europe, as a Bookland EAN.

What do the digits mean?

They break down this way:

isbn demystified


Where do I put the ISBN?

It goes on your copyright page in both print and ebooks. It also goes on the lower back cover, as part of the barcode, on print books.

Is the barcode part of the ISBN?

Yes and no. It is used to scan books at checkout counters and is integrated into store inventory systems. The barcode is just a graphical representation of the ISBN. You need a bar code for print books, but not ebooks. You must buy ISBNs from the authorized agency, but you can buy barcodes cheaply in many places, and you should buy them independently.

Should I include the book price in the ISBN barcode?

No, you should leave it out in almost all cases. That way you can change the price anytime you want. The price is not a required number, so if it remains at 0000, you can change the price, or charge different prices at different outlets, without changing the barcode. Changing the barcode requires a reprint of the book.

Do I need an ISBN for ebooks?

While you do not need the barcode for ebooks, you still need an ISBN in almost all cases. For example, Apple iBooks wants a ISBN. Some companies supply them, but see my comments about free or low cost ISBNs below. The biggest exception is selling Kindle ebooks. Amazon uses their own product code, the ASIN, so an ISBN is optional. Frankly, there is no advantage to using an ISBN for Kindle ebooks, so assigning an ISBN is a waste of money.

Can I use the same ISBN for one title?

No. You need a unique ISBN for the paperback, another for the hardcover edition if you publish one, and yet another one for each other edition, like ebooks. As I said, you don’t need one for Kindle, but you do need one for the iStore and still another one for the Nook edition. Each edition requires a unique ISBN.

If you make major changes to an existing book (a second edition), you need to assign a new ISBN for each edition. Minor changes to a book do not requires a new ISBN. A new cover to an existing book does not require a new ISBN.

Can I reuse an ISBN from an out-of-print book?

You cannot reuse an ISBN even if you take the original book off the market. A particular book and its ISBN are bonded in computer systems forever. Using an old ISBN for a new book confuses that system and is likely to kill sales of your new book. When booksellers or librarians look up the ISBN, as they do, the old title will appear, not the new title with the old ISBN.

Should I use the free or low-cost ISBN offered by various companies?

No. That makes them the publisher of record, not you. If you are a self-publisher or an indie publisher, you must purchase your own ISBNs directly from the ISBN agency here: A tip: The publisher name should be different than the author name at the ISBN agency. Bookstores and librarians who look up your listing as part of their purchasing process probably won’t buy your book if the publisher and author names are the same.

How many ISBNs should I buy from the ISBN agency?

The 10 pack offers the best value to start. You’ll usually have enough for all edition (print and various ebook editions) or for subsequent books you want to publish. You assign the numbers to particular books when you publish them.

Why are ISBNs so expensive?

There is an independent ISBN governance organization, but they needed an agency to sell and track them. Bowker won the bid and are the exclusive ISBN sellers in the US and some other countries. Whenever there is a monopoly, abusive pricing is inevitable.

ISBNs are free for books published by Canadian authors in Canada, so that should give you an idea of the degree of abuse heaped upon US publishers and authors. But you need them, so must pay the toll at

Why do I see both 10 and 13 digit ISBNs?

Each book edition has only one ISBN. Sometimes you see ISBN-10 and ISBN-13 in a book. ISBN-10 was eliminated in 2007, but there has been a long phase-out period so sometimes you see both. Of course, a book published before the new regime had the old ISBN-10s, so the ISBN-13 was added when a reprint was done. Now, publishers can only buy ISBN-13. If you happen to have unused ISBN-10s, you can convert to ISBN-13 at no additional cost.

Is getting an ISBN the same as getting a Copyright?

No, they are two completely different things. The ISBN identifies your book in the marketplace. Copyright provides legal protection for your content.

Does an ISBN automatically get me in Books in Print?

Books in Print is a service used by booksellers and libraries to buy books. For example, if someone wants to order your book at a local bookstore, the bookstore owner will look in Books in Print to see if it is available. Once you have an ISBN for your book, you want to get a free Books in Print listing at Bowker will try to sell you additional marketing services there, but wise publishers will avoid their pitch.

It is essential that you use an ISBN for each title and each edition of the book you publish. Using an ISBN properly can increase your sales because it makes your book more visible in the marketplace.


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