What is an ISBN?

What isISBNs can be tricky and authors often come to us with a lot of questions about them. What is it exactly? Why do I need it? Where do I buy it? In the following post we’ve listed a few of these frequently asked questions, just so you know what you’re getting yourself into when publishing your book!
If your question is not answered, don’t hesitate to leave it in the comment section below.

What is an ISBN?
ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number

What is an International Standard Book Number?
The International Standard Book Number (ISBN) is a unique thirteen-digit number that identifies books published internationally. It consists of five elements, with each section being separated by spaces or hyphens. Thanks to the ISBN, it is possible to establish and identify one title or edition of a title from millions of books all over the world. Each ISBN is unique to a specific edition, and enables all sales, no matter at which retailer, to be tracked.
If an ISBN is assigned in another country, do I need to get a UK ISBN to sell the book in the UK?
No. All ISBNs are international, but they are assigned locally. There is no such thing as a UK ISBN.

Why do I need an ISBN?
The ISBN is what defines your book. It is the standard ID number used to identify books by booksellers, libraries, book wholesalers and distributors. Without that number, no one would be able to find your book or publication, and no one would know it was yours.

Can I sell a self-published book/eBook online without an ISBN number?
Yes, if you only want to sell them on Amazon as they have their own unique identifier – the ASIN. However, if you want to sell your book(s)/eBook(s) on different websites or in shops, you do need an ISBN, otherwise you wouldn’t be able to track your sales.
Do I have to buy an ISBN or can I be assigned them?
You can either buy them or have a publisher assign them to you. They can be expensive for individual authors to buy as publishers get big discounts when they buy in bulk. We assign our ISBNs to authors most of the time. However, sometimes we work with authors who have bought their own. Either way we make sure the ISBN is registered, on the copyright page and on the back cover.
Do ISBNs have to be assigned to books that are not being sold?
No, not necessarily. But you can always opt to assign one anyway. It’s your choice. However, if you assign and ISBN and you change your mind at a later point in time and decide you would like to sell your work through retailers, everything is already set up to do so.
Do I need different ISBN’s for different formats? (paperback, eBook)
Yes. Your paperback, hardback and eBook are three different products and should therefore be tracked separately.

What does an ISBN look like?

Where does an ISBN get placed on a book?
The ISBN is printed on the copyright page of hardback and paperback books, and on the lower portion of the back cover of paperback books, above the bar code.
ISBN cover and copyright page 
What is the difference between a bar code and an ISBN?
A bar code is the graphic with vertical lines that encodes numerical information for scanning purposes, while the ISBN is simply a number.

Where do I buy and ISBN from?
From your national ISBN Agency.

Where do I buy an ISBN from if I live in the UK/US?
If you are in the US, you can purchase ISBN numbers from R. R. Bowker.
If you are in the UK, you need to buy it from Neilsen.
Can an ISBN be reused?
No, once a title is published with a specific ISBN, that ISBN can never be used again. Even if a title goes out of print, the ISBN cannot be reused since the title continues to be catalogued by libraries and traded by second-hand booksellers.

When do you need a new ISBN?

When do you?
  1. If you are producing your work in another format, e.g. paperback, hardback or eBook. If you publish in all three formats, you will need three different ISBN numbers to identify them.
  2. If there is any substantial change to the book, either to the cover or interior, you would need a new ISBN.
  3. New editions are considered different products and get their own ISBN.
When don't you?
  1. Once you own the ISBN, it remains the same for the life of the book. You can change printers, distributors, wholesalers, retailers, or whatever else you want – the book remains with the same ISBN.
  2. When you change the price.
  3. When you correct typos.
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