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ISBNs, what are they all about?
ISBNs, what are they all about? Image credit: BillPe - Flickr

ISBNs - What are they, and do you really need one?

International Standard Book Numbers (ISBNs) are a recognised feature of published books, but to some they can be confusing. Does every book need one, even eBooks? What about reprints, or different editions? What are they for? Read on and I’ll explain all.

What is an ISBN?

An ISBN is a 13 digit number (ten digits for books published before 2007) that identifies a single edition or variation of a ‘monographic work’ or book. An ISBN is essentially just a product number used by publishers, booksellers and libraries for ordering, listing and stock control purposes. It enables them to identify a particular publisher and allows the publisher to identify a specific edition of a specific title in a specific format.

There is no legal requirement for an ISBN and it offers no legal or copyright protection, it’s simply a product reference number.

What’s an eISBN?

There’s no such thing. An ISBN is an ISBN regardless of whether it’s applied to a print book, ebook, or audio book.

When should I use an ISBN?

Different formats count as different editions, so an ISBN issued for your print book can’t be used for your eBook or audio book, or vice versa.

Hardback books will need a separate ISBN from your softcover books, however, eBook formats are created equal and you can use the same ISBN for both Mobi and ePub (Kindle and iBooks) editions as long as the content is the same.

However, some eBooks have different capabilities than each other. For instance, Apple’s iBook Author offers a lot more functionality such as multimedia and other display options than alternatives like Amazon. If these are taken advantage of then the two versions should really have different listings.

Most self-publishers will be using a print-on-demand service like Createspace as well as publishing an eBook through Amazon and/or iBooks. In this instance you’d only need two ISBNs, one to cover the single print edition and one for both eBook formats.

Right, so now we’ve cleared-up what ISBNs are for, the next question is…

Do I need an ISBN?

Yes and no.

If you’re publishing a print-edition of your book to give to friends, family, clients, or distribute through casual channels, then you do not need an ISBN as you don’t need to track any sales data through retail outlets.

If you’re publishing a print-edition to distribute through retail channels, be it brick & mortar stores, or internet sites such as Amazon, or even libraries then you will require an ISBN.

ISBNs are not required for publishing eBooks through single retail platforms such as Amazon KDP, Apple iBooks, B&N Pubit, Kobo, etc. However, there is no harm in having one and it’s often perceived to be a bit more professional.

How do I get an ISBN?

A lot of retail platforms offer ISBNs themselves, some for a seemingly cheap price or even free, but if you are looking at publishing more than one book across different formats then it may be beneficial to buy them yourself.

An ISBN is broken down into group identifier, publisher identifier and title identifier. This means that all ISBNs in an allocated batch show the publisher identifier, and all products identified by ISBNs from your batch will be considered as being published by that entity. So free ISBNs from Amazon, for example, will show Amazon as the publisher.

Bear in mind that an ISBN is simply a product number, and does in no way register copyright of the work. Unless you have signed a contract with someone saying otherwise copyright is automatically retained by you.

If you want to buy your ISBNs yourself then each country has their own national agency for assigning them. Nielsen in the UK, Bowker in the States, or the ISBN-Agentur für die Bundesrepublik Deutschland for Germany. You need to apply for your number in the region where you live. You can find who your local agency is from the International ISBN Agency.

I’ve got my ISBN, now what?

You should put your ISBN on the copyright page of your book, or if you have a few you could list all ISBNs for a piece of work in each edition if it makes things a little easier, like so:

ISBN 13: 978-0-1234567-8-9 (Paperback edition)
ISBN 13: 978-0-1234567-8-9 (eBook edition)

For print books you should also display your ISBN as a barcode on the back for shops to scan, this barcode can also include the price.

When do I need to reissue an ISBN?

ISBNs are issued forever and can’t be reapplied to different works. Aside from correcting typos, if you change the content or title of a book, or add or remove anything then you will need to get a new ISBN.

Let us know in the comments below if you have any questions on ISBNs, and be sure to sign up to our newsletter which includes tips and tricks, and special offers for our services, including discounts on ISBNs.

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