10 FAQs about ISBNs for self-publishing authors

Self-publishing has had phenomenal growth over the last few years. According to statistics from Bowker, self-published titles may now account for the majority of titles published in the United States. Sales of titles from trade and university presses are, however, much higher since many self-published titles sell only a few copies [1].


What is ISBN?

The ISBN (International Standard Book Number) is a crucial 13-digit numeric code designed to provide a universally recognized identifier for books worldwide. This code serves as a comprehensive record, encapsulating essential details such as the book’s publisher, title, language, edition, and version. It enables seamless organization and retrieval of information across various libraries, bookstores, and databases globally.

It’s important to note that while books are assigned ISBNs, other publications like magazines, academic journals, and periodicals follow different identification systems and do not typically receive ISBNs.


Is ISBN necessary?
The International Standard Book Number (ISBN) serves as a crucial tool for customers, enabling them to easily identify and procure the precise book they desire. Its significance extends across various sectors including libraries, bookstores, online retailers, distributors, and wholesalers, all of which rely on this unique identifier to streamline their inventory management and sales tracking processes. For those aiming to cater to these markets, obtaining an ISBN is essential.

However, the necessity of an ISBN varies when it comes to selling ebooks. Unlike printed copies, many major ebook retailers such as Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and Apple do not mandate an ISBN for ebook listings. Therefore, if your distribution strategy primarily involves digital platforms and you have no intention to offer print editions, you can opt to forego obtaining an ISBN altogether.


Does a book title have a constant ISBN?
Each format variation of the book, whether it be an ebook, hardcover, paperback, or audiobook, necessitates a unique ISBN. It’s important to note that under the following circumstances, obtaining a new ISBN becomes essential:

– Significant textual revisions warranting a new edition

– Transition to a different publisher

– Alteration of the book’s title

– Translation of the book into a different language.


Can an ISBN be re-used?

An ISBN, once assigned to a publication, remains unique and cannot be reused, regardless of whether the book it identifies goes out of print.


In whose name is the ISBN issued?
The ISBN is assigned to the publisher. If you aspire to be listed as the official publisher in book databases and catalogues, it’s imperative to obtain your unique ISBN. This practice is highly recommended for reasons elaborated upon in subsequent sections of this article.


Should I get an ISBN?
If you opt for the traditional publishing route, your book’s publisher of record will be determined by the publishing house you partner with. Conversely, in the realm of self-publishing, you possess the flexibility to choose how your book is identified. This can involve utilizing an ISBN provided by a publishing service company such as CreateSpace or Kobo, in which case the company assumes the role of the publisher of record. Alternatively, you can obtain your own ISBN, or forego one altogether if your focus lies solely on selling ebooks through retailers that do not mandate its use.


For a self-publishing author, what are the advantages of getting their own ISBN over a publisher-assigned one?

Your publishing service company offers the invaluable service of assigning an ISBN to your book, often at negligible or no cost. This proposition is particularly enticing for self-publishing authors, especially those venturing into the realm of publishing for the first time. With uncertainties surrounding the size of their target market, authors find solace in conserving their funds for crucial professional book editing and design services, thus ensuring their work receives the attention and quality it deserves. However, there are several advantages to getting your own ISBN:


  1. You wield absolute authority over the content entered into your book’s metadata—a realm encompassing descriptions and categorizations vital for libraries, bookstores, and global readers to unearth your masterpiece and deliberate on its acquisition. In our contemporary digital landscape, the metadata of your book wields immense influence over its visibility and desirability amongst your intended audience. This holds profound significance particularly for self-published authors, who lack the extensive marketing and distribution resources traditionally afforded by established publishing houses.
  2. As the designated publisher of record, your ISBN will remain unchanged, ensuring consistency regardless of any shifts in your publishing service provider or if you opt to publish through multiple companies.
  3. Individuals or organizations seeking specific orders or inquiries about your book are encouraged to directly contact the publisher of record. We highly recommend that you prefer to be the point of contact rather than relying on your publishing service company for these matters.4. If you aspire to write multiple books, establishing your own publishing imprint can be a strategic move, granting you autonomy and a consistent brand presence across your publications.


I am unsure about getting an ISBN. Are there any disadvantages of not getting one?

If you’re producing copies of your book exclusively for a select group of family and friends and intend to distribute solely through direct sales, or if you’re exclusively offering the e-book format through retailers who don’t require ISBNs, then you can forgo the need for an ISBN altogether. You can draw encouragement from these data from the US:

  • Approximately 43% of ebooks acquired on Amazon.com lack International Standard Book Numbers (ISBNs).
  • Approximately a quarter (24%) of the total ebook revenue on Amazon.com flows towards books devoid of ISBNs, showcasing a significant market share for publications outside the conventional ISBN framework. This trend is echoed across other major platforms such as iBooks, Kobo, and Nook, where sales figures range between 15% to 20% for ebooks without ISBNs.
  • US consumers are investing a staggering $550 million annually in ebooks devoid of ISBNs, reflecting a significant trend in digital reading preferences.

As online bookstores continue to surge in popularity, surpassing brick-and-mortar establishments, the outlook for ebooks appears increasingly auspicious.
However, if you plan to take up writing seriously, take note of these downsides of not having an ISBN:

  • Your book may not be readily available to those in your audience who favor the tangible experience of physical copies.
  • Several online retailers may opt not to carry your ebook, potentially limiting its sales reach.
  • Your book will not be featured in Books in Print, a comprehensive bibliographic database renowned for facilitating the exploration and identification of diverse literary works.

If your ebook gains significant traction, you have the opportunity to enhance its reach by obtaining an ISBN later and releasing multiple versions. This strategy enables you to optimize distribution channels and boost sales potential.


Where can I get an ISBN?

Each country operates its own ISBN agency responsible for issuing unique identifiers for publications. In the United States, Bowker serves as the official ISBN agency, while authors in the UK typically turn to Nielsen. The pricing structure for ISBNs is contingent upon quantity, where purchasing a block of 1000 ISBNs incurs a lower per-ISBN cost compared to smaller blocks or individual ISBNs. Consequently, for self-publishing authors, investing in a block of 10 ISBNs proves more economically viable than procuring just one or two, especially when considering multiple formats such as paperback and hardcover editions. Notably, certain nations like Canada and India provide ISBNs free of charge, alleviating financial burdens for authors in those regions.


Do I need a barcode if I have an ISBN? How can I get a barcode?

The ISBN, acting as a distinctive identifier for books, plays a crucial role in the book-selling landscape. Physical book vendors rely on barcodes to efficiently handle their inventory, utilizing them to scan items during both purchase and sale transactions. Fortunately, there are numerous free online tools accessible for seamlessly converting an ISBN into a barcode. Additionally, obtaining a barcode directly from the agency that issued the ISBN is also a viable option, ensuring compatibility and ease of integration within the book distribution system.



ISBNs are not mandatory for the sale of ebooks, as none of the major online retailers demand them. However, for printed books, an ISBN is indispensable. It’s important to note that each edition of your book requires its own unique ISBN, making it necessary to acquire a separate one for each version. Opting for a block of 10 ISBNs proves to be a more economical choice compared to purchasing them individually.


  1. Holley, R. P. (2015). Self-Publishing and Academic Libraries.

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