Does Your Printed-Book or Electronic-Book Need an ISBN?

Does Your Book Need an ISBN?

This is a frequent question that authors ask. Unfortunately, there’s no simple one-word answer. Let’s start with some basic information. The following is copied directly from the R.R. Bowker website. For authors located in the United States, Bowker is the official registration agency of the ISBN.


What’s an ISBN?

“ISBN” stands for “International Standard Book Number”.

The ISBN identifies a book or other book-like product (such as an audiobook) in a specific format and edition, but also the publisher.

There are two lengths for an ISBN: the older and obsolete ISBN-10 and the newer (since January 2007) ISBN-13. ISBN-10 numbers start with 978 (as in the example above), while ISBN-13 numbers start with 979.

What’s the purpose of an ISBN?

The purpose of the ISBN is to establish and identify one title, or edition of a title, from one specific publisher, and is unique to that edition, allowing for more efficient marketing of products by booksellers, libraries, universities, wholesalers and distributors.

Why Buy an ISBN?

ISBNs are linked to essential information allowing book-sellers, and readers, to know what book they are buying, what the book is about, and who the author is.

  • ISBNs are the global standard for identifying titles. ISBNs are used world-wide as a unique identifier for books.
  • Most retailers require ISBNs to track book inventory. Without an ISBN, you will not be found in most book stores, either online or down the street from your house.

How many ISBNs Do You Need To Buy?

The purpose of the ISBN is to identify one specific version of a book. If you wish to have a hard bound copy, a soft bound copy, an ePUB, a PDF, a MOBI, or even register a new version, you will need a unique ISBN for each version. This allows retailers to help the customer understand exactly which version of a title they are purchasing.

In short, an ISBN is to a book as a social security number is to a person. It’s a unique identifier. (And don’t say “ISBN number”; the ‘N’ in the acronym means number.)

The above ISBN information is easily applicable to a tangible book product (e.g., for sale in a bookstore, like a SKU number in retail). However, there are now so many other formats available that the answer is less clear. Authors, today, have the option of creating electronic books (e-books; e.g., Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing); small-run print-on-demand (POD) books from a number of publishers; books printed on 8½ x 11 paper stock on a personal printer or at a copier store (e.g., to be used as handouts); books that can be downloaded from the author’s personal computer (e.g., in PDF format), and so on. What guidelines apply for these?

All this flexibility creates a challenge. Part of the problem is that ISBNs are designed, as it states above, to be applied one to each and every edition (format) published. What means is, if an author were to have hard-cover, paperback and e-book versions, plus his or her own printed copies, in theory, each would require a separate unique ISBN. This can get expensive really quickly. Unless an author plans, or hopes, to sell hundreds of copies, amortizing the ISBN fee may be challenging.

Furthermore, if you make a “significant” change to your book (e.g., more than just typos; some say more than 25 percent of the book), you’ll need a new ISBN.

When you might not require an ISBN

If you plan to publish your e-book using Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) or Barnes & Noble Pubit (Nook), you probably will not want to pay for an ISBN. Amazon has its own tracking number system (ASIN — Amazon Standard Identification Number), which for tracking and sales purposes works like an ISBN. The same is true of Barnes & Nobles PubIt!.

However, if you go through Apple’s iBookstore, you will need an ISBN. Other organizations (e.g., SmashWords) have their own rules for ISBNs, so it’s a good idea to check with them.

If you plan to sell your e-book from your own website (e.g., via download), you become the distributor, and you don’t need an ISBN.

So, when would you want an ISBN for your e-Book?

Following are some, but not all, of the reasons for acquiring an ISBN.

  • You set up and publish your e-Book through your own publishing company—This isn’t difficult. All you have to do is 1) create a publishing company name (please don’t use your initials or anything that sounds too personal), 2) buy a block of ISBNs from Bowker, and 3) apply one number to each e-book you publish (enter the number onto the verso or copyright page).
  • You want to sell your e-Book through multiple retailers (besides Kindle)—Other e-book retailers, besides Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing, include Barnes & Noble’s Nook, and Apple’s iPad. For these publishers, you may need to buy an ISBN (one for each seller). Caution: Be careful of mass e-book distributors and companies that offer to give you a “free” ISBN or sell you a discounted ISBN. You’re getting one of their ISBNs. They, then, become the publisher of record — not you. You’ll be listed as the author.

However, you may still choose to get a “free” ISBN from a reputable company, such as CreateSpace, an Amazon company. Their identifier has no effect on the ownership or copyright of your work, which is quite important in the long run — the content is still under your control.

  • You want your e-Book to be found on search engines (e.g., Google)—When you buy ISBNs, you’ll want to do the second step in their process, which is to register your e-book in Bowker’s Books in Print. This database is used by booksellers, libraries, universities, wholesalers and distributors, as well as search engines like Google. If your e-book isn’t listed in Books in Print, you may not be found. Keep in mind that, if you’ve gone the Amazon Kindle route, the above may not matter, since the Amazon bookstore is one of the most searched sites for books on the Internet.
  • You want to make money from your e-Book’s sales—One of the interesting facts about publishing a book is that two or more books are allowed (under the U.S. Copyright law) to have the same title. One way to assure that you get credit for the sale of your title is to make sure it has its own unique ISBN. Another way is to give it a unique sub-title.


If you want to have a tight tracking system for your book(s), and plan to publish more than one book over time, then buying one or more ISBNs may be effective. Moreover, certain retailers or distributors require that you have one. However, if you publish through Amazon Kindle Direct (or some other companies) or you plan to download or print documents from your personal computer, an ISBN is probably not necessary, and can be an expense that will reduce your net profit.

We believe that the above information is reasonably accurate and current. And you may use it to make a decision. However, nothing beats your own personal research, to determine what will meet your needs.

Copyright © 2015 by Affordable Editing Services

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