ISBN 101 for Authors

More often than not, the authors I work with have questions about the purpose, use and how to purchase an International Book Standard Number (ISBN). I’ve found that many authors confuse the ISBN with the Bookland EAN barcode that goes on the back cover of printed books, thinking they are the same thing. They are also confused about whether they need to buy their own ISBN or if they should just use the free ISBN that some print-on-demand companies offer. If you fall into any of the these categories of confusion, I’m here to help.

About the ISBN

The ISBN became an international standard in the 1970s to solve the issue of it being difficult to locate a particular book since titles and author names can overlap. It allows each version of a published book to have its own unique identifier making it easier to track. The information associated with your ISBN includes your title, author name / publisher name, price and more.

Who needs an ISBN?

If you plan to publish and sell your book through any retail channels, you will need an ISBN.

You don’t need an ISBN if you are planning to create the book for private use only. This could include:

  • Personal publications: ex) recipes, family history, photo book
  • Workbooks for seminars or presentations
  • Training manuals, handbooks or other material for internal use within a company
  • Books or materials that are only intended as incentives or for giveaways

However, if you plan to eventually publish it for commercial use, you’ll need an ISBN at that time.

Benefits of buying your own ISBN

By purchasing your own ISBNs, you are registered as your own publisher, whether under your own name, pen name, or publishing company. This enables anyone to locate you as the publisher of your own books.

Also, quoted from

Buying an ISBN improves the chances your book will be found Buying your ISBNs and registering your titles on My Identifiers, insures information about your book will be stored in our Books In Print database. This opens up a world of possibilities that your book is listed with many retailers, libraries, Bowker Books In Print, Bookwire, as well as online services like Google Books, Apple’s iBooks, Chegg and the New York Times.

Free ISBNs

Some companies, like Createspace, offer a free ISBN for your print book. They can do this, because they are buying ISBNs by the thousands from Bowker, making it dirt cheap to hand them out. Here’s why you might choose to use the free ISBN over purchasing your own:

  • You only plan to publish one or two books
  • You have a tight budget
  • You want to utilize Createspace’s expanded distribution and get your books in libraries and academic instituions.

The downside to using the free ISBN from Createspace, is they will be considered the publisher in the bibliographic databases. However, they have nothing to do with the copyright or ownership of your work, you are still in complete control.

Where to purchase an ISBN

U.S. residents will want to purchase their ISBN through Bowker at

U.K. residents can purchase their ISBN at

Australian residents can purchase their ISBN at

Canadian residents can obtain free ISBNs at

If your country isn’t listed above, you can locate where to purchase your ISBN at the International ISBN Agency website.


The first thing most authors notice is the price. Currently, for the U.S., one ISBN is $125. But, if you’re planning on publishing more than one book and in more than one format (print and e-book), then you’ll want to buy your ISBNs in bulk. Now you’re looking at the 10 pack (currently $295). That makes each ISBN only $29.50 each. Or, you can get 100 ISBNs for $575, making it $5.75 each. 100 ISBN’s might sound like a lot, but if you plan to write multiple books a year, and assign ISBNs to print and digital formats, then they’ll get used fast. Luckily, ISBNs do not expire once purchased, so you can have them for years before using them.

E-books and ISBNs

As of right now, ISBNs are optional for e-books. Retailers, like Amazon, assign their own number to each e-book as way for them to keep track. At Amazon, the unique identifier is called “ASIN” (Amazon Standard Identification Number). Other examples include Barnes & Noble where it is called “BN ID”. So if ISBNs are optional, why buy ISBNs for the e-book formats?

  • You will be listed as the publisher, instead of being lumped into the masses. For example, on Amazon if you don’t use your own ISBN the publisher name will be “Kindle Direct Publishing” instead of your name/publisher name.
  • Your book will rank higher on Google. When you purchase your ISBN, your book will go into Bowker’s Books in Print database which is licensed to search engines like Google. So when a reader enters in your author name or book title, you’re more likely to be found.
  • There is less room for error when it comes to sales of your book. By owning your ISBN, the e-book is registered directly to you, making sure your sales are properly recorded.

How many ISBNs do you need?

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. –

Therefore, if you plan to publish at Amazon (MOBI), at Barnes & Noble (ePUB), at Kobo (ePUB), and a softcover print book, then you will need a total of 3 ISBNs, since it’s per format, not per retailer.

Assigning e-book ISBNs

After purchasing ISBNs you’ll get to assign them to the different book formats. It can get a little confusing when you’re assigning them to your e-books because you might think that you need to specify the format that you’re assigning it to (EPUB or MOBI). However, you just declare what type of book it is versus the format.

On the “Format & Size” portion of assigning your e-book ISBN, under Medium you choose e-book, and then under Format there is only one option so you pick that. Bowker doesn’t need to know which ISBN is for the EPUB and which one is for the MOBI, all it cares about is the type of book it is – physical or electronic. It only matters when you go to KDP and Nook Press as to which number you use at that point and not to get them confused when you add them into the interior of your e-book formats.


There is no such thing as an e-ISBN. ISBNs are just ISBNs. If anyone asks for your e-ISBN, they are just using the incorrect terminology and just need to know the ISBNs of your digital books.


Any European Article Number (EAN) barcode which begins with the 978, or 979 prefix is called a Bookland EAN barcode and is typically located on the back of printed books internationally. Although I plan to go more in-depth on the barcode in a future post, you need to know this one important bit of information:

If you plan to use Createspace or IngramSpark, you do not need to purchase a barcode. They will supply you a free barcode, even if you supply your own ISBN. As far as anyone knows, there is no downside to using the free barcode, so you might as well as save yourself the money.


Bowker Info:
Self Published Authors: FAQ for ISBN’s
My Identifiers: FAQ
About ISBN’s
Basic Info on understanding ISBN’s
ISBN Guide to Setup and Title Registration

E-book ISBN info: E-Books and ISBN’s ISBN Users Manual (Page 14)
ISBN-International: E-Book Assignment Guidelines

eBook Architects – ISBNs

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