ISBN Numbers – How to Get an ISBN For Your Book

ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number. It is a 10-digit number that uniquely identifies books and similar products, such as ebooks, audio books, videos, DVDs, etc. published internationally.

(Starting in 2007, all books will be required to carry 13-digit ISBNs. See this article on converting to 13-digit ISBN numbers (PDF).)

Each ISBN is unique to a specific publisher, title, edition and format, and makes it easier for everyone in the distribution chain, including book stores, libraries, wholesalers and distributors, to have a consistent way to identify a particular book. That means that if you publish a book in hardcover, paperback and ebook formats, you will use three ISBNs: one for each format. If you also offer an audio version, it will require a fourth ISBN. When you revise the book and publish a second edition, each format of the second edition will require a unique ISBN.

ISBNs are issued by the ISBN agency in the publisher’s home country. In many countries, ISBNs may be provided free of charge. In the United States, ISBNs may only be obtained from R R Bowker, and there is a processing fee that is based on the number of ISBNs requested.

Do not buy ISBNs from anyone other than the authorized ISBN agency. Reasons include:

  • Publishers cannot resell, re-assign, transfer, or split their assigned ISBNs among other publishers, according to the terms specified by the ISBN agency.
  • The ISBN identifies the publisher of record. Using an ISBN assigned to another publisher may mean that orders for your book go to that publisher and not to you.

Ownership of the ISBN is what distinguishes an author from a publisher. When you are published by one of the so-called “self-publishing companies” that publish your book for a fee, in fact you are not self-publishing. They own the bar code and they are the publisher of your book.

ISBNs are issued in blocks of 10, 100, 1000 and 10,000. Some self-publishers ask about buying one ISBN; however, this is short-sighted. If you contact Bowker directly and ask about buying a single ISBN, they will sell it to you at about one-half the price of a block of ten. If you ever decide to publish another book, the same book in another format (e.g., hardcover and paperback), or a revised edition, you will have to obtain additional ISBNs. If you are going to publish, buy a block of at least ten ISBNs.

When you buy a block of ISBNs, you will receive a list of numbers. The bar code of the ISBN is not included in the processing fee. You have the option of buying bar codes from Bowker, but bar codes are available from a number of sources, including this free ISBN bar code generator.

The ISBN should be printed in text form, such as ISBN 1-2345-678-9X on the verso page (the back of the title page, where the copyright information is also typically printed). The bar code should appear on the back cover of the book or dust jacket.

Proper use of ISBN numbers will help your book reach a larger audience, as major book stores, wholesalers and distributors will require an ISBN to include your book in their systems.

Copyright Cathy Stucker. As the Idea Lady, Cathy Stucker helps authors sell more books with strategies that make marketing easy, inexpensive and even fun. Get free marketing tips in her newsletters when you subscribe at