Have you ever seen the back of a book and wondered what those numbers on its barcode are? Those numbers are a code that forms the book’s International Standard Book Number or ISBN. Every book has an ISBN from which one can identify details about the publication. 

Getting an ISBN is a crucial step in every published writer’s journey—regardless of whether they’re opting for self-publishing or a traditional publishing house. In this article, we try to deconstruct what an ISBN is, why you should get one for your book, and at what point of the publishing process you should get one. 

 

What is an ISBN? 

An International Standard Book Number (ISBN) is a uniquely generated number assigned to a published book. 

It is an identifying feature of a book (the same way fingerprints are for human beings; just as no two people share fingerprints, no two books share an ISBN). It’s often used by entities who manage, publish, and distribute books for listing and other logistical purposes. It enables booksellers, publishers, and even readers to find a book with ease. 

It is usually found at the back of a book and looks like this: 

ISBN in book example

How do I read an ISBN? 

An ISBN has 13 digits (since 2007) and has five distinct parts that reveal a key piece of information about the published piece. Every code begins with the letters ISBN. 

  1. Prefix: The code begins with either the numbers 978 or 979, indicating that the published piece you’re looking at is a book. 
  2. Group identifier: A group or country identifier tells you which country or geographical region of the world the book has been published in. 
  3. Publisher identifier: This section identifies the publisher of the book based on the geographical location and language of the book.
  4. Title identifier: This is a unique code given to identify the title, format and edition of a book. Check digit: The final digit is a single number that validates the entire ISBN. 

So cutting a long story short, the first three parts of the ISBN depend on where you are, who is publishing the book, and what language it is in. What truly makes one unique is the title identifier. Now, keep that in mind, because we’ll come back to this again soon. 

 

How does someone get an ISBN for their book? 

There are a few options you can consider. The options differ across countries, since, as you’ve already noticed, the number is specific to territory. 

  • Local governments have agencies that issue ISBNs. Countries like Canada and Belgium have specific public entities responsible for distributing them. (These are generally free of charge!) The official ISBN International website has a database that tells you whether your country has such an agency. 
  • In some countries, private entities distribute ISBNs, usually for a cost. If you’re in the United States, for example, and are a self-publishing writer, check out Bowker
  • You can also get an ISBN from your publisher or your chosen publishing platform. Folks like Amazon KDP and IngramSparks, if you have cut a deal with them, can get you an ISBN at a discounted rate or even free of charge! 

Should I get an ISBN for my book? 

The first question, before you say when, is to determine whether you want an ISBN for your book at all. The obvious answer is yes, since ISBNs help you track the sales of your book, and even boost it. But like any other step of the publishing process, there are many factors to be considered. If your budget allows you to get an ISBN, and you envision your book dominating best-selling lists, we say go for it! 

Once you’ve decided that you do, think about which editions and formats you need to get an ISBN for. Remember when we had said earlier that each format has a different number? Now is the time to take that into consideration, because a print edition and electronic version of the same book will have different ISBNs. The same goes for translations and editions of books as well. 

 

FAQs about International Standard Book Number 

Is it mandatory for a writer to get one for their book? 

It depends on what kind of book you are publishing. If you’re publishing an ebook, then it isn’t. However, if you’re aiming to put out print editions that online or offline retailers will distribute, then it is mandatory to get one. 

If I’m putting out multiple formats of the book simultaneously, can I apply for multiple? 

Yes! Almost all the ISBN distributors we’ve mentioned in the article have options for bulk orders of ISBNs (usually in packages of 10 or so). Getting them all in one go also means you might get a discount on them. 

Is it worth paying for an ISBN? 

There are a lot more pros than there are cons to getting one. The biggest advantage is that it puts your book in a database of published work, allowing you to compete fairly with all the books in the market. The other is that it gives your book a professional edge. 

Are ISBNs transferable? 

No, they are not, since they are issued keeping in mind the format of a book as well, and are designated to that one only. ISBNs are fixed and non-transferable. 


See also:

  1. A Step-By-Step Guide to Self-Publishing 
  2. 8 Pre-Publishing Steps to Publish Your Book 
  3. 11 Marketing Tips for Self-Publishing Authors 
  4. What Makes Typesetting a Pre-Publishing Essential for Every Writer? 
  5. Book Cover Design: An Introduction