ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number, a number that uniquely identifies your book. But an ISBN can be expensive. Are they even worth it? Do you need one? And where can you get one? Check out these ISBN FAQs for answers!
Do I need one?
If you are distributing your book in a print format through bookstores, libraries, or online retailers, then you’ll need an ISBN.
If you are distributing your book as an ebook, then whether or not you need an ISBN depends on where you are selling it. Amazon, B&N, Google, and Apple Books do not require ISBNs. Smashwords, who not only sells ebooks but distributes them to other vendors, only requires an ISBN if you want them to distribute to Apple Books or Kobo for you. You also don’t need an ISBN to publish you book with Kobo, but if you don’t, they may not be able to distribute your ebook to all of their international retail partners.
Also, if your book has an ISBN, it will be listed in the Books in Print database, giving it a little more visibility.
Do print and ebook use the same ISBN?
No, they must have different ISBNs. Audio books also need their own ISBN. Some people say you need an ISBN for each type of ebook (epub, mobi), but as long as it’s the same text in that version, use the same ISBN so that sales numbers are counted together.
When do I need a new ISBN?
When you do not need a new ISBN:
- new cover (often books that have new covers from larger publishers are a new edition and have a new ISBN, but it isn’t required and more often than not, indie authors will keep the same ISBN if the text hasn’t changed).
- minor corrections
- price change
- description change on retailers
When you do need a new ISBN:
- translating to a foreign language
- significant changes to text and content (is considered a new edition)
- change in book title
- change in print format (e.g., book size or changing to large format print)
How do I get one?
You can buy ISBNs at Bowker, the company authorized to sell ISBNs in the United States. If you are outside of the US, check out this website instead to look up your country’s agency. At Bowker, ISBNs vary in price depending on how many you buy. One ISBN costs $125, while 10 ISBNs cost $295, 100 cost $575, and 1000 cost $1500. Keep in mind if you use one ISBN for your print book, one for your ebook, and one for your audio book, that’s three ISBNs per book.
Frankly, we are a little puzzled at the ever-increasing price of ISBNs in this digital age, where you’d think it should be very easy to record a few numbers, but Bowker has a monopoly and there is currently no way around them. Their markup is insane, especially in light of the free book identification numbers other countries give to their authors. (We’re hoping to update these ISBN FAQS soon with better news, but don’t hold your breath because it’s a lucrative business.)
You can also get an ISBN from your ebook distributor. For print books, you can get one from KDP Print, and for ebooks, you can get one from Smashwords. ISBNs from KDP Print (print), Smashwords (ebook), and Draft2Digital (ebook) are free, but they should only be used with your book on that distributor. (KDP does offer a universal ISBN that you can use anywhere for $99.) If you are trying to hit a bestseller list, you should never use the distributor-provided ISBNs because you need to use the same one on each platform so all your sales are counted.
Where to put the ISBN?
List the ISBN on your book’s copyright page. For a print book, also include it on the bottom right of the back cover. But don’t pay Bowker’s high prices for the barcode. KDP will create one for you, or you can get a free one here.
ISBN FAQs: Our Recommendation
Each print book must have an ISBN. If you only plan on ever publishing a few print books, and only publishing on Amazon, it would be a good idea just to get the free ISBN from KDP. But if you plan on making a career on writing books and distribute them through various companies, buy a set of 100 from Bowker to get a better deal. That way you can use the numbers wherever you want and you are listed as the publisher.
If you want to reach as many vendors (including libraries) as possible with your ebook, then you should also assign ISBNs for your ebooks. If you are only publishing your ebook at Amazon and/or Barnes & Noble, then you may not need to use an ISBN for your ebook at all. Especially when you’re just starting out.
A note about bestselling lists
Some authors fear that not using the same ISBN for their ebook on all vendors, or none at all, means they will never hit a bestselling list. Some sites say that using the EXACT book title and EXACT author name on all the vendors is what triggers the accumulative sales, not the ISBN. They could be right. But having said that, all the books on the bestselling lists we’ve checked out this week DO have ISBNs. Take that as you may.
But we’re hoping that maybe before long, no one will use an ISBN for ebooks. Because in our opinion, it’s really an overpriced option at this point.
We hope these ISBN FAQs have helped you understand ISBNs and when you need one. If you have any questions, let us know in the comments below.