ISBNs are not a Mystery

International Standard Book Numbers (ISBNs) seem to cause confusion. This is frequently because the companies trying to help writers self-publish try very hard to make the process as easy as possible, including the assignment and use of ISBNs.

ISBNs are there to uniquely identify a given edition and version of a book.

The bottom line is that every discrete version of a given book should have its own ISBN. For a novel (as an example) there should be one ISBN each for:

  • the printed book,
  • the ebook (all ebook varieties can share an ISBN), and
  • an audio edition.

Any time a book undergoes substantial changes (more than just copy-editing), a new ISBN should be assigned.

That is the official line from the ISBN agencies. If your book is only to be sold in a given ecosystem (e.g. selling a Kindle book on Amazon), you do not have to have an ISBN. Amazon have their own unique identifier called an Amazon Standard Identification Number (ASIN). This is fine for them to identify a book within their own systems, but if you want to publish more widely, you need an ISBN.

How do I get an ISBN?

You have several options:

  • buy an ISBN (or a batch) from your national supplier (this is Nielsen in the UK and Bowker in the USA),
  • use an enhanced distributor who will publish your book under their imprint and supply an ISBN,
  • allow your distributor (e.g. Lulu or Smashwords) to give you a free ISBN, or
  • don’t use one at all (i.e. only publish in one isolated system).

Free ISBNs are perfectly valid, but will mean that the provider of the ISBN is listed as the publisher of the book.

My decision was to buy a batch of ten ISBNs from Nielsen in the UK (where I live), which effectively sets up a publishing imprint – in my case that was Griping Griffin. I will, over the next few years, have four books to publish, so I will need at least eight ISBNs (four for print, four for ebooks). For a total outlay of £144, that sounded like a good deal to me. Nielsen are friendly and helpful, but their standard form can be a bit daunting. I’ll provide some help in a later post. Once set up, they have an online system to allow to add or manage your titles to their list.


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