How to Acquire an ISBN and Barcode to Allow Your Self-Published Book to Appear in Retail Stores

ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number. The number acts as a unique identifier of a book (similar to an individual’s social security number). ISBN is used internationally and designates the format, edition, and publisher of the book. An ISBN consists of 13 digits (ISBNs assigned prior to 2007 were comprised of 10 digits). 

Retailers, distributors and wholesalers track books solely by the assigned ISBN. If you plan to sell your book in bookstores, to libraries, through distributors or via online retailers you need an ISBN. You will also need a unique ISBN for each format (hardcover, paperback, eBook, audiobook) of your book. An ISBN assigned to the paperback version of a book cannot be used for the same book in eBook format.

If you will release your book in eBook format only through online retailers, you may not need to acquire an ISBN.

If you intend to sell your book directly to consumers, exclusively from your own website or at speaking engagements or events, you do not need an ISBN or barcode.

If your book with be traditionally published, the publisher will acquire and register the ISBNs for all formats.

Acquire Your Own ISBN

Purchase Your ISBN

In the U.S., ISBNs are available to purchase from Bowker.

  1. Visit myidentifiers.com.
  1. Select “ISBN” from the drop-down menu.
  1. You can purchase a single ISBN for $125 or a bundle of 10 for $295.

IngramSpark offers a discount to purchase ISBNs from Bowker for $85 each, when you use their services to distribute your book. 

Amazon KDP offers a discount to purchase ISBNs from Bowker for $99 each, when you publish directly through their platform.

Register Your ISBN

Once you are ready to publish your book (you have a finished interior, cover, price, etc.), you need to associate the ISBN with the book by registering your ISBN. Registering the ISBN also adds your book’s bibliographic information to Bowker’s “Books in Print”, which is used by libraries and booksellers to discover and purchase new titles.

  1. Visit myidentifiers.com.
  2. Log into your account (which you created when you purchased your ISBN).
  3. Select “Manage ISBNs” from the drop-down menu under the “My Account” tab.
  4. Follow the instructions to complete the registration process.

Purchase and Register an ISBN Outside the United States

In the UK, ISBNs are acquired from the Nielsen UK ISBN Agency.

In Canada, publishers can obtain an ISBN for free via the Canadian ISBN Service System.

For other countries, visit ISBN International for specific information.

Using a Free ISBN

Some outlets, such as Amazon KDP, can provide an ISBN for your book for no cost. If you plan to exclusively list your book with one outlet, using their free ISBN may be right for you. If your intention is to sell your book through multiple outlets or make it available to libraries, acquiring your own ISBN may be a better option. 

What to consider before choosing to use a free ISBN:

  • An ISBN includes publisher information. If you, as the publisher, do not acquire your own ISBN, your publishing company imprint will not be identified as the publisher on record. The company which provides the free ISBN will be listed as the imprint and have complete control over the bibliographic information.
  • A publisher cannot use the same ISBN provided by one outlet to sell through another retailer or distributor/aggregator. In other words, a free ISBN provided by Amazon cannot be used with the same book available at Barnes & Noble or through IngramSpark. 
  • If you sell your book via several online retailers and use free ISBNs provided by each outlet that makes them available, your book will have multiple ISBNs associated with it.
  • Most libraries, wholesalers, distributors, and brick-and-mortar bookstores will not purchase or list a book that has an ISBN provided by another vendor.
  • An ISBN cannot be changed after publication.
  • If you decide to purchase your own ISBN after publishing your book using a free one provided by a vendor, you will need to republish the book if you want to associate it with the new ISBN. All of the data associated with your previously published book will start fresh with the new ISBN. The old data still exists, but it will be associated with a different book (even though the book with the new ISBN may have the exact same title, author and bibliographic information). On various platforms, the sales ranks and reviews associated with the “previous” book (with the old ISBN) will not be transferred to the “new” book (with the new ISBN).

ISBNs and eBooks

Most online eBook retailers do not require an ISBN to sell your book and can supply an ISBN or equivalent (such as Amazon’s ASIN - Amazon Standard Identification Number) for no cost. 

If your eBook will be available to order from brick-and-mortar stores or through some distributors/aggregators, you will need to acquire your own ISBN. Some online libraries (such as Overdrive) require an ISBN for eBooks.

Review each vendor’s guidelines for specific requirements.

   

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