ISBNs What are they and do I need one?

An ISBN (International Standard Book Number) is a unique number that identifies a particular edition of a book in a specific format published by an individual publisher. It is designed to make the process of book ordering and inventory control easier for publishers, book distributors and book sellers. First introduced in 1970, and adapted from a system of book numbering first introduced in the UK by J. Whitaker & Sons, Ltd in 1967, and in the United States in 1968 by R. R. Bowker, they are now in use in at least 160 countries worldwide.

An individual ISBN’s structure comprises several elements – (1) prefix, (2) registration group (country/geographical region), (3) registrant (the publisher), (4) publication (specific edition) and (5) check digit.

(1) (2) (3) (4) (5)
9780571089895

Each country has its own ISBN agency which you can find listed on the International ISBN Agency’s website. It is their job to assign ISBN numbers for their country/territory.

The agency for the country you are resident in is where you must buy your ISBNs. So, for instance, if you live in the U.S you cannot buy your ISBNs from the UK – you have to go to the official US ISBN agency. This is particularly relevant because many agencies in the world are run by that particular country’s National Library and not by a commercial organisation which can mean that they are free to that country’s authors. New Zealand is an example of this – if you are resident in New Zealand you can get your ISBNs for nothing. Most countries will let you buy an individual ISBN number, though there are countries, like the UK for instance, who will only sell them in batches.

The system is particularly designed to help publishers keep track of their books. Therefore whoever buys an ISBN to assign to a book becomes the official publisher of that book. This is where it can get complicated as the whole system was really designed for the printed book market where publishers published in their own countries and if the book was published internationally then the original publisher would either use subsidiaries in different countries (who would then assign their own ISBNs) or authors or their agents would negotiate with different publishers to publish the book in a particular country or territory (who once again would assign their own ISBNs). This worked fine in the printed market as the vast majority of printed books were purchased from bookshops who brought their books from publishers and distributors in their own country. Even Amazon with its worldwide reach has not upset this too much, because with most books if you purchase a printed book from Amazon.com you will get the U.S. version and if you buy it from Amazon UK you will get the British version. This is the same with Amazon sites around the world. (It makes more sense for Amazon to get the book locally if the book is available from a local publisher rather than ship one version to all their depots around the world.)

The whole ISBN system, though, has got more complicated because of the internet and the rise of the ebook and the self-publisher and in particular how ISBNs are used by them. Whilst digital books now have ISBNs and the system works the same, especially with the publishing companies, where the book is published actually does not really mean anything with ebooks. Individuals now regularly publish their own books on websites not based in their own country. And, unlike with printed books, companies now provide ISBNs to individuals publishing on their websites and do not claim publishers rights (though they are the “official” publishers as they brought the ISBNs). This means that both the registration group (country/geographical region) and the registrant (publisher) part of the ISBN number are being watered down by the ebook.

So do you need an ISBN?

It is perfectly possible to publish an ebook without an ISBN. It all comes down to choice and where you upload the book. If you want to become your own publisher you can buy your own ISBNs and then publish the book on all the different retail sites retaining full control of your own book and ensuring it registration with your own country’s National library. When considering whether to buy your own ISBNs remember that each edition in every format of your book has to have a different ISBN number. So the Hardback version of your book has to have a different ISBN to the Paperback version which has to be different from the ePub version which once again has to be different from the Kindle version etc. etc.

This all sounds terribly expensive and complicated if you are publishing the book yourself but as most self-publishers only want to publish their book as an ebook you really only need one or at the most two ISBNs. If you only want to buy one then it needs to be assigned to the epub version as Amazon do not require one.

Another option is to publish your book to retailers who do not require an ISBN. Companies like Amazon, Apple and Barnes and Noble do not ask for an ISBN if you set up your own account and upload your book direct to them.

You can also publish your book via an aggregator such as Kobo, Smashwords or Lulu. Kobo, Smashwords and Lulu will accept your book without an ISBN if you are happy for the book to be only available on their own websites. If you want to take advantage of their distribution networks (they all distribute to other retailers) then you will need an ISBN. Smashwords and Lulu will provide you with a free ISBN (though remember that they become the “official” publishers of your book.) but both will insist that if you use their free ISBN rather than your own that the ISBN cannot be used anywhere else (so if you want to upload the book to a different retailer, who requires an ISBN and they do not distribute to, you will need a different ISBN).

Lastly if you are selling the book on your own website and not going through the retailers you can decide for yourself whether to have an ISBN or not. You can also obviously combine and choose from the different options available.

So whilst ISBNs are important for publishing companies they are less so for the individual self-publisher as most do not have lots of stock to control and keep track of. Amazon and the other big retailers do not require one if you set up accounts direct with them. Kobo are the only big retailer who require one (and then only if you want your book to be distributed by them to other smaller retailers).

In the end it is a personal preference as to whether you have one or not as there are plenty of options that do not require an ISBN.