Do you need an ISBN to publish an eBook?

Image credit: Flickr/Publish by Sean MacEntee

What is an ISBN?

The ISBN—which stands for International Standard Book Number—is the unique identity code for your book in the world. The thirteen-digit number code identifies the title, edition, format, binding, and publisher of any given format of a work.

So ideally you should have a separate ISBN for a printed book, audiobook, graphic novel and each type of digital format: Kindle, ePub and PDF etc.

There is no legal requirement in the UK or Republic of Ireland for an ISBN and it conveys no form of legal or copyright protection. It is a product identification number. 

However, the ISBN is a compulsory sales tool if you intend to make a printed version of your book available in bookstores, as it is the one single identifier for your book in all industry-wide book tracking and ordering systems.

Do you even need an ISBN for your eBook?

The answer to this depends on which online bookstore you want to sell your eBook.

All internet booksellers need some way of identifying your eBook, so if you don’t have your own ISBN then they will assign your book a company code so that it can be ordered and tracked online.

The online distribution company Smashwords will offer you a free ISBN if you use them to publish your eBook – but Smashwords will be listed as the publisher when the eBook is distributed, since they bought and own the ISBNs.

CreateSpace and many other print platforms offer the same option for printed books.

Where your eBook will be sold Do they require an ISBN before an eBook can be accepted?
Your own Website No. You are in control of your content and don’t need a tracking or ordering system.
Amazon No. An ISBN is not required to publish eBook content with Kindle Direct Publishing.The Kindle Direct Publishing website says that will assign it a 10-digit ASIN (Amazon Standard Identification Number), which is unique to the eBook, and is an identification number for the Kindle Book on
Barnes and Noble Nook Press No. You do NOT need an ISBN to sell your NOOK eBook through NOOK Press. NOOK will always assign a unique identifier, known as the BN ID, to your NOOK eBook when it is put On Sale as a NOOK Book.
Kobo The Kindle Writing Life Guidelines make it clear that an ISBN is not compulsory but strongly recommended if you want Kobo to supply other online digital book sellers around the world, since other companies do require one. 
Smashwords Not compulsory but required if you want Smashwords to supply other online digital book sellers like Sony/Kobo and Apple and other sellers in their Premium Catalogue.The website states that: “We offer two ISBN options:1. You can attach your own ISBN number to your book; or 

  1.  You can obtain a free ISBN from Smashwords that registers Smashwords as your publisher (your book must be accepted into the Premium Catalog to be eligible to receive the free ISBN). 

Although it registers Smashwords as the “publisher” in the Bowker record, Smashwords is not your publisher.  YOU are the publisher.  You control all the rights associated with your book.” 

The full guidance is HERE.

Apple iBookstore Yes. As ISBN is required.


How do you buy an ISBN?

In the U.S.A: Bowker.

UK. Nielsen.

And in Australia, Thorpe-Bowker:

National Library of New Zealand.

You should allow at least 7 days for the codes to arrive in the post.


  • ISBNs are not free and you may need to purchase of bundle of 10 numbers or more. So it is always a good idea to consider how many more books you are likely to be publishing in the future before investing in a bundle of codes.
  • When you buy an ISBN, you are registering yourself as the publisher of your eBook. The registering body will ask for the name of the publisher for their records. So you should carefully consider what name you are going to give to your publishing company before you register and order the ISBNs. For example; I publish my work under the company name NinaHarringtonDigital. But I could have chosen any name I liked which was suitable for the genre and type of book I am publishing.

What name would you chose for your publishing company?

Happy reading! 


This is an extract from Head or Heart – my new Guide for Writers.

Out now at a brilliant launch price.

Head or Heart eBook