Do you need an ISBN to Self-Publish Your Book?

What is an ISBN and do you need one?

The International Standard Book Number is the unique identity code for your book in the world. The 13-digit number code identifies the title, edition, format, binding, release date, list price and publisher of any given format of any work in the public domain.

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.

Items that do not require ISBNs include journals, calendars, music CDs, greeting cards, individual pictures or photographs and games.

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 used solely as a product identification number.

ISBNs and eBooks

The requirement varies according to the online publishing platform you are using. ISBNs are not usually necessary for internal use on a particular online bookstore but become more important when the data is being tracked externally after distribution. For example.

Online Platform Do I need an ISBN?
Amazon Kindle eBooks No. Amazon gives each eBook a 10-digit ASIN (Amazon Standard Identification Number), which is unique to the eBook, and is an identification number for the Kindle Book on Amazon stores worldwide.
Kobo ePUB Yes. Optional but recommended.

Kobo will issue their own Kobo identifier number when it goes on their site. However, this may not be accepted for distribution through the partner sites (Chapters, WHSmiths, etc.) who use ISBNs to track the books.

We would therefore recommend it for all of our publishers, but it is not necessary.”

Apple iBooks ePUB Yes. Optional but recommended.

Although optional for delivering your book to the iBooks Store, ISBN numbers are often required for reporting your book’s sales back to the industry reporting agencies and for charting on national charts.”

Barnes and Noble No.Nook Press also doesn’t require an ISBN for eBooks and assigns a unique identifier, known as the BN ID, to a book when it is put on sale in the Nook store. You can use your own ISBN but Nook will also add its BN ID.”

Note: If you need more information about which eBook format is the best choice for your work and what the difference is between the ePub and Mobi formats,  this article from summarises the pros and cons of both options.

ISBNs and Print Books

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

All printed books in any format or binding will require a 13-digit ISBN.

Do you need an ISBN for Amazon KDP Print Paperbacks?

For Amazon KDP Paperbacks, the answer depends on whether your distribution model.

If you plan to publish your print book as an Amazon paperback only – the answer is NO.

Amazon will provide you with a free ISBN to publish your paperback.

The publisher of the book will be listed on Amazon as “independently published”. Amazon will own the ISBN for this book and be registered as the publisher, not you.

If you want Amazon to ship your printed book outside of the Amazon store in the Expanded Distribution option, then the answer is YES.

You will need an ISBN to distribute your book through the global book supply system and retail tracking systems outside of Amazon. The ISBN is used to order and track your book.

Vendor Supplied ISBNs

Other print-on-demand publishing companies also offer authors a free ISBN when they publish their print books with them and the same rules apply. They will be listed as the publisher, not you.

For example, Barnes and Noble B&N Press will provide a free ISBN to publish your print book exclusively for sale through Barnes and Noble stores and register the information for you, but the publisher name will be Barnes and Noble Press.

Points to consider.

  • ISBNs are not free, except in Canada, 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. For example. At the time of writing. Bowker in the USA: 1 ISBN currently costs $125. A bundle of 10 ISBNs cost $295. Neilsen in the UK: 1 ISBN currently costs £89. A bundle of 10 ISBNs cost £159.
  • When you buy an ISBN, you are registering yourself as the publisher of your book. The registering body will ask for the name of the publisher for their records.
  • Public Legal Deposit Library Copies. If you purchase your own ISBNs, as a registered publisher in the UK, you will be required to provide, free of charge, five copies of each printed book for the national archives. In addition, you need to supply one copy of each printed book to the British Library. These copies have to be ordered from Amazon paperbacks or other print on demand publisher and posted to the libraries at your expense. Similar Legal Deposit Library schemes exist in many other countries and you will be contacted by the registration body and asked to supply free copies.
  • Most readers don’t even notice the name of the publisher when they buy a print book from an online bookstore
  • You need the ISBN to generate the barcode on your print book.
  • Once you assign the ISBN to a book, you cannot change it. So be careful to type in the correct ISBN the first time you use it.
  • You cannot use the Amazon, or other free Vendor Supplied ISBNs for any other printer for the same book. That ISBN is registered to the publishing company who purchased it.

The decision is therefore a personal one and you should consider carefully whether you want your published paperbacks to be exclusive to the publishing company who provided the free ISBN.

This can be an important consideration for non-fiction authors who are using their books to enhance their author and professional brand and would find brand consistency a useful marketing tool.

How do you buy an ISBN?

In the U.S.A: Bowker.

In the UK: Nielsen.

And in Australia, Thorpe-Bowker:

National Library of New Zealand.

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

This is important since you will need to have your ISBN before you can publish your print book. You must have your ISBN purchased, assigned, and ready to go before you design your book cover. The design of your book cover includes the placement of the barcode, which contains your ISBN.

Publisher Name

Many authors love the idea of having their name in their books as both the author and the owner of their own publishing brand and it can be great fun coming up with the publisher name for yourself and your books and designing a logo for the spine of your print books and the front pages of your eBook.

You should carefully consider what name you are going to give to your publishing brand before you register and order the ISBNs. For example, I publish my work under the company name NinaHarringtonDigital since Nina Harrington is my brand. But I could have chosen any name I liked which was suitable for the genre and type of book I am publishing which is linked to your unique author brand. Always do an Internet search to make sure that the name you have chosen has not already been used by another author.

The publisher name you select will be published in the Product Details for your book as part of the Metadata for your eBook and any print formats you create.

More Information

If you would like to learn more about how you can publish your own book on the Amazon KDP platform, I have a new resource that is currently half-price during lock-down. Find out more HERE.