ISBNs for Self-Publishers: What you need to know!

Self-publishing can be complicated and ISBNs or metadata are often the most confusing part. My clients often have a lot of questions about ISBNs so I want to demystify the subject for you! So here’s everything to know about ISBNs for self-publishers!

1. What is an ISBN?

An ISBN (International Standard Book Number) is a number that identifies a book, or to be precise, each unique format and edition of a title. Basically, it’s an internationally recognized and regulated code that makes it easier for bookstores, libraries, and distributors to identify, buy, and sell books.

When you buy ISBNs, you can then assign them to titles. That means you enter data about your book into a database. That database then feeds into international databases used by distributors and retailers of books. You are associated with those ISBNs as the publisher of record and you can control how the book is listed, including setting title, author, cover, book description, format, your publishing rights, price, and availability.

Your ISBN is typically listed on your copyright page and on your barcode on the back of the book.

2. Can You Use the Same ISBN for Different Formats of the Same Title?

An ISBN is designed to identify a particular product, so every format of your book needs a different ISBN. If you print a book in hardcover and in paperback, you need a different ISBN for each. Also, if you put out a new edition of your book, you’ll need a new ISBN. Remember that a new edition means that you have significantly changed the content of your book (If you fix a few typos, that doesn’t merit a new edition. So a new edition is a new product and therefore needs a new ISBN.

3. Do ebooks need ISBN?

Ebooks do not require ISBNs. So you can publish an ebook with no ISBN if you don’t want to. However, you can’t use the same ISBN for a paperback book and an ebook. If an ISBN is registered for a paperback, then it’s misleading to sell an ebook using the same identifier. So that means if you decide to self-publish an ebook and a paperback version of your title (and it’s usually a good idea to do so), you have two options:

  1. one ISBN for the paperback and no ISBN for the ebook
  2. one ISBN for the paperback and a different ISBN for the ebook

It’s really up to you which route you go. If you upload your ebook directly to multiple distributors such as KDP, Barnes and Noble, Apple, Kobo, and so on, and if you publish a lot of books, it’s useful to have an ISBN to track sales. You may also get a distributor that requires an ISBN and so if you use an ISBN there, you might as well use it everywhere for consistency’s sake. You also may be the kind of person who craves order and symmetry. The publishing field seems to attract a fair number of us! So by all means, if it makes you happy, get ISBNs for ebooks!

Another reason to get an ISBN for an ebook, is if you have multiple ebook formats or editions. I sell many of my books through TpT and those editions are PDF formatted and designed to be printed out. I include different terms of service and charge two or three times the regular price for them (as a sort of license to reproduce). I want to make sure the official records of those PDF editions are different than the records of my EPUBs that I sell on the site. I would hate for a consumer to go to a bookstore, ask about one of my books and be told the ebook edition costs $50, when it really costs $15.

In many cases, though, you won’t need an ISBN at all for an ebook. For one thing, ISBNs are expensive, generally, and ebooks aren’t usually treated the same way as paperbacks. A language school might place an order for 100 print copies of a textbook or graded reader every term. They need an ID number to put in their system and for you to put on invoices and the like. It’s less likely for people to bulk order ebooks.

4. Should I use the Free ISBN from KDP or Ingram Spark?

Many distributors now offer a free ISBN to publishers including Ingram Spark and KDP and Draft2Digital. One of the biggest questions people ask about ISBNs is “Should I use that free ISBN or get my own?” The answer is, of course, it depends on what you want.

If you use a free ISBN, you will not be listed as the publisher of record and you have no control over the metadata.  If you see a book on Amazon that says “Independently Published” in the publisher’s field, that book used a free ISBN. Bookstores, distributors, and savvy consumers will recognize that your book is self-published.

Perhaps the biggest limitation of free ISBNs is that they can only be used on the platform that issued them. You CANNOT use a KDP ISBN on Ingram Spark or vice versa. That means that your books printed and distributed through different sites will not be linked in book distribution and sales databases. This can get particularly confusing if you use one ISBN for KDP, another for Ingram, a third for books you print and sell yourself, and then different ISBNs for every ebook! Some bookstores may have issues ordering your book-people do special order books through bookstores!

On the other hand, ISBNs are not cheap, at least in the US. If you plan to sell exclusively (or mainly) through one distributor, a free ISBN may work for you. You can also publish first with a free ISBN and if things go well, release a new edition with an ISBN you bought yourself.

Now, I know what you might be thinking:

5: Can I Use My Own ISBN for the Paperback and a Free One for the Ebook?

The short answer is you can. The long answer is you shouldn’t for the same reason you shouldn’t use different ISBNs on KDP and Ingram and Draft2Digital. If you use your own ISBN, then you show up as the publisher of record. If you use a free ISBN with a different publisher listed, then your ebook will not be linked to your paperback. This is confusing to distributors, makes it harder for buyers to buy your book, and looks unprofessional. Imagine if a contractor came to fix your bathroom and gave you invoices from three different companies for different kinds of work. It would feel a bit odd, wouldn’t it? You might feel the contractor was trying to pull a fast one on you.

6. Do You Need a Different ISBN for Each Printer and Printing?

This is the second most common question about ISBNs I see on forums for self-publishers. Hopefully if you’ve read through the whole text, it’s clear that the answer is no. If you own an ISBN and it’s linked to you as the publisher of record, then you can use that ISBN anywhere you publish that format and edition of your book: KDP, Ingram, Lulu or elsewhere.

You can even use the same ISBN if you print some books at a local printer as gifts or for conventions or to prominently display on your bookcase behind you on Zoom calls. The ISBN has nothing to do with the actual printer of the books (unless the printer is the ISBN holder as in those free ISBNs we talked about above).

7. Where Do You Get ISBNs?

Every country has an official ISBN distributor. You have to use the agency of the country that you, the publisher, are established in. It doesn’t matter where you sell your books or who buys them. And you do not need to buy ISBNs from more than one agency. My micro-press is based in the US, so I use the US ISBN agency, Bowker. I recently spoke to a woman who is from the US, but lives in the UK so she has to use the UK agency. You can search for your country or region’s agency using the dropdown on the International ISBN Agency here. I’ve linked to the US, UK, and Canadian ones below though.

Remember that an ISBN is International so you do not need a different one for every country. Get it from your region’s agency and you’re good to go!

8. Can I Transfer ISBNs?

No. When someone buys an ISBN they are listed as the publisher of record (Fun activity for the kids: Count how many times I wrote that phrase in this article) and that cannot be changed. That means anyone selling you ISBNs who is NOT the official agency for your country, is probably a scammer.

Yes, there are websites that package you ISBNs for a low price, but you will not be the publisher of record! Better to use a free one from KDP or Ingram!

9. Should I Buy a Barcode with my ISBN?

Bowker and other ISBN agencies will sell you a barcode along with your ISBN. Every book that will be sold in stores needs a barcode. That barcode should include the ISBN and the price in local currency in code, basically the price in 4 digits without currency symbols, commas, or periods. $5.99 becomes 0599. If you do not wish to include the price, that code is 9000.

KDP and Ingram will put a barcode on your book for free if you don’t have one, even if you use your own ISBN. And you can also use free barcode creation services, such as Do consider tipping him a buck or two for his fabulous service. You never have to pay for a barcode!

A barcode can go anywhere on your back cover but do not adjust the size or resolution. If you do, the machine may not be able to read them.

10. Does Every Book Need an ISBN?

No. If you have no intention of selling your book through any store, you don’t actually need a barcode. Maybe you’re making a family cookbook or a genealogy chart and you plan to give it away. Perhaps you want to collect some poems your grandmother wrote just for you. I once made a collection of my son’s stories and published it without an ISBN. Lots of people self-publish vanity projects (Fun fact: a book that is only published in one copy is called a nonce) and that’s fine. ISBNs are only required for books that will be sold commercially.


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