Pamela Koehne-Drube

Written by

Pamela Koehne-Drube

28 July 2023


What Is an ISBN and Why Do I Need One?

book spines waiting for ISBN - Photo by Quentin Durand on Unsplash

ISBNs sound like a scary hoop that authors have to jump through, so let’s take a moment to unravel the mystery and give you a bit more clarity on what an ISBN is and why you might need one.

What is an ISBN?

ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number. It’s a unique identifier that corresponds to a single published work or version of a work that is recognised the world over. It makes ordering published works easier for retailers – they’ll always know exactly which version of a book they’re getting. Hardbacks, eBooks, audiobooks, and even alternative cover art will have their own ISBN. It contains information like genre, author, format, and publisher.

ISBNs and self-publishing

How you publish your work will determine whether you need an ISBN. There is no requirement to have one, but it is a good idea if you plan to place your work with certain retailers. Online publishing platforms like Wattpad do not require ISBNs because they are readable through their proprietary app and do not need retail purchase.

If you want to sell your book yourself through a website or other sales platform directly to your readers, you may not feel the need for one. Stocking your book with any retailer, however, whether that be online or in a physical book shop, makes an ISBN a must. It means you own the rights to your book and will be identified as the writer and the publisher. The information contained in an ISBN is critical for booksellers and even marketplaces like Amazon to stock your book and manage their inventory. For you, it’s crucial for tracking sales.


How to get an ISBN

The bad news is that ISBNs are not a free service. If you’re planning to self-publish, then an ISBN is something you should include in your publication budget, but the good news is you only need to buy it once. Once it’s purchased, it’s yours forever.

Every country has its own ISBN agency, and registration varies in price. You must be resident in that country to use the agency, so you can’t shop around to register your book in a country with cheaper fees. If you plan on publishing more than one book, you can purchase in bulk, as that often ends up cheaper per unit than only buying the one.

Some self-publishing platforms will procure an ISBN on your behalf, but be aware that some outlets like vanity presses can charge way above the industry standard for that service. IngramSpark has competitive rates for ISBNs if you publish your book through them, and Amazon offers free ISBNs on their Kindle Direct platform. Be aware that Amazon’s free ISBNs will list Amazon as the publisher of your book and have other limitations that mean you can’t transfer that ISBN should you ever wish to sell your work with another retailer.

The process for application is a simple one. Your local agency will have an online form to walk you through the application and payment. After submitting your application, you should have your number immediately, but it can take up to two days for processing.

Where to get an ISBN

These are the official ISBN agencies for select countries, but you can find a complete list of agencies on the International ISBN Agency website.

  • Australia – Thorpe-Bowker
  • Canada – English Library and Archives Canada, and French Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec
  • Hong Kong – Books Registration Office (BRO), under the Hong Kong Public Libraries
  • India – The Raja Rammohun Roy National Agency for ISBN (Book Promotion and Copyright Division)
  • Iceland – Landsbókasafn (National and University Library of Iceland)
  • Israel – The Israel Center for Libraries
  • Italy – EDISER srl, owned by Associazione Italiana Editori (Italian Publishers Association)
  • New Zealand – The National Library of New Zealand
  • South Africa – National Library of South Africa
  • Spain – Spanish ISBN Agency – Agencia del ISBN
  • Turkey – General Directorate of Libraries and Publications
  • The United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland – Nielsen Book Services Ltd
  • United States – R. R. Bowker

Be aware that some unscrupulous sellers online will try to sell unauthorised, fake, or redistributed ISBNs, so do your research and only use trusted sellers and agencies when purchasing an ISBN to ensure you’re not caught out.