Let’s start with the basics: ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number. It’s an international system of identifying books by assigning a unique identifier to each separate edition of a book. This not only identifies the publication, but also the different formats in which it is available.
If you’re going to get a book internationally identified as a professional publication which can be sold retail or wholesale, or lent in libraries, it needs an ISBN. If you’re not selling it through, or supplying to, third parties, not submitting it to the British Library or Library of Congress, then it doesn’t strictly need an ISBN.
ISBNs can be bought individually or in blocks from the two main registrars – Bowker in the US and Neilsen in the UK. Yes, maintaining the registry costs money, so ISBN’s are not free.
Furthermore, ISBN’s identify formats of books down to the media level. That is, if you print both paperback and hardcover editions of a book, that’s two different formats requiring two separate ISBN’s so that people
looking for the paperback don’t find the hardcover by mistake.
So how many formats do ISBN’s cover?
- Paperback. Even if the soft cover is printed at more than one printer, assuming each version is exactly the same, it’s only one edition requiring one ISBN.
- Hardcover is another format and requires its own ISBN.
- E-Books are recognised in three different formats, with each able to have its own ISBN: Kindle (note Amazon Kindle doesn’t require it, but you can still assign an ISBN to a Kindle edition), ePub and PDF.
So the same book published in hardback, softback, Kindle .mobi, ePub and PDF counts as five editions or formats and could have five ISBNs (or only four if you don’t assign one to Kindle).
Purchasing and assigning your own ISBNs also require you to register as a publisher, either in your own name or as an imprint that you invent. Assigning an ISBN also requires you to submit a copy to the National library in the country of publication – for example the British Library or Library of Congress.
As well as placing the ISBN number itself in a proscribed place on the back cover, you also have to supply a bar code equivalent for scanning. This is just a graphic generated from the number by standard barcoding software which is available online if you don’t have your own.
The real deal with ‘free’ ISBNs
While you can get an ISBN for nothing, paying for your own is often the better deal. The print-on-demand vendors and publishing services will have their own stock of ISBNs but the issue is their ‘free’ ISBN will always identify the company that issued it as the publisher of record, not you. Switching to a different printer does not entitle you to take the ‘free’ ISBN with you, you have to start over and an established book becomes a new publication with a new ISBN with the new provider, and effectively two publishers associated with it (neither of them you), with only one able to provide copies to customers.
If you are serious about promoting and publishing even one (much less several) books long term, getting your own ISBNs from your national registrar is the route to go.