All About ISBNs for Your Book

ISBNs seem to cause confusion with authors. Here are the basics of what you need to know.

ISBN means “International Standard Book Number.” It is a unique number that identifies your book in a worldwide numbering system. Not every book requires an ISBN. You can print and sell your book without an ISBN, but an ISBN is required if you want to sell your book commercially in a retail channel (like at a bookstore or online). It’s the way stores identify your book, in each format of your book (one for the paperback, another for the e-book, another for audio, etc.).

A bar code is a representation of your ISBN via a series of vertical bars. A bar code for a book looks like this:


It’s placed in the bottom-right corner on the back cover of a book so that a product scanner can quickly read the ISBN, price, and other bibliographic information attached to your ISBN.

You only need a bar code if you’re going to sell your book in bookstores, but I recommend having one regardless of where or how you sell your books.

Subsidy publishers or companies like CreateSpace create a barcode and put it on the back cover for you. You can create your own bar code free here, or you can pay a small fee to, Bowker, or another authorized ISBN agency.

How to Obtain an ISBN

There are four basic ways to obtain an ISBN:

1. Purchase one or more from Bowker Identifier Services and become your own publisher. To truly publish your book yourself, you must create your own account with Bowker (or your country’s agency), or an authorized agent, then purchase one or more ISBNs. (See below for more on this.)

2. Publish with a subsidy publisher (a company that charges you for their services—a subsidy—to publish your book), and they will provide an ISBN as part of the package. They will be listed as your publisher and will have certain rights to your book and its files. It’s important to know what those rights are before you sign a contract.

3. Publish with,,,, Kindle Direct Publishing, or another self-publishing service for print or e-book, and they will provide an ISBN for you for free or for a small fee. They will be listed as your publisher since you are using their platform to distribute your book, but you retain all rights to your book and its files.

4. Publish as an independent publisher. offers a Custom ISBN and Custom Universal ISBN, which allows you to have your own unique imprint name and not have them listed as your publisher. Publisher Services, the largest authorized agent of the US ISBN Agency, has an Independent Publisher Program and a Personalized Publisher Program. There are other authorized agents that offer different deals, such as

These are great if you’re going to publish just one title. For more than one ISBN, I feel it’s best to choose option 1 above.

Resources for Buying Your Own ISBNs 

Bowker Identifier Services is the official registration agency of ISBNs in the US or any of its territories. For other countries, go here to find your official agency.

As of March 2014, pricing for ISBNs with Bowker is:

  • $125 for one.
  • $250 for ten. This is the best option for most people. If you are going to have a paperback and an e-book, you’ll need two ISBNs, which is the same price as buying ten.
  • $575 for one hundred. $1,000 for one thousand. They have bulk pricing for more than a thousand.

By purchasing your own block of ISBNs from Bowker, you are creating your own publishing company or imprint. You don’t have to file documents with the government, as you would to form a business. You only need to name your imprint and provide contact information for your group of ISBNs. It’s as simple as that.

As you use each ISBN, you fill in bibliographical information for that title, which then registers your book with the Books in Print database (, providing worldwide availability. If you’re curious to know what it takes to register a title, this is a step-by-step PDF explaining the simple process.

Bowker also offers its own self-publishing services, which provides some options that other companies do not, like a book-sales widget and viewing the book as an Android app.

My Recommendation for ISBNs

  • If you are on a tight budget and are only going to publish one book, publish with a company like You have complete control and rights to the content. CreateSpace will be identified as your publisher in the bibliographic database.
  • There are some limitations if a subsidy press uses their ISBN for your book. Research what your rights are (and are not) so you’re not disappointed down the road.
  • If you plan to self-publish more than one book, create your own publishing company and buy a block of ten ISBNs.

For a fantastic overview about what ISBNs are all about for self-publishers, see ISBN 101 for Self-Publishers by Joel Friedlander. A very helpful article.

For a wonderfully comprehensive list of ISBN FAQs, see the article “What’s all this talk about ISBNs” from Ron Pramschufer.

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