I is for ISBN


Letter IEverybody needs a number. More than one, according to some sources. Or do they?

ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number. It consists of 13 numbers (or 12 numbers and the letter X) which identifies a time frame of assignment, country or region of publishing, publisher, individual assignment number and a check digit (which can be X). Each region has one of 160 agencies authorized to sell ISBN.


ISBN are purchased by publishers and producers for books, videos, CDs, A/V learning materials, ebooks, computer software, video games and any permanent transmission of information. The numbers are used to catalog the materials so wholesalers and retailers can research availability and buy them internationally. Libraries and museums use ISBN to research acquisitions.

123The accepted theory is having a numeric identifier would bridge the language gap for translated books and books bought in countries where the native (and presumably search) language is different from the language written in the book, thereby expanding the market for authors and publishers.

If you have a book handy, you can look at the bar code on the back cover to see the ISBN. It should also be listed on the copyright page of the book. In the event you have chosen a book with a long list of them, there is a reason.

Which one?

Every format has to have a different ISBN. The list of popular formats for books are:

  • Hardback
  • Paperback
  • eBook (Kindle)
  • eBook (eReader)
  • eBook (PDF)
  • App (iTunes)
  • Audiobook

Incidentally, if the book is a second edition, it needs all new ISBN. Once an ISBN is assigned, it cannot be reused. Material changes to your book mean getting it a new ISBN. Adding a CD to the book? New ISBN. Selling three books as a set? Another ISBN. Changing publishers also means getting a new ISBN.

Sounds Expensive

It can be. ISBN are sold in blocks of 10, 100, 1,000, 10,000, 100,000 and 1,000,000. Agencies prefer you buy five years’ worth so you can have the least number of publisher number changes over the course of your publishing career. Prices for blocks are:

  • 1 for $125
  • 10 for $250
  • 100 for $575

Considering a book can require four or more ISBN, it can get expensive, especially since those prices do not include the bar code which must be printed on the back of the book. Sold separately, prices and participation may vary.


200That is debatable. Self-publishers are issued ISBN through their publishing platform in the case of print books or the author can supply one. Generally, the platform-issued ISBN are free because the platform is registered as the publisher, has bought hundreds of thousands of ISBN for a pittance and knows the ISBN is useless anywhere else. Remember? New publisher, new ISBN.

eBooks are not always issued ISBN. In the case of Amazon, digital books are issued an ASIN (Amazon Standard Identification Number). Since Amazon sells directly to customers and does not sell digital books to other retailers, libraries or distributors, there is no need for an ISBN.

Other platforms will give digital books a pass on an ISBN, but they warn you the books will not be available to retailers such as Apple, Kobo and Sony. App stores will not purchase the digital copies without an ISBN, the same way bookstores will not purchase copies without a bar code. The numbers are merely for market.


Self-publishers retain the rights to their books, but do not hold a right to take the ISBN with them. Based on contract, the same applies to publishing house authors. House authors generally have a period before they can remove their books, but must either apply for a new ISBN themselves or get another house to take the book before it is available for sale again to wholesalers and retailers.

Public Domain

Even books printed before 1923, get ISBN. Museums and libraries catalog public domain books and apply for ISBN. Publishing houses who own rights to out of print books printed prior to the advent of the ISBN system apply for ISBN for older books as well. In theory, everything which transfers language or art “should” have an ISBN.


Chicken and egg time. With what we learned about genre, and what we know about ebook classifications, availability and marketing, the question arises: How effective is the ISBN system?

EAN and ISBN for book

ISBN is the UPC number and listed above. Barcode sold separately.

While libraries and bookstores will search by ISBN when looking for a specific acquisition (for a collection or customer), virtually no one uses ISBN to organize their merchandise. Most all businesses have an internal mechanism for assigning control numbers, like the Library of Congress Control Number (another number to be wary when purchasing).

When customers are searching for a book, rarely do they know the ISBN. (If they have the ISBN, they probably already have the book.) Customers do not have access to the ISBN database, only businesses who qualify for membership (and pay for access). When consumers do not have the number, businesses have to search for the number manually by the information the customer presents, author and title. (Refer back to reason for ISBN.)

Food for Thought

UPC are pervasive and readily available, and the ISBN is a simplistic, first generation (1D, 13-digit) UPC. The ISBN database is only available to retailers, catalogers and producers, who rarely (if ever) use the number for anything except using the database.

Choose any of the following questions for our discussion:

1. How ethical is it to require purchase of a number through private, coalition agencies when said number is only for their internal use?

2. Should customers have public access to the bibliographic information collected by these private entities?

3. How does the cost of ISBN affect the price of books?

4. Should all media be required to have ISBN to be sold in any market? 

5. Do printers have the right to refuse to print books without ISBN?

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  1. That’s a lot to digest on an empty stomach. It’s all good info though. I must admit, I was curious what you would do for I.
    Alexandra Heep recently posted..I is for Ice HockeyMy Profile

    • I had a number of candidates. This one is covered by many, but not in this light. I frankly have always disagreed with the alleged necessity of ISBN and the awkward inflexibility of their cataloging.

  2. I never really paid much attention to ISBNs. I had no clue they are so involved.
    Jessica recently posted..Giveaway & Review: ‘Blood Awakening’ (Blood Prophesy #2) by Jamie ManningMy Profile

    • There are lots of mechanisms we explore here which are far more than they seem on the surface. Welcome to M3.

  3. Considering the power of today’s computers and the low cost of storage, ISBNs could be produced and cataloged for virtually nothing. I’m glad websites don’t need them. Or people. At least not yet.
    Binky recently posted..Life’s ExpectationsMy Profile

    • That is my biggest issue will all of it. The software does the majority of the work. Even the platforms do not input the data, the authors do. Considering “applying” means “waiting to approve your credit card”…

    • Be careful where you bend over Binky or you could easily be stamped somewhere 🙁 lol

      • I would certainly hope there is a more readily accessible place for those to go. o.O

  4. As a kid, I remember reading some sort of junior-spy book.
    At the end, it said my very own International Spy Buddy Number was on teh back, and there it was, my very own ISBN.
    I thought that was very cool.
    I was also very young, but I still get a kick when I look at a back cover and actually register the ISBN.
    El Guapo recently posted..Friday Foolishness – Self-Actualization EditionMy Profile

  5. Here’s a question for you. What is the difference (real) between bar codes and ISBNa? Both keep track of ‘merchandise’ and are probably used for similar reasons?
    Tess Kann recently posted..Flash in the Pan – ReservationsMy Profile

    • The bar code is set as a typical UPC which conveys price, item name, etc.; however, the information is limited to the scanning system, not governed by the agency who issues the UPC. Ironically, stores the world over can change the information by changing their scanning systems. The rumors of needing stickers and the like when the prices change is 100% fairy tale. Many fall for it and buy new bar codes. The only reason most do is the number to the upper right is the price. The smaller bar code is only a price code for scanners which were put out of manufacture more than 15 years ago.

      The IBSN stores as little or as much data as is available. Bare bones are filled out in most cases, but there are plenty of fields which can be filled. One has to wonder why go to the trouble when the (vast) majority of vendors could care less, wholesalers do not even search them and the industry is on a course to eliminate most trim sizes. In short, it is job security for data entry clerks and software developers who capture and transmit the data.

  6. I believe perhaps the ISBN system was started with good intentions to have books more easily located and referenced, but like everything else it has been turned into a money-sucking system. The ISBN is not necessary, just as the UPC bar code systems are similarly not necessary. They are merely systems to facilitate price/data handling, to increase corporate profit –and control of the marketing system. You can publish a book at any time without ISBN’s or LCCN.
    raymond alexander kukkee recently posted..A-Z Challenge: I is for IntegrityMy Profile

    • LCCN is the least important number. In fact, if the LOC wants a book, they acquire it and assign the LCCN of their own accord.

  7. My tech has advisedthat copyright for my comic books(hopefully vol 1 out by this summer0 is a waste of time and money because even if copyright ther is nothing I can do if someone steals my comics unless they are a real money maker and copyright lawyer may want $10,000 retainer and is it worth the hassle if I am lucky to make $500 a year from my sales. My question is does ISBM serve to declare ownership of work as does copyright and is it equal in value at least to declare work ownership.

    • No. ISBN does not protect copyright. It is merely a cataloging tool used by private entities to catalog merchandise. In truth, even copyright registration is not much protection. As with other poor man’s versions, registering for an ISBN for a single issue would not be a bad idea, especially if you can get the PDF loaded to the agency. (It is severely size limited.) It would represent the time it came available to establish an intellectual property right timeline. Copyrights are not ironclad and the lawyers who work on the cases usually only take clients who are paying or who stand to windfall the profits from a motion picture or the production/manufacture of merchandise or pharmaceuticals.

      To be blunt, no one values art beyond the community who appreciates it. My best advice is to digitally archive the prints prior to release.

    • Anytime you create something, you own the copyright for it. You don’t need to “copyright it.” Also, if you want to send someone a “Cease and Desist” letter, that’s cheap and easy. I have some on my website if you need them. I also liked Red’s advice. Don’t let the ratbastards get you down.
      El recently posted..Me on the Air: YouTube and UstreamMy Profile

  8. Yet we still need the numbers.


    Looks like technology is advancing faster than the system is able to handle…

    God Bless!

    Prenin recently posted..Wednesday – I get Tony sectioned.My Profile

  9. Great blog. I’d never contemplated the issue of ISBNs but it is, quite obviously, a waste of money and yet another example of tawdry monopolistic practices. Count me annoyed but not surprised.
    El recently posted..Me on the Air: YouTube and UstreamMy Profile

  10. For a very complex and detail rich topic, I find this MOST interesting. Then I find myself boiling it back down to a simple recap. Such as, we have to have one because anyone who might work with our books (printer, retailers, etc) won’t take it on if it doesn’t have an ISBN?
    My other question is about Canadian authors/books. Do their ISBN’s need to be purchased from a different provider than USA residents’ ISBN’s?
    And so, because a book needs one for each format it will be sold in, each format ISBN# is sold as a separate? Or are there like “families” or bundles for which you can buy.
    And I assume you must use the ISBN for the book you apply for it with, and, say, that book takes a dive – before getting published, the ISBN # is dead and can’t be used by you or anyone?
    Sorry for all the questions… I just really find this INTERESTING!
    Great #atozchalllenge post, Red!!

    BuddhaKat recently posted..J is for… JOYOUSMy Profile

    • In order…
      1. Yes and no. Printers only care if they are also going to have a hand in marketing your book (like POD printers). Retailers will not touch them because they invested in a scanner to take the hassle out of manually entering prices in a cash register.
      2. The ISBN is based on the locale of the publisher, not the author. e.g. Canadian authors who go through SmashWords will get an American ISBN.
      3. Bundles are families based on the publisher number.
      4. Publishers rarely gamble with the ISBN. It is one of the last things to get in order before press. For example, I would not apply for an ISBN for a book until after it was through beta, covered and in final copy edits.


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