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?

Hashtags: #AtoZChallenge #ISBN

Thank you for sharing The M3 Blog with hashtags. If you would like to visit the other (nearly) 1,900 blogs participating in the A to Z Challenge, visit the official linky list.

© Red Dwyer 2013
Re-Blogging of this or any other post on The M3 Blog
is expressly forbidden.
Copyright and Privacy Policy available in The Office.
Content Protection by DMCA.com
Previous Post
Leave a comment


  1. An interesting read, now
    where are my pancakes? 🙂 😉 xxxx

  2. As always you provide food for our brains and make us wonder, where to from here.

    For the self-published author, what now? They have this outlay of cash and if they didn’t read the fine print, they might outlay again and again.

    There does seem to be circle jerk.

    I am not certain I know the answers, but to the last one? No

    To the first one, absolutely no.
    Valentine Logar recently posted..One of those DaysMy Profile

    • The self-published author is only one step above the vanity-pressed author. Since ISBN must change with material changes, if the SPA merely changes typos, they are unqualified for a fresh ISBN. If the VPA wants away from the vanity publisher, they must significantly change the book to qualify for a new ISBN.

      Sadly, the answer to the last question is yes.

  3. This is a very interesting read. All this time I assume one book has one ISBN no matter how many edition it has.

  4. Very, very interesting Red.

    I asked the self-publishing co. re The James Diary, re the e-book form, how many years I was in contract with them and they said “The contract between yourself and B last for as long as your book is published with B.”

    This actually doesn’t answer my question, Red. Does it mean, do you think, if I send an email any day I like, saying, “I no longer want to be published via you”, then that ends the contract? Given their simple terminology, to my mind it does.

    Would love your feedback.
    Noeleen recently posted..Drunk Woman Passed Out On The Couch? What Happens Next?My Profile

    • Actually, it did answer your question, but I would think you have oversimplified it. The simple terminology was an interpretation for the legal language you asked them to explain. The interpretation is not binding; the contract is. I am currently working with a few authors who are trying to get away from Balboa and Author House. The contract is in the house’s favor.

      When you want to break from them, the book, as you have submitted it to them, is no longer salable. In order to qualify for a new ISBN, you have to materially change the book enough to warrant a second edition. ISBN are not salable to other houses or individuals. They are also not extricable from the books to which they are assigned. It is an indelible print on your book.

  5. Only knew a fraction of the information concerning ISBN…thanks for this Red.
    Yet more to consider but I’m still not deterred.
    I didn’t realise that a printer could refuse to print a book without one…who knew???
    Looks like I’ll be reading The Writers & Artist Yearbook more extensively than I thought.
    Phil recently posted..Matrimonial TestimonialsMy Profile

    • Many people want the security of an agent and a publisher. Be careful is the best advice I can give you. Since those two will represent between 40 and 60% of the proceeds of the book (and wholesalers expect 40%), it is a hard row to hoe. House authors must continually churn out publications to stay ahead of advances.

  1. Programming Video Games for the Evil Genius
  2. One Fine Fractal Friday… | BuddhaKat
  3. Paul and the Restoration of Humanity In Light of Ancient Jewish Traditions
  4. P is for Price | The M3 Blog
  5. U is for Ubiquity | The M3 Blog

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

CommentLuv badge

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

0 0 0