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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