All about ISBNs

by Peggy on May 9, 2012

Why do I need an ISBN?

Why every time I do a radio interview, or guest post I get this question; do I need an ISBN for my print book, e-book, or audio book? The short and sweet answer to that question is yes! Before we talk about why you need one, let’s talk about the true function of an ISBN, and where to get one.

What is the function of an ISBN?

ISBN stands for Industry Standard Book Number. You can think of an ISBN number as the social security number for your book. The ISBN is on the back of your book, just above the barcode, usually located in the lower right hand corner. When your book is sold at retail, this barcode is scanned and the ISBN recorded. Sales data is then reported to BookScan, (a Neilson Company), who compiles books sales reports which can be accessed through your Amazon author central account. Be aware that not all book sales are reported to BookScan. BookScan estimates that 75 percent of book sales are reported.

What do the Numbers Mean?

There are four parts to an ISBN:

1. Group or country identifier

2. Publisher identifier

3. The number that identifies a particular title or edition of a title

4. A single digit at the end of the ISBN which validates the ISBN (the check digit)


ISBNs are assigned to each media version of your book. For example, if your book is available as a print book, e-book, and an audio book, you will have three unique ISBNs. Second editions of the same book use a different ISBN. (Digital publishing is beginning to change this industry practice.) Using unique ISBNs for each media type and edition ensures more accurate tracking of sales data.

Bowker sells ISBNs to individuals and to publishers. Individual authors can purchase a single ISBN for $125. Publishers can purchase ISBNs in bulk, 10, 100 or 1000 at a time. A bulk purchase of ten numbers is $250; 100 numbers cost $500; and 1,000 numbers cost a dollar each. The bar code, which is a digital representation of the ISBN, will be supplied automatically by the POD, but you can elect to purchase these from as well.

Setting Up Your Account and Purchasing ISBNs

You must first set up an account at (a landing page on Once the account is set up you can purchase your ISBNs online with a debit or credit card. The ISBNs usually appear in your account instantly, but it can take up to 24 hours to receive them.

Note: If you are letting CreateSpace supply your ISBN, then an ISBN and a barcode will be assigned and generated automatically during your book’s setup process.

Assigning an ISBN to a Book

The process of linking the publication data of your book with the ISBN number is called assigning. Don’t attempt to assign an ISBN before your book is at the proof stage. You will need data like final page count, trim size, and markets before you can assign a particular ISBN to your book. Once the ISBN has been assigned, it is permanent. Assigning the ISBN links it to your book and allows Bowker to enter your book’s title information into Books in Print (an online database) which makes your book more discoverable by bookstores and other retailers.

After you have setup your account and purchased your ISBNs, logout. Wait a few minutes, then log back into the account you have just created. Go to, click on ISBN, then MY ACCOUNT, and enter your user name and password. Your ISBN’s should be there.

To access the Book Title form, click on the blank subject line next to the ISBN you wish to register. This will bring up the next page which is the online registration form. The book title form is two pages .long. Be sure to scroll down below the SAVE button to enter pricing information. When entering the price of your book, don’t use the dollar sign. When asked about markets add only those markets in which you will sell.

If you have successfully completed the form, you should see a yellow circle with a black triangle to the left of your title name. This means that your title is processing and this will change to a green circle the following business day. A red circle means there is an error or that required information is missing.

Publisher of Record

Using unique ISBNs for each media type and edition ensures accurate tracking and sales data. The owner of the ISBN (you as the author, a publishing company, or the POD vendor) is called the publisher of record.

Why is this important? The publisher of record will be listed in Books in Print and all other databases as the publisher. As a self-published author you may want your name or the name of your publishing company as the publisher of record. CreateSpace’s contract also specifies that if you use their ISBN (which they provide for free), your book cannot be transferred to another printer.

Can I buy a block of ten and share them with another writer?

I would never purchase an ISBN from a third party site, or from another individual or publisher. Here’s why. Embedded in the ISBN is a three digit code that identifies the purchaser of the ISBN as the publisher of record. That means that the person or company who originally purchased the ISBN is forever connected to that block of numbers as the publisher.

Here’s a case study in what could happen if you purchase an ISBN from an unknown third party, or worse yet, purchase a block of ten and sell five of them to your neighbor who is also planning on publishing a book.

Case Study:

John, we’ll call him, writes a memoir, and intends to publish several more books. He purchases a block of ten from, registering the numbers to his publishing company, Over the Top Press. John then sells five of his newly purchased ISBNs to Larry, a casual acquaintance and fellow writer he met at a bookstore over coffee. Larry writes his book and publishes it using an ISBN purchased from his new friend John and Over the Top Press. Months later, Larry receives an email from an attorney saying that his book infringes on another author’s copyright. John and Over the Top Press also get a copy of the letter. Why? Because Over the Top Press is the publisher-of-record on Larry’s book. Now John and his company are in jeopardy because they sold a block of five ISBNs registered to Over the Top Press to a person that they didn’t really know, and didn’t have creative control over what they might eventually publish.

The moral to the story is this:

“Your book is not your baby…your book is your business.”   Peggy DeKay

Always make a sound business decision when it comes to your book, your ISBN, and your business. To learn more about self-publishing, listen to my podcast on iTunes or through the website. To listen and subscribe via iTunes, go to, click on podcasts, and type “The Business of Writing podcast” into the search field. Then click subscribe.

If you have question or would like to comment on this article please leave a comment or email me at

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Khilee April 11, 2016 at 12:35 am

I’ve been invited to a conference on book writing and part of the “deal” regarding the price of the conference is that one’s registration gets them a free ISBN number. But based on what you’ve said this wouldn’t be a wise thing to do.??


Peggy May 15, 2017 at 12:27 pm

I would certainly check this out. Ask the sponsor of the event if you will be able to register the ISBN under your publishing company. If not, then ask them under what publisher is the “publisher of record.”


Ronald Destra November 23, 2012 at 2:34 am

Peggy,your post was awesome.I learned a lot in that short span of time.Thank you again. …


Peggy February 18, 2013 at 4:02 am

Thank you.


salim e-a ebrahim August 17, 2012 at 6:23 pm

In the above case study would not a POD printer like CreateSpace also get into trouble if one of their authors had infringed someone’s copyright? I should think that CreateSpace simply sold a service like Bowkers and another service like POD but that CreateSpace is not the real publisher and so can say that to the attorney.

Is it not the attorney’s job to find the real person who has infringed copyright and then only sue them?


Peggy June 30, 2014 at 4:36 pm

If you are infringed, you will definitely need an attorney. Fortunately, this is not a common practice. In a copyright infringement, Createspace would pull the book from their site. All obligation to be free of infringements fall to the author according to their (CreateSpace) contract.


Dianne Harman June 18, 2012 at 5:55 pm

Thank you for answering a question I’ve been struggling with. I’m a new author with my novel about to be published and this was high on my list.


Peggy June 18, 2012 at 6:16 pm

Thanks Dianne for the kind words. ISBNs are confusing to new authors. They certainly were to me when I started out self-publishing, but after publishing 20 books (most of them for other authors), I feel comfortable with the information. I think you are always better off to be in control of your business, and owning your own ISBNs is a good way to start. Good luck with your project and thank you for reading and for commenting. PLDK


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