Self-Pub Research Checklist: ISBNs

Self-publication is hard.

Really hard.

There are so many variables, and the beleaguered author is a one-person-army trying to tackle them all. Especially when you’re just getting started, it can be pretty overwhelming.

Well the cavalry is here! In this multi-part series, I’ll tackle the topics I had to research while prepping for self-publication and break them into slightly more bite-sized pieces of information.

First up: ISBNs.


What is an ISBN?

It stands for International Standard Book Number. It’s the 10-digit or 13-digit number on the back of a book, just above the barcode. The 10-digit version is an older format, and new ISBNs will be in the 13-digit format. Every book has a different number, and even each edition of the same book (such as paperback, ebook, or hardcover) must have its own ISBN; you can’t share one across formats.

Do I even need an ISBN?

If you’re printing the books yourself through an on-demand printer like Lulu and selling them in-person, you don’t technically need an ISBN. But if you want to sell through online retailers or bookstores–or have your book available to libraries–you need one. It’s how their systems categorize and inventory books.

ISBNs carry a slew of metadata that helps libraries and bookstores determine whether to order a book. With a quick scan or typing in the number, they can pull up information such as the book’s brief summary, the genre and age category, publication date, etc.

How do I get an ISBN?

In the United States, if you want to be the total owner of your ISBN (more on this later), there is only one provider of ISBNs: Bowker.

The problem: ISBNs aren’t cheap. They can be purchased individually at $125 each, or in a set of 10 for $295.

Keep in mind: if you intend to publish paperback, hardcover, and ebook editions of the same book, you’ll need 3 ISBNs. In this case, the 10-pack is the better buy, especially if you intend to publish more than one book. ISBNs don’t need to be used immediately, so you can save the rest for future books.

If you purchase directly through Bowker, you are the sole owner of your ISBN, and can choose to distribute your book anywhere you’d like. More on this in a future article on distribution options.

Bowker also sells barcode graphics, but I would advise skipping those. Services like IngramSpark (through its cover template generator) and Bookow will generate barcodes for you for free. Bookow is supported by donations though, so it would be kind to throw them a small donation for the service.

Free Amazon ISBNs

If you are unable to purchase your own ISBNs and wish to publish solely through Amazon, you’re in luck. Amazon can assign you an ISBN for free when you set up your book.

The catch? Amazon remains the owner of the ISBN. Using their number involves granting them exclusive right to sell your book. You cannot use this ISBN outside Amazon. This means you can’t distribute your book anywhere else. However, it’s a cost-effective option as an alternative to expensive ISBNs.

If I want to purchase my own ISBN, how does it work?

When you purchase your ISBNs through Bowker, you’ll register for an account at, which allows you to assign your book’s information to each ISBN as needed.

A “Manage ISBNs” dashboard displays your purchased ISBNs, and when you’re ready, you can assign all the book information to one. You’ll go through a few screens adding metadata like the book blurb, genre, size, etc. Once it’s all filled out, that information is fed into the system that libraries and bookstores use to look up books. (If you want your book to be available for them to purchase independently, you’ll need a distributor like IngramSpark though. More on that in the next article).

When you set up your book on Goodreads, or at Amazon or other distributors like IngramSpark, you can type in the ISBN to ensure the metadata remains consistent for anyone looking up your book.

I hope this was a decent quick-and-dirty rundown of ISBN numbers! Tune in next time for more information on distribution channels: should you go with the widest net possible, or focus your efforts by enrolling in Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited program? I’ll go over the pros and cons of both, and explain why I made my distribution choice.

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