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December 11th, 2013

ISBN Number for Books: Why You Need One and How to Get It


by David Rogers

Bookland ISBN Book Barcode

As a self-publisher, you’ve likely heard about an ISBN number for books, but the specifics of getting one (and knowing exactly what you need) can be a bit confusing. However, the actual process of obtaining one of these ISBN numbers is pretty straightforward once you know the basics.

What is an ISBN Number?

Quite simply, the ISBN is a unique identifier for your book. Short for International Standard Book Number (adding “number” after the acronym is technically redundant, though it is often done), the 13-digit number is made up of five definitive parts that can tell you a lot about the book. What this means to you is that if you plan to sell or otherwise distribute your book, you’ll want an ISBN so the stores that sell your book can track inventory and sales. More importantly, this easily allows you to easily re-order more books.

If you have no plans to sell your book (or only plan to sell it  yourself) you may have no need for the number. However, if you think there may come a time in the future that you may want to sell your product, you’ll want to get an ISBN before your book printing takes place, in large part because the number will be printed on your book in the form of a barcode.

Is an ISBN Number the Same as a Barcode?

No, but the ISBN is listed on your barcode, and you’ll need the former to get the latter. In addition to the barcode, you also will include your ISBN on the copyright page of your book. Occasionally the number is printed inside the front or back cover of the book, as well.

What’s the Difference in an ISBN and a Barcode?

The official ISBN provider of the United States sums up the differences as follows:

  • An ISBN is a number that acts like an ordering number.
  • A barcode is a price tag. It is the graphic with vertical lines that encodes numerical information for scanning purposes.

Though the barcode looks similar to the UPC (Universal Product Code) barcode you see on nearly every product you purchase, the barcode for books is actually a bit different. Following the European barcode model (European Article Number), barcodes for books are known specifically as the Bookland EAN.

Unlike a UPC, the Bookland EAN is essentially two barcodes in one. The larger portion on the left identifies the book, while the smaller section on the right functions more like an add-on. The add-on usually contains pricing information for the book.

Bookland ISBN Book Barcode

It should be noted that while nearly all book retailers in the U.S. process the Bookland EAN barcode, other retailers do not. For instance, if a drug store sells books, their Point-of-Sale computer systems are not always set up to read these barcodes. Books sold here may need to include a UPC instead.

How Do You Purchase an ISBN?

As mentioned above, the process of obtaining an ISBN number is fairly simple. If you are in the United States (or its territories), you’ll purchase your ISBN at ISBN.org from Bowker Identifier Services, the U.S. ISBN Agency.

There are a couple of points you’ll want to know before you set out register your book by purchasing an ISBN. First and foremost is that each version of your book will require a unique ISBN. For instance, if you plan on printing and selling softcover and hardcover versions of your book, you would need a different number for each.

The other idea to understand is that though you can purchase your ISBN by itself and purchase the barcode later from a third party vendor, we recommend that you purchase the ISBN and your barcode at the same time. This will ensure that you have all you need when you take your project to the book printer. You will be given instructions on how to download your barcode artwork at the time of purchase.

You can purchase ISBNs separately, or you can purchase blocks of them at a discount. If you are self-publishing a single version of one book, you’ll most likely just want to choose the single ISBN, which currently is $125, though this price decreases if you buy in bulk. Barcodes also can be purchased at ISBN.org. These currently cost $25 each, though that price also decreases if you buy in bulk. While you only need one ISBN per version, you often realize you have multiple versions of the same book. For example, if you will print a softcover version, a hardcover version and release an ebook (EPUB) version, each will need a distinct ISBN.

As mentioned before, you can obtain a barcode through third party vendors, but it should be noted that ISBNs are only available through Bowker.

What is the ISBN Used For?

The purpose of ISBN numbers is pretty simple: they are a tracking system. This allows authors, publishers, booksellers, libraries, distributors and more to track books in any way they need. This includes tracking for sales, inventory, order processing, etc. Since each number is unique, books can be tracked from the point of manufacture through to the final consumer and at every point in between.

When Do You Need an ISBN?

As mentioned earlier, if you plan to sell physical copies of your book through a retailer, you will most likely need an ISBN. Here’s how Bowker puts it:

  • Any publisher whose intent is to sell books or book-like products in physical book stores, on Amazon.com, through wholesalers, or other online stores or libraries, need ISBNs.

Bowker also points out that a printing company (like Colorwise) is a manufacturer, not a publisher. Therefore, if you will be including a barcode on your book, you’ll need the ISBN and barcode ready when you send us your files after receiving your book quote. If you are including the barcode separately, we prefer you use a file with an .eps format.

Does a Print On-Demand Publisher Service Provide You an ISBN?

If you are using a print on-demand service as your publisher, it is possible they will supply your ISBN number since they are technically the publisher, not only a printer like Colorwise. Some publishers give you the option of choosing your own ISBN or using one of their numbers (with their Registrant Element – see below for more information).

The latter may seem like the easier choice, but keep in mind that if you don’t use your own ISBN number, it won’t be able to transfer with you if you decide to move your book to a new publisher at a later date (or self-publish).

Do You Need an ISBN for an Ebook?

Yes, however you don’t need a barcode for files that are sold digitally. The ISBN is still used to track sales of your digitally copies the same way it is for physical copies. For both printed and physical copies, we’ve included a list of products that need an ISBN – as well as some that don’t – at the bottom of this article.

Do You Need a Separate ISBN if Selling Internationally?

No, all ISBNs are international (hence the “International Standard Book Number”), though they are assigned locally.

The Five Parts of an ISBN

1. Prefix Element

The first three digits in the number identify the book industry, and currently is either 978 or 979.

2. Registration Group Element

This section can range from one to five digits and identifies the country, region or language of the book.

3. Registrant Element

Ranging from one to seven digits, this third section identifies the publisher or imprint of the book.

4. Publication Element

You can think of this section as the title section and is unique to every work. This may also change with different editions or formats of a particular title. This section can be up to six digits.

5. Check Digit Element

This final section is always a single digit, and the International ISBN Agency labels this number as the “digit that validates the rest of the number. It is calculated using a Modulus 10 system with alternate weights of 1 and 3.”

History of the ISBN

The ISBN system was put into place in 1970, and has been internationally recognized since that time. From 1970 to 2007 every ISBN was 10 digits long, and the three-digit prefix element was added in January of the latter year. The system itself was adapted from the first standardized numbering system, the Standard Numbering System, which had been implemented in the United Kingdom three years earlier.

It should be noted that all former 10-digits ISBNs must now be converted to 13-digit numbers, but this requires more than just adding a Prefix Element to the existing number. This is because an algorithm is used that frequently changes the final Check Digit Element.

Instead, if you need to update a 10-digit number to a 13-digit number you can use the ISBN Converter located at ISBN.org.

Partial List of Products that Need an ISBN (from ISBN.org)

      • Audiobooks
      • Brochures and Pamphlets
      • Cell Phone Novels
      • Compact Disc (ONLY for non-music CDs)
      • Coloring Books
      • Ebooks
      • Graphic Novels
      • Journals and Diaries
      • Maps
      • Puzzle Books

Partial List of Products that DO NOT Need an ISBN

      • Advertising (and promotional material)
      • Blogs
      • Board Games
      • Emails
      • Greeting Cards
      • Magazines
      • Music CDs
      • Periodicals
      • Posters and Art Prints
      • Sheet Music