The ISBN is a unique numeric identifier assigned to books sold commercially. It is not always necessary to get one if a writer chooses to market their work as an e-book. However, it is almost always required of printed books, whether they are self-published or reproduced and sold by other parties.

How To Get An ISBN

In this blog, we discuss what the ISBN is and its significance in the book publishing industry. We also include information about how authors and publishers can get one and how Amazon sellers can look up existing ones for their merchandise. As a bonus, we also give tips for creating professional-looking ISBN barcodes.

What Is an ISBN?

“ISBN” is short for the International Standard Book Number. It is a unique identifier that helps facilitate book sales and searches worldwide.

Modern ISBNs have 13 digits bearing the following information:

  • The book’s title and, indirectly, its author and edition.
  • The language used in the book. Many books are translated into different languages, and each translation has its own ISBN.
  • The publisher to which the ISBN is issued. A book can have several publishers as long as they all have permission from or an agreement with its author. ISBNs are country-specific, so they also give information about a publisher’s geographic location.
  • The format in which the book is published. A single book can be distributed as an e-book, audiobook, hardcover, paperback, etc. Every medium is assigned an ISBN.

From here, you can see that each of a book’s edition, format and publisher has its own ISBN. However, a new number is not necessary for reprints of the same version. An ISBN cannot be reassigned even if its book goes out of publication.

ISBNs were first conceptualized in the 1960s, but they were not widely used until the 1970s. ISBNs issued in the 60s had nine digits. In the 70s, the 10-digit format was adopted. In 2007, retailers around the world started using the 13-digit ISBN to facilitate the global trade of a rapidly increasing number of books.

The ISBN is different from the International Standard Serial Number (ISSN), which is assigned to periodicals like magazines and scientific journals. It is also different from the International Standard Music Number (ISMN), which is issued for notated music.

(a) Who Can Apply for an ISBN? 

Any book publisher wishing to make copies of a book for commercial distribution can apply for an ISBN. The publisher can be the author, established print publishers like Elsevier and McGraw-Hill, digital publishers, audiobook makers, etc. 

The publisher must register for an ISBN in the country where they do their business to help with taxation. ISBNs do not confer copyright protection, so intellectual property rights must be obtained separately.

Third-party sellers who wish to list books as part of their Amazon product catalogs do not need to apply for an ISBN. However, they must ensure that they are using the right one for their merchandise. We shall explain how third-party Amazon sellers can look up a book’s ISBN later in this article.

(b) Can You Sell a Book on Amazon without an ISBN?

There are cases when Amazon will not require an ISBN for selling books through its platform.

  • E-books published on Kindle and sold on Amazon do not need ISBNs. However, every Amazon e-book listing will be assigned an Amazon Standard Identification Number (ASIN). Other e-book publishers like Apple and Kobo do not require it, either.
  • Materials published before the ISBN era, and even in the early days of its use, do not have this identifier. For those books, you can apply for an Amazon ISBN exemption.

Getting an ISBN for a book is the author and publisher’s responsibility. Amazon sellers who have nothing to do with its reproduction only need to look up and provide the correct number for their listing.

A Critical Decision: Should You Buy Your Own ISBN?

First-time authors often find it difficult to get a free ISBN from print publishers. Reproducing and selling physical books come with huge risks, so the privilege of getting an ISBN for free from a print publisher is usually reserved for more established writers. That is why, in the age of e-books, many neophyte authors resort to self-publishing.

Not all e-books need an ISBN, as mentioned above. However, getting one for yours lets you gain the following advantages:

Advantages-of-buying-own-ISBN

1.

You can sell to anyone through any platform.

Almost half of US e-book revenues come from ISBN-less books. However, every publisher that lets you sell your original material without an ISBN can impose sales restrictions on you.

For example, an ISBN-less e-book listed on Amazon can only be sold through the website. You may not offer it elsewhere unless you get an ISBN and market it independently.

Using your own ISBN frees you from publishers’ exclusivity clauses. It expands your potential market. If you plan to reproduce your piece in various media forms, you are not barred from selling them, whether online or in physical stores. If your book’s original publisher goes out of business and ceases all publications, you may still make copies of your work and sell them elsewhere.

2.

Having your own ISBN enhances your status as an author.

The ISBN is the global standard for book identification and gives publications and their authors a professional image. Having an unchanging ISBN enhances your status in relevant business circles. 

3.

An ISBN lets you sell your material on websites with selling restrictions.

If your piece is becoming popular, you will want it to be available on as many sites as possible to broaden your reach. Meanwhile, some platforms accept only e-books with an ISBN. You will have to get your own number to break through their barriers.

through any platform.

4.

You can make your book more searchable by using your own ISBN.

With your own ISBN, you can control your book’s metadata to make it more searchable to specific niches. You can highlight specific contents that certain people may find valuable.

5.

You get cataloging immortality.

An ISBN lets your book remain searchable even if your original publisher no longer makes it available. Although this number does not confer intellectual property rights by itself, it can support an author’s claim if they apply for one for their work.

6.

It lets you comply with regulations.

Some countries require ISBNs before they allow the sale of a book. In others, higher taxes are charged on ISBN-less publications. You get to avoid these hassles if your piece has its own number.

If you have a tight budget, you may get by for a while using a non-ISBN-requiring platform. However, you should consider getting your own number at some point to optimize your content’s marketing potential.

What about third-party Amazon sellers? What do they need an ISBN for?

Amazon retailers do not need to get an ISBN for a book they neither wrote nor published. However, they do have to get the right number for their listing. The following are the reasons why this step is crucial:

(i) It gets the right product to your customers.

As discussed previously, every book version has its own ISBN.

Are you selling a paperback or an audiobook? Is the publication in German or Chinese?

Imagine the ensuing horror after getting these details mixed up all because you listed the wrong ISBN!

(ii) It helps you with stock tracking.

Like the SKU and UPC, you can use the ISBN to keep track of your supplies. Amazon, eBay and other online selling platforms do this for you automatically. If you have a brick-and-mortar business, you can integrate ISBNs into your barcoding system.

(iii) It enables you to analyze book sales information.

Stock monitoring lets you study sales information and detect vital patterns like seasonality, individual buying habits, format popularity, etc. These details let you tailor your long-term marketing strategy and improve investment returns.

Bottomline, getting an ISBN—or getting the right one—is highly important for people engaging in book retail.

Zebra Compatible Labels 2″ x 1″
Zebra Compatible Labels 1-1/2″ x 1/2″

How Do You Get an ISBN?

That depends on whether you are a publisher or a third-party Amazon seller.

If you are a US-based self-publishing author or publisher, you can purchase an ISBN from New Jersey’s R. R. Bowker LLC through its website. Below are the steps for getting your book number:

Steps-to-Get-an-ISBN

1. Go to Bowker’s Buy ISBN page.

Bowker's Buy ISBN page.

2. Choose the number of ISBNs you want to buy, then click “Add to Cart.” Blocks of 10, 100 and 1000 ISBNs are available. Block-buying is cost-effective if you anticipate future editions or sequels of the same book or writing a different one. The 10-ISBN block is usually sufficient for self-publishing neophyte writers.

3. A menu will pop up and ask if you want to purchase add-ons. The ISBN barcode add-on is the most useful because it also gets you the barcode image for your first ISBN. Printed books need barcodes, but they are not routinely required to publish e-books. You may choose to add it to your ISBN purchase. If you don’t want one, just click “Go to cart.” 

4. You will be led to the Shopping Cart page. Here, you will be asked again to update your order or check out. If you don’t want to change your order, click “Checkout.”

5. The login page will open. Here, you can click “Create a New Account” if you don’t have one yet.

6. On the next page, Bowker will ask you again if you are a returning customer or buying ISBNs for the first time. If you are buying your first ISBN, click “I am a new Bowker Customer.”

7. The next page is the Registration page. Fill out the online form and click “I Accept—Create My Account.”

8. After signing up, you will be led back to your shopping cart. A message will flash, acknowledging your registration. If you decide not to make any changes to your order, click “Checkout” to proceed.

9. On the next page, you will be asked to confirm your billing address and payment information. You will also be asked to review the company’s terms and conditions. Once you’ve given all the necessary details and agreed to Bowker’s terms, click “Continue to next step.”

10. You will be asked to authorize payment on the next page. You are also given the option to expedite the processing of your ISBN application for an additional fee. Choose one, then authorize the payment. 

11. When you get your ISBN, go to Bowker’s ISBN database. Type in your publication’s information, making sure to include search-optimized metadata. After that, you’re all set!

(a) How much does an ISBN cost?

It depends on how many you’re buying. As of the first quarter of 2021, Bowker’s ISBN prices are as follows:

  • Purchasing only one ISBN costs you $125.
  • A block of 10 costs $295.
  • A block of 100 is worth $575.
  • A block of 1000 is priced at $1,500.

ISBN fees vary in every country. If you plan to get your book number outside the US, you must check other countries’ ISBN-issuing organizations for prices.

(b) How soon will you get your ISBN?

That depends on whether or not you paid for expedited services. At non-expedited rates, expect to get your number five business days after Bowker receives your application. With priority processing, you can get it in two to three business days. With express processing, you can get it within 24 hours.

(c) What about third-party Amazon sellers? How should they look up an ISBN?

Here are the steps:

  1. If you have the printed book in front of you, you can find its ISBN on the copyright page or the back cover. A barcode usually accompanies the back cover number.
  2. If you don’t have the book with you, but you are sure of its features like the title, edition, author, format, etc., you can look up its ISBN online.
    • Amazon-listed books with features similar to yours will have their ISBNs already registered on-site. Go to Amazon’s Advanced Book Search page. There, you will be asked about your book’s attributes, such as its title, author, language, dimensions, etc.

You do not need to fill out everything, although doing so can help speed up your search. If you only have the title or author information, you can still type it in, look at the options that Amazon provides and see which one matches your search. When you find the right publication, click it. You will find the ISBN on the next page.

    • If your Amazon book search yields nothing, try ISBN.org or search engines like Google.
ISBN lookup

(d) What if your book does not have an ISBN?

Books printed in the 60s and 70s were not consistently issued ISBNs. Those published earlier were not assigned any. You can apply for Amazon exemptions for ISBN-less books.

With the steps presented in this section, you should be able to get an ISBN for your book if you’re a publisher, or get the correct one if you’re a third-party Amazon seller.

Printing an ISBN Barcode: Is Your Book's EAN the Same as Its ISBN?

It’s no accident that the modern ISBN has 13 digits. It corresponds to each publication’s 13-digit GTIN and its accompanying European or International Article Number (EAN) barcode.

Book GTINs begin with “978” or “979” regardless of the country of origin. Codes with these identifiers are called “Bookland EANs.” Treat Bookland as an independent country that does nothing but publishing books!

In the US, an ISBN’s 13 digits may be broken down as follows:

  • The first three digits consist of Bookland’s GS1 prefix, which is “978” or “979.”
  • The next digit represents the book’s language or language-sharing country group. Books published in English-speaking countries like the US have either “0” or “1” as the fourth digit if the GS1 prefix used is “978.” However, if “979” is used instead, the number “8” should follow it to indicate that the publication is of US origin.
  • The next eight digits correspond to the publisher’s identifier and the book’s title. Big publishers may get thousands of ISBNs and assign them arbitrarily to all the books they circulate.
  • The last digit is the checksum digit, which is calculated based on the preceding numbers. It is for error detection.

You can convert a nine-digit ISBN to a ten-digit one by adding a leading “0.” However, converting a ten- to a 13-digit ISBN entails adding “978” and recalculating the checksum digit, which is a tedious process. For easy conversion, go to Bowker’s ISBN Converter page.

When you register your ISBN in Bowker’s database, you may include pricing information. If you do this, you will get an EAN-5 barcode to accompany your ISBN-13. The EAN-5 barcode represents your pricing information.

The first digit of the EAN-5 identifies the country where the ISBN has been issued and its currency. The US dollar is represented by the number “5.” The next four digits specify the price. If you choose to leave the pricing information blank, the default EAN-5 will be issued, which is 90000.

US-based brick-and-mortar retailers like Barnes and Noble require the EAN-5. However, online e-commerce sites like Amazon do not.

Once you obtain your barcodes, you can incorporate them into your book cover. If that is not possible, you can do the following to ensure quality barcode label printing:

  • Choose to save in the vector format, which has “EPS” or “EMF” as a filename extension. The PDF format also works, although it is not specific to imaging. Barcodes using the EPS and EMF formats are easier to resize and manipulate than PDF files.
  • Select the right size of barcode labels. The standard size is 92%, which has dimensions of 2.00″ x 1.25″. The acceptable range is between 80% (1.75″ x 1.1″) and 100% (2.15″ x 1.35″). Check out enKo Products’ barcode labels to see which ones fit your needs.
  • Choose the right kind of barcode label printer. An inkjet printer is slow and creates smear-prone barcodes. Laser prints are smudge-proof, but the machines are not efficient. Direct thermal printers are ideal for sellers with high barcoding demands as they are speedy and make smudge-proof short-term barcode labels. Thermal transfer printers are best for making colored, fade-resistant stickers.

You may check out our comprehensive barcode-printing guide for more of these barcode-quality-enhancing tips.

barcode-printing guide
Zebra Compatible Labels 2-1/4" x 1-1/4"
Zebra Compatible Labels 3″ x 2″

Conclusion

The ISBN is a unique numeric book identifier that, under various circumstances, is required from Amazon booksellers. It is not always needed when publishing an e-book, but all printed books sold in major retail joints must have one.

Although an ISBN provides various marketing advantages, self-publishing authors with modest budgets may choose to defer getting one at the start of their careers. For third-party Amazon sellers, enlisting the correct ISBN lets them deliver the right products to their consumers and acquire useful sales information.

Self-publishing authors and other book publishers in the US can get ISBNs and their corresponding barcodes from Bowker. Meanwhile, third-party Amazon sellers can simply search for their products’ ISBNs or apply for an exemption when needed. The steps in purchasing and looking up an ISBN have been explained here.

A book’s 13-digit ISBN, which is also its EAN-13, is needed to barcode it properly. An EAN-5 may accompany it if the publisher has given pricing information in the Bowker database. Physical stores require sellers to provide this supplemental number, but the e-commerce giant Amazon does not.

Finally, to make quality ISBN barcodes, they must be saved in the right file format, set in the proper size and printed using thermal technology. Other barcode printing tips have been presented in some of our previous articles, which we urge you to read.

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