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All about ISBNs

One of the stumbling blocks for the self-published author is the question of ISBN numbers.

Lots of authors come to us struggling to get their heads around what’s required:

    • What’s an ISBN?
    • Do I need one?
    • How do I get one?

    • Where from?

So we’ve put together a list of the most frequently asked questions about ISBNs, and some answers to help you.

ISBN questions


What does ISBN stand for?

International Standard Book Number.

What is an ISBN for?

It’s a unique number that identifies your book’s title, edition and format. The ISBN is used by publishers and booksellers to list and sell your book.

Back in the 1970s, it became an international standard to assign each version of a book with an ISBN. This was to help solve the problem of identifying books. Before the internet, it was increasingly difficult to be sure that the book you were searching for was the right one. It’s fairly common for different books to have the same title. And with different hardback, paperback, first and second editions, etc for each, it soon became impossible to keep track.

So the ISBN identifier was introduced, meaning that each title, edition and format is uniquely identified.

It’s NOT a barcode

The barcode is a graphical image made of black and white lines. The ISBN is a number assigned to your book. The barcode can identify the ISBN when it’s scanned by a retailer, but they are two different things.

Do all books need an ISBN?

Some types of books don’t need an ISBN. But if you’re planning on selling your book, as most self-published authors are, you will need one.

There are some types of books for private use that don’t require an ISBN:

    • Handbooks or manuals created by companies for staff use only
    • Memoirs, family trees or other personal books published only for family viewing
    • Textbooks or work papers to be used at lectures or seminars

    • Books that will be given away for free

But, if you plan on selling any of these books then you will need an ISBN.

Where do I get my ISBN?

In the UK, you can contact Nielsen UK ISBN Agency:

Nielsen ISBN Agency


In the US or Australia, Bowker issues them:

Bowker homepage


Is it free?

The cost varies depending on where you’re located, and the number you buy. You can buy ISBNs in groups of 1, 10, 100, or 1000 so it can be more cost-effective to buy 10 or 100.

In the UK, Nielsen UK charge:

£89 for 1 ISBN number

£164 for 10 ISBN numbers

£369 for 100 ISBN number

£949 for 1000 ISBN numbers

In the USA, Bowker charge:

$125 for 1 ISBN number

$295 for 10 ISBN numbers

$575 for 100 ISBN numbers.

$1500 for 1000 ISBN numbers

You’ll need to contact Bowker direct to buy 1000 or more.

Do I need a different ISBN for the paperback and e-book versions of my book?

Yes. If you’re intending to publish your book as an ebook AND paper version, you will need a different ISBN for each version.

If my book is in more than one language, do I need a different ISBN for each version?

Yes. You will need a different ISBN for each language the book is published in.

Where do I need to put my ISBN on my book?

You can place this on the copyright page, and also on the back cover.

Can’t I just use the free ISBN issued by my publisher?

Many publishers, like Createspace, will issue you an ISBN for free when you use their services.

This has pros and cons:


    • If you’re on a limited budget, you can save some money.

    • You don’t need to set up a publishing company before being able to publish your book, so it can be a quicker route if your deadline is tight.


    • The ISBN issuer will be identified as the publisher if people search using the ISBN number. If you’re serious about your writing career, it may be more beneficial for your book’s records that you are listed as the publisher. This is true particularly if you feel within your genre there is still a ‘stigma’ attached to self-publishing over traditional publishing methods.

    • If you change publishers you will need to buy a new ISBN. If you buy your own from the start, with your own company listed as the publisher, you can continue to use the same ISBN if you move publishers.

If I reprint my book, do I need a new ISBN?

If there are no changes to the previous version, and it’s with the same publisher, no you don’t.

If I change my cover design, do I need a new ISBN?

No, as long as all the other details are the same, and it’s the same publisher, you don’t. If it’s important for your own records that you distinguish between the two versions, you can issue a new ISBN, but you don’t have to.

If I have published in paperback and now want to publish in hardback, do I need a new ISBN?

Yes, each different edition will need a unique ISBN.

If I want to change the price of my book, do I need a new ISBN?

As long as the only change is the price, you won’t need a new ISBN.

If I change the title of my book, but keep all the content the same, do I need a new ISBN?

Yes, as you are changing the title you will need a new ISBN.

If I edit the contents of my book, do I need a new ISBN?

It depends on the changes you are making. If you are just correcting typographical errors, then you don’t need a new ISBN.

If you’re changing a more significant portion of the text, this could be considered a new edition. It’s generally accepted that a change of about 20% of the text constitutes a new edition, in which case you will need a new ISBN.

What questions have you got about ISBNs? Leave your question in the comments below.




We’re Peter and Caroline O’Connor. Creating beautiful book cover designs for authors all over the world is our passion. Every author should be able to benefit from a beautiful book cover design (not just the lucky few who get signed by a big publisher). We design, podcast, and coach authors full-time so we understand your struggles. Currently accepting new clients.