Do Authors Really Need an ISBN?

The short answer is, it depends.

ISBN numbers are thirteen-digit unique number that identifies your book. It actually stands for International Standard Book Number. This unique code captures information regarding the book’s publisher, title, language, edition, and version.

Prior to 2007, ISBNs were ten digits. With the boom in the book publishing industry, ISBNs have been extended to thirteen digits. One example of an ISBN is from my cookbook, titled, Cooking with Author-Chef (Not Iron-Chef) Brian K. Larson along with the category.

Published in the United States of America

ISBN: 979-8481865867


These numbers can be purchased at Bowker Identifier Services at and come in blocks of ten for $295 bucks or a single number for $125. There are also bundles of one-hundred for $575 bucks and a mega package of 1000 ISBNs for $1500 bucks that they claim can be used for 200 books (or editions of books). This is really the best deal if you have the cash upfront. Most independent authors don’t have these kinds of funds readily available, especially if you’re just starting out.

An ISBN is unique to one edition, so you can rack up a lot of numbers for eBook, paperback, and hardcover editions. You can’t use the same number for each edition, so it can become very costly. I’ve purchased blocks of ten and discovered that I need more in short order.

However, do authors really need this expense? Again, it all depends on your needs. Amazon offers free ISBN for paperbacks and hardcovers. However, not for eBooks. I no longer buy my own numbers since eBooks at Amazon have ASIN numbers that are unique for their platform.

If you plan on publishing exclusively in book stores or outside of Amazon, you may want to invest in a block of ISBNs. If you are only on Amazon, it may not be necessary since you can get them for free.

Another outlet that offers free ISBNs is Smashwords. They provide numbers that are unique to their platforms and are required for their distribution channels such as iBooks (Apple), Barns & Noble, Kobo, and other retail outlets.

Keep in mind that once you publish your book with an ISBN and republish a second edition, you’ll need to use a new ISBN.

Here’s a breakdown of some marketing strategies to determine if you need to buy ISBNs.

If you want to save money or if most of your business is based online, you may not need to purchase an ISBN. However, if you have an aggressive branding strategy for your name or publishing company or most of your publishing will be based in physical book stores, you may want to purchase them.

Another important note to know is that this unique number is not a Copywrite for your book. Copywrite is completely different from an ISBN.

There are a few disadvantages of not using an ISBN. It can be difficult to track eBook sales, your book won’t be available to readers who prefer print books and your book won’t be included in the books in the print database.

As I said earlier, Amazon and Smashwords do offer free ISBNs, so the disadvantages are minimal. With eBooks distribution, most companies don’t require one. However, there is a place to add the number when you are creating the publication.

To wrap up, ISBNs can be confusing at first, when in actuality, they are pretty straightforward. Plan on using one for your print editions, whether using a free one from Amazon or you purchase your own. For your eBooks, you don’t need one, but you certainly can obtain one if you wish.

Thank you for joining me this week.

Until next time, this is author Brian K. Larson, sparking imaginations, one book at a time.

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