What’s an ISBN?

Do I need an ISBN? Do I want an ISBN? Do I have to have an ISBN? What’s an ISBN? Does someone else take care of the ISBN? What’s my responsibility anyway?

ISBN Explained

“What’s an ISBN?” This is a great question! ISBN is an industry acronym, short for International Standard Book Number. I know, jargon. You’re not supposed to use industry jargon. But we’ll let this one pass—just know that ISBN is a number your book gets when you publish it.

Oh wait, so all books get them? So I need an ISBN?

It depends. If you’re publishing your book and selling it on your own, then you don’t have to get one. However, if you want things like distribution and placement in bookstores, then you do need to have one.

Don’t worry if you already published your book without getting an ISBN—you can still get one post-publishing. It’s fine. As long as you have the number you can add it as a sticker to your book or give the number to the distributor. Really, it’s fine.

What if I wrote a book but someone else is publishing it?

Whoever publishes the book obtains the ISBN. Think of it this way. Whoever is taking the financial risk on the book is the person, business, or organization who applies for the ISBN.

Does one ISBN cover an ebook, a paperback, and an audio book of the same book?

No. You will need three separate ISBN’s. Also, if you publish an updated edition you’ll also need a new ISBN for that. Oh, and also a hardcover and in 17 different languages? Yes, all different ISBNs.

Where do I get an ISBN?

Every country has its own way of doing it. In Canada, you apply for an ISBN through the Library and Archives Canada at no cost. In other countries there may be a fee or service charge.

Is an ISBN the same as a bar code?

No. A bar code is a graphic with vertical lines that gets scanned at a retail outlet. The ISBN is a 13-digit number. That said, you can have your ISBN translated into a bar code.

Still more questions? No problem, just let me know. But I hope this has at least unravelled part of the mystery to the question what’s an ISBN. Crazy-boring, hey?

Other resources

“What’s an ISBN?” This is a great question! ISBN is an industry acronym, short for International Standard Book Number. I know, jargon. You’re not supposed to use industry jargon. But we’ll let this one pass—just know that ISBN is a number your book gets when you publish it.