How to easily get an ISBN

Book publishing might be tasking and challenging in today’s world but it remains one of the most lucrative ventures in this digital age. The popularity of the internet as a growing source of information needs gratification by audience across the world has added to revenue opportunities of book publishing business. Publishing books require an ISBN, especially for hard copies. Knowing how you can get an ISBN is very necessary to make book publishing less tasking.

Self-publishing is a growing trend in today’s society especially with the role of technology in making book publishing easier and faster. Knowing how to get an ISBN as a self-published author is essential. Since you can’t publish without an ISBN, you have to learn how to get ISBN in order to publish the right way and why you even need an ISBN number in the first place. So let’s take a quick look on how you can easily get an ISBN.

What is an ISBN?

The full meaning of ISBN is International Standard Book Number. This is a 13-digit code used as a unique identifier for books. An ISBN is assigned to each edition of a publication, enabling publishers, bookstores, libraries, and readers to quickly find titles. An ISBN number never expires. Even very old numbers with only 10 digits can be converted into a 13-digit code with a conversion tool. The 13-digit code represents information about the published book. The first 3 digits represent international code, next 3 digits is the country identifier, next 3 digits is the publisher identifier, next 3 digits is the title identifier, and the last digit is the check digit (that is for automatic check by computers for correctness).

How you can read an ISBN

Every standard ISBNs is made up of five parts that tell us the following:

  1. The number 978 or 979 indicates that the digits are a book code
  2. The country or language group of the publication
  3. The publisher
  4. The title of the publication
  5. The check digit — which, in a non-technical nutshell, indicates that the number has been verified

It is important to note that ISBNs are fixed and non-transferable, and this primarily means that if you publish both a paperback and ebook version of the same book, you will need separate numbers for each format. If you then decide to publish the ebook in a different language, you’ll need a new ID for that version as well — so on and so forth.

How you can get an ISBN

The ISBN is not compulsory but for your work to be in national libraries, bookstores, international libraries, stores, and for the book to have an identity of its own, you need to get an ISBN number assigned by the Bowker’s or National Library in your country. In Nigeria you have to write to the National Library requesting for ISBN. It will be issued to you after following specified process and making necessary payments.

Note that Bowker is the official administrator for only the United States. In the United Kingdom, authors can buy a number through Nielsen. In many places, such as Canada, the government provides these numbers for free. You have to find out who issues ISBN in your country so as to apply to the right source.

Must every self-publisher author get an ISBN?

Many people think that every book must have an ISBN number. Well, that is not the case. Does every self-publishing author need an ISBN? The simple answer is no. As an author you only need an ISBN if you want to do any of the following;

  • Publish your book as a paperback, hardcover, or an audiobook.
  • Sell your book to brick-and-mortar stores or libraries.

But you don’t require an ISBN if you want to do any of the following;

  • Sell their book in an ebook format.
  • Sell via online retailers such as Amazon.

Note: despite a common misconception, obtaining an ISBN does not automatically mean that your copyright is registered.

Who does not need an ISBN?

Authors who only plan to publish and sell an e-book don’t need an ISBN. There are reasons why such authors don’t need ISBN.

  • They aren’t cheap (more on that later). Indie authors don’t typically have overflowing publishing budgets.
  • There is no proof that it increases or sales. If you’re using an online retailer, your goal is to be as visible as possible to potential readers, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a reader who searches using numbers rather than keywords.
  • It doesn’t affect your chances of hitting a bestsellers list. If landing a spot on one of those is part of the dream, a glorified serial number won’t help you get there. Regardless of what identifier is attached to your book, sales are reported based on the title and the author’s name. So even if your book has 25 different IDs, it won’t affect the way your overall sales are collected.
  • The largest ebook retailers don’t require you to have one. The most popular online book retailers are Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo — all of which assign you their own identifier when you upload your book to their store.
  • Some vendors impose restrictions when you “bring your own number.” For example, KDP Print prohibits books that already have an ISBN from accessing some of their expanded distribution channels, such as their Libraries and Academic Institutions channel.

Why do you need an ISBN?

There might be value in this 13-digit ID called ISBN so those who need it have reasons to get it.

First is that the ISBN is good for the imprint of your book. Your ISBN is assigned to your publishing company/imprint. An imprint of a publisher is a trade name under which it publishes a work. Imprints allow a publisher to establish a brand identity for a cohesive line of books some of which may be aimed at specific segments of the market. So the with ISBN, the imprint will point to you. This means you are listed as the publisher. As a self-publisher, ISBN helps you to emphasize ownership and control of your book.

Next is control. The ISBN points to the publisher. This means that if you use an assigned ISBN from another company (rather than getting your own), they are the publisher. Often people will self-publish because they want to maintain a lot of control over their work. Using an assigned ISBN from another publisher means you do all the work, but technically, they are the publisher. This also technically gives them control over certain information. For instance, they can change the metadata for your book. This can be the short and long description of the book, the categories it fits in and more. The publisher of a book actually has a fair amount of that kind of control. However, it is not likely they will do this at all. You shouldn’t have to fear that this is a likely scenario, but the option is available to them.


Having an ISBN has its advantages and this is why you should know how to get one for your book.


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