ISBNs: What Self-Publishing Authors Need To Know | Self-Publishing Relief

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ISBNs: What Self-Publishing Authors Need To Know | Self-Publishing Relief

Self-publishing your book means you have to make a lot of decisions, and one of those will be about ISBNs. Should you purchase your own or use the free ISBN provided by the publishing platform? Is it worth the cost? What is an ISBN’s purpose? The experts at Self-Publishing Relief have all the answers self-publishing authors need to know to make the right choice!


Answers To Your Questions About ISBNs

What Are ISBNs?

ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number, which is essentially a numerical identifier for books. An ISBN consists of thirteen digits (any issued before 2007 have ten), and each one is unique to the book it represents. ISBNs are used by publishers, booksellers, libraries, etc., to identify the publisher of the book, country, title, edition, and format.

Since ISBNs identify the format, the different formats of a single book (hardcover, paperback, and e-book) cannot have the same ISBN. A new edition of a book will also have a different ISBN from any previous editions.

Must I Use An ISBN?

If you intend to sell your print book through retail channels, or to have it distributed in libraries, an ISBN is required. However, e-books do not need an ISBN, since e-publishers assign their own tracking numbers. Still, some writers prefer to assign their own ISBN to their e-books to be the publisher of record.

Also, if you are self-publishing your book strictly for private distribution to family and friends, you don’t need an ISBN.

How Much Do ISBNs Cost?

In the United States you can purchase an ISBN from Bowker (the official ISBN agency for US publishers) for $125, and you can buy a ten-pack for $295. ISBNs never expire, so you can keep any you don’t use right away for another publication.

You can also get a free ISBN through Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) or any other self-publishing company. However, keep in mind that using a self-publishing platform’s ISBN identifies them as the publisher. Many authors have no problem with KDP being the publisher of record, and it has no effect on the royalties. Other writers prefer to be listed as the publisher.


There are companies selling ISBNs for a fraction of the cost Bowker charges—but buyer beware. The owner of the ISBN is also considered the publisher, and in these instances, that won’t be you.

Since getting a free ISBN from a self-publishing platform means you don’t necessarily need to purchase any from Bowker, many writers may wonder if they should spend the money. There are both advantages and disadvantages to using a free ISBN:

Advantages of a free ISBN:

  • You save money! This is the decision-making factor for many self-publishers, who may already be on a tight budget.
  • You don’t have to spend time setting up an account and registering your ISBN—using the free one provided by Amazon is fast and easy.

Disadvantages of a free ISBN:

  • You have to list Amazon (or whichever publishing platform is providing the free ISBN) as the publisher.
  • These ISBNS are non-transferrable. For example: You can’t take the ISBN assigned by KDP for Amazon and then use it to sell your book directly through another retailer.
  • Many bookstores will not stock books with KDP (Amazon) ISBNs. Don’t panic—this doesn’t mean your book won’t sell. Amazon is one of the largest book retailers in the world, so having your book available for sale there gives you plenty of sales opportunities.
  • Should your self-published book get picked up by a traditional publisher, and you do not own your ISBN, you may face a few obstacles.

Using an ISBN from Bowker allows you to list your book in Bowker’s Books in Print, which will make it rank higher in Internet and Google search results. An ISBN that you purchase may also make tracking your book sales easier so you can ensure you receive all of your royalty payments.

Ultimately, whether you use a free ISBN or buy one from Bowker is up to you. We’ve had Self-Publishing Relief clients who were happy with either choice!


Question: Would you choose to buy an ISBN or use a free one?


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