No catchy title on this one. The ISBN debate is as great or more enduring than the KDP vs CS vs IS and the Traditional vs Indie publishing path dilemmas. This topic makes the rounds in writer groups, especially larger groups who can’t use a search feature, that many of the knowledgeable writers have stopped responding letting the less informed permeate disillusions of fact and fiction.

What is an ISBN & Where Do You Get Them?

An ISBN is the International Standard Book Number. This number is assigned to every book—ebook, print, audio—regardless if it was given away or sold. The moment it becomes publicly available it gains it’s identifying number. The ISBN contains 13 numbers divided into sections that represent a large amount of metadata—country of origin and publisher are assigned the moment you purchase the ISBNs, and the other parts are determined when you fill out the rest of the metadata. (see below about metadata).

Now, for those in the USA, Bowker is the only place to purchase ISBNs. If you’re in Canada, you get them for free through the government. This is one thing where Googling your country and ISBN can lead you in the right direction for specifics on obtaining an ISBN.

How does an ISBN work?

It’s the UPC of the book world used by publishers, booksellers, libraries, internet retailers and other supply chains for ordering, listing, sales records and inventory control. The ISBN identifies the registrant and the specific title, edition and format.

You wouldn’t want to confusingly pick the non-illustrated version of Harry Potter when the rest of your growing collection are first editions illustrated. If a person in France wanted the Japanese version of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, they can take the ISBN for that version and know that is the book they are getting—fabulous book especially if you enjoyed Game of Thrones.

The process works the same for every format and translation of it.

Perks of ISBN

From making sure that every order is fulfilled and shipped correctly to moving around massive book pallets in the warehouse, ISBNs are used to track product.

Even pre-publishing, where a “temporary” title may be used to keep prying eyes from trying to lift a famous author’s work to finding the perfect title, an ISBN never changes for that book tracking it through the process.

By using the ISBN, you can also track sales and expenditures of a particular version helping you dial in your process even more and know where to allocate marketing.

No sales channel is off limits when you own your own ISBN.


Metadata is like the “medical record” of the book. If you own the ISBN, you go through the appropriate website— if you’re in the USA—and fill in the format, size, genre, price, etc on the form for that ISBN. It then becomes a one stop shop for stores who understand those different components and know what they are looking for.

If you don’t own your ISBN—those assigned automatically by KDP or CS—you’re not the publisher on record and you have no control over the meta data. You don’t even know if the info is being filled in on the appropriate channels or if they just assign you a number from a batch that they own and never bother to look at it again.

ISBN and the Law

The ISBN is an identifier and does not convey any form of legal or copyright protection. ISBNs are administered by a private company (Bowker if you’re in the US) for the use of the international book trade. Copyright is administered by the Library of Congress (or your country’s equivalent government agency) and is an extension of intellectual property law. In some countries the use of ISBN to identify publications has been made into a legal requirement.

Who should apply for the ISBN?

The publisher of the book should apply for the ISBN. The publisher is the group, organization, company or individual who is responsible for initiating the production of a publication. If you self-publish you are the publisher.

Normally, it’s the person or company who bears the cost and financial risk in making a product available. It is not normally the printer, but KDP has bulk purchased ISBNs. They offer their ISBN for free but that lists them as publisher, their country of origin as publisher, and you have no idea if they are filling out the rest of the form or not. It is one reason that reputable, big chain stores do not wish to do business with authors who don’t own their ISBN.

Do I need a new ISBN if I revise my book?

If you only correct grammar or punctuation, and don’t make any substantial changes to the text, you don’t need a new ISBN because it’s considered a reprint. The same goes for just changing the trim size or the cover.

A new edition would contain substantially new material, a major revision, or the addition of new elements (like illustrations). Anything that makes it a new book is likely to create a new edition and, therefore, need a new ISBN.

Do I need a new ISBN if I recover my book?

Short response, “it depends.” If the cover is a drastic change that can lead to readers complaining, a new ISBN is recommended. Most publishers change their covers every 18 months or so as the trend changes. This is considered a “marketing tactic” change. It does not need a new ISBN.

Do I need a new ISBN if I rename my book?

Yes. A ISBN is a tracking number for a specific work. If you change the title it is no longer that specific work, and you can end up confusing readers.

ISBNs and Ebooks

I’ve been scouring websites all morning trying to find an answer. Most of the above applies to paperbacks more than ebooks, though sometimes the information applies to both.

It’s a tricky question. Even reliable sources like Draft2Digital gives a view that many traditional publishers would squawk at.

Here’s my run down on if you should have an ISBN for your ebook

  • You want to be listed as the publisher.
  • Your book is wide—somewhere other than Amazon.
  • Get your e-book rank higher on Google
  • Country Requirements—Google is your friend. Use it.

If you’re wanting a way to unify your ebooks, consider

Changing Later

You can change the ISBNs out later on down the road. It’s not like building a house where once you pour the concrete it becomes a nightmare to change what’s under the floor.

You run some risks on changing later. You lose rank on platforms and it can clutter your dashboard to hell and back are the two biggest issues—you have to have a game plan and work systematically updating your books, your metadata, creating new versions, and be prepared to be overwhelmed as you try not to miss anything.

If you do change them out, don’t forget to have Amazon shift the reviews to the newer versions and link editions.

There are close to 1 million books published every year. Some of those books have similar/identical titles or similar/identical authors. An ISBN is more than just a number, and I hope this short post gave you a good overview on why it’s a good idea to have your own.

In my opinion, I would make sure you have an ISBN for your paperbacks, ones that you own.

I would let Amazon be Amazon and assign an ASIN to ebooks, though at one point, they would decrease the VAT tax on certain markets if you owned the ISBN.

If your books are wide, I would use an ISBN you own. It gives you access to all platforms and makes reporting for Letter Runs less complicated—example is USA Today Best-Selling Books List and to achieve that you have to sale x-number of copies in 7 days and each platform won’t report it to the right agency unless you sale a certain number on that platform.

I would also highly recommend signing up for Bowker’s newsletter to gain access to coupons and not be in a rush to publish the paperback or ePub until you own your ISBNs. Having a delay in publishing the different versions can help you gain momentum on Amazon by taking advantage of the “new release” bump they automatically give to new books—paperback and Kindle.

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This post was edited/proofed by ProWritingAid.


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