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ISBN Numbers: 13 Things You Need to Know (for Beginners)

Jamey Muller
Updated: March 31, 2022
6 min read

If you've ever wondered what an ISBN is, how it's different than a bar code, or why they're so important to your book – this article is for you. In this article, I will cover 13 things beginners need to know about ISBNs.

Before I get to the questions, let's first understand what exactly an ISBN is.

What is an ISBN?

ISBN stands for “international standard book number.” ISBNs are 13 digit numbers that play a unique role in identifying books. They're found on the back of every book. While the ISBN is different from a UPC (or bar code), they both do roughly the same thing: provide unique information about your work so retailers and distributors can track it.

For example, if Barnes & Noble sees your ISBN on another retailer's website or physical store, they'll know you didn't list it with them – which is against their terms of service! UPCs track items like DVDs, while ISBNs track things like books and magazines.

Can Different Books Have the Same ISBN Number?

No, each book with an ISBN must have a unique number. Even if you have two books with the same author and title, they'll most likely have different ISBNs (and barcodes).

An ISBN typically consists of 13 digits, such as 9781477800903. The first part (978) is your company identifier that's recognized by local and global companies who offer inventory tracking services for publishers; this used to be called your publisher ID. A new system was created in 2007 called the “Bookland EAN,” which more accurately handles international agreements and consistency related to products like books and magazines – without needing any changes on our end! Below, I've broken it down into more easily digestible components:


●  The 978 is the company identifier – in this case, it's for the publisher.

●  The 1477800903 is the unique product number that helps identify this specific book.

●  The final three digits (003) signify the check digit used to confirm the ISBN is correct.

Why Does the Same Book Have Different ISBN Numbers?

Different editions of the same book might have different ISBNs. Think about it this way: Let's say you wrote a coffee table-style book and then later published a paperback version. You'd actually need two completely separate ISBNs for those books! Why? Because even though the content is exactly the same, your paperback version will most likely look very different – with a hardcover, dust jacket, and barcode on the back cover, to name just a few differences.

Can You Use the Same ISBN for Print and Ebook?

No. Some publishers like to use the same ISBN for both print and eBook versions of their books, but that's not how it works! It's considered best practice to have separate ISBNs (and barcodes) for paperbacks, hardcovers, eBooks, and even international English language editions.

Why? Well, this is a long one, so bear with me: If you upload a new edition of your book through Amazon KDP or Barnes & Noble NOOK Press, they'll typically use the existing ASIN number from the previous version. In other words, if you're uploading a paperback copy of your novel – Amazon KDP will likely just use your eBook's ASIN number from Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing without asking you. Like magic!

The problem is that if you ever want to retire that old eBook edition and stop selling it (or give it away for free), you won't be able to because your paperback's ASIN number will still be associated with it. This will result in decreased sales and – more importantly – unhappy customers. Ouch!

The solution? You guessed it: use separate ISBNs for your print and digital editions!

Does a New Edition Require a New ISBN?

In general, no. But there are a few exceptions to that rule. A new edition of a print book needs a new ISBN only if:

●  The content is substantively different from the previous version (that is, not just minor corrections).

●  The previous ISBN has been reserved in your name.

●  Your book's format has changed significantly so that it's no longer the same product as the previous version.

Can an ISBN Be Reused?

An ISBN can be used for only one book. ISBNs are not transferable to any other book. Even if you're buying a new publishing package on Amazon KDP or Barnes & Noble NOOK Press, the previous ASIN number will still be in use. However, you can have separate ISBNs for the paperback, hardcover, and ebook editions as long as they are from the same version of your book.

If an ISBN is reused, it could lead to confusion and incorrect listings because there would be two books under the same title with different content. In addition to these errors that come with reusing an ISBN, there's a chance that future distributors may not purchase your product because they think it has been released before – which is never a good look.

What’s the Difference Between ISBN 10 and 13?

ISBN 10 and ISBN 13 are both barcodes that help identify a book. The main difference between the two is that ISBN 10 is an older standard, while ISBN 13 is the newer standard. Many publishers now use ISBN 13, but some still use ISBN 10. If you want to ensure that the ISBN you're using is the correct one, check with the publisher or distributor.

How Do I Get an ISBN Number for My Self-Published Book?

Here's a step-by-step guide to getting your own ISBN number:

  1. Sign up with a company that distributes ISBNs, such as Bowker or Nielsen. These organizations can assign you an ISBN – but be warned: they may charge for this service!
  2. When you receive the assignment email from Bowker or Nielsen, you'll be asked to provide some information about your book. This will include the title, author, edition, and publisher (if it's self-published).
  3. You'll then be given a block of 10 or 13 ISBNs to use for your book. Be sure to keep track of these numbers as you'll need them when you publish your book!
  4. If you want to purchase more ISBNs, you can do so through Bowker or Nielsen. However, the price will go up with each block of 10 ISBNs purchased.
  5. If you change any of the information about your book (title, author, edition, etc.), you'll need to get a new ISBN number because your book identifier will have changed.

How Much Does an ISBN Cost?

ISBN numbers aren't free. You have to purchase them before you can start using them, so you should expect to pay a fee for the number, whether it's through your self-publisher, Bowker, Nielsen, or another company that distributes ISBNs. The price will vary depending on how many ISBNs you want and what type of product you're publishing (e.g., paperback, hardcover, eBook). The average price of an ISBN is $125.

Can I Get ISBN Without Copyright?

With copyright, you can legally protect your work and its content. But if you want to use an ISBN number for your book, you need to be at least 18 years old – because your government ID needs to be shown to purchase it! If you don't have any legal proof of copyright, check out other ways to prove ownership of a title.

Do I Need an ISBN to Sell a Book?

No, you don't need an ISBN to sell a book. However, if you want to be able to track your sales and other data, you'll need an ISBN. Without an ISBN, your sales information will be difficult to compile and track over time.

What if a Book Has No ISBN?

Sellers are still able to sell books without ISBNs. Of course, without an ISBN, you won't be able to track your book's sales or data. If you do plan on selling a book without an ISBN, consider adding supplementary information about your book in the “keywords” section of Amazon and Barnes & Noble. This may help people find your work!

How Important Is ISBN?

The most important uses of an ISBN are to simplify trade between publishers and bookstores; to provide accurate information on how many copies of a title have been printed; and to provide consistent identification for all editions of a title (new, reprint, large print, etc.).

Many people think that they don't need an ISBN if they aren't publishing their work commercially. This isn't true because every time you upload your file through sites like CreateSpace or Smashwords, both require an ISBN. Even if you plan on self-publishing with Kindle Direct Publishing or Ingram Spark, you will need to get an ISBN before you can start selling your work.

Is ISBN Compulsory?

No, ISBNs are not compulsory, but they are highly recommended. If you want to be able to track your book sales and other data over time, you'll need an ISBN number. Additionally, many online retailers (like Amazon and Barnes & Noble) require an ISBN in order to sell a book.

Written by
Jamey Muller
I'm the head-writer @ Knowledge Eager (or, in plain English, I'm the guy writing the majority of the content here). Addicted to the stock market, football, sushi and tacos.
Have any questions? Write us a message.
Jamey Muller
I'm the head-writer @ Knowledge Eager (or, in plain English, I'm the guy writing the majority of the content here). Addicted to the stock market, football, sushi and tacos.