Do You Need an ISBN to Publish a Book?
ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number. It's a unique identifier that gives every book a distinct identity in the same way that a Social Security Number does for people, or the way that a VIN does for vehicles. Comprised of a 13-digit number, an ISBN serves as a universal tool for cataloging, distribution, and inventory management. If you're asking the question, "Do I need an ISBN to publish my book?" the short answer is no. Your book's not legally required to have one. But not having one can handicap your book's chances of success, while having one brings a number of advantages.
Enhanced Discoverability. An ISBN increases the discoverability of your book, making it easier for readers, retailers, libraries, and online platforms to find and identify your work. By having an ISBN assigned to your book, it becomes more visible within the vast sea of published works.
Access to Distribution Channels. If your goal is to sell your book through bookstores and online retailers, or to make it available to libraries, having an ISBN is crucial. All of these entities require ISBNs to efficiently manage their inventories and streamline the ordering process.
An ISBN Lends Credibility. Having an ISBN signifies to readers and retailers that your work is a published and recognized piece of literature. This can be particularly beneficial when you're seeking reviews, endorsements, or collaborations with fellow authors and industry professionals.
How to Get an ISBN
The process of obtaining an ISBN varies depending on where you are in the world. Each country has its own ISBN-assigning authority. In the US, it's Bowker. In the UK, it's Nielsen. Regardless of your location, your first step should be to identify the designated agency in your country or region.
Next, apply for your ISBN. Start by visiting the website of the ISBN agency to learn what their specific application process is and what the associated costs are of purchasing the ISBN. Some agencies offer online applications, while others require you to submit physical forms.
How Many ISBNs Do You Need?
If you're publishing your book in various formats, like paperback, hardcover, e-book, or audiobook, you'll need a separate ISBN for each format. The good news is that you can save money by purchasing ISBNs in bulk. If you're purchasing in the US through Bowker, a single ISBN will cost you $125, but buying ten will only run you $295.
How to Get a Free ISBN
Some self-publishing platforms like Amazon KDP and Ingramspark offer their users free ISBNs. In that case, why would anyone want or need to buy an ISBN through Bowker? The answer is simple: optics.
If you purchase an ISBN and assign it an imprint name, that imprint name will appear on databases and online retail listings as the publisher of record. If you use a free ISBN generated by Amazon or Ingramspark, the publisher of record will be designed as "independently published" for Amazon and "Indy Pub" for Ingramspark.
This could cause some limitations or restrictions with respect to getting your book out there, especially if you're trying to get it into bookstores. Most bookstores, either traditional or independent, may shy away from agreeing to carry books that have ISBNs directly associated with online self-publishing platforms—whereas if your ISBN is associated with a name like Glass Spider Publishing, it can imbue it with a bit more of that aforementioned (and sometimes all-important) credibility.
While not a legal requirement, acquiring an ISBN significantly enhances the discoverability, distribution, and professional image of your book. By using an ISBN, you increase the chances of your book being found and recognized by retailers, libraries, and readers—which is, in the end, your ultimate goal.
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Vince Font is the owner and chief editor of Glass Spider Publishing, a hybrid book publisher that has produced over one hundred books since its launch in 2016. He is the award-winning author of American Sons: The Untold Story of the Falcon and the Snowman and the Shadows on the Page book series.