ISBN’s for Self-Publishers: Q&A

The Question: Hi Steph….I will shortly be sending up my next book (as an E book) up to Smashwords Premium…at the moment I haven’t got an ISBN number for it. As I would prefer to keep control of the rights to the book is there a preferably way to get the ISBN number including a bar code for it too. ( I may want to go the self publishing route at a later date. Any tips / advice on these things . Thanks Dave AscensionForYou

The Answer: Dave, and anyone else interested in the subject, the purpose of the International Standard Book Number, or the ISBN, is to establish and identify the publisher of a book to booksellers, libraries, universities, wholesalers, and distributors. If you’re not interested in your book going to any of these places, you don’t need an ISBN. If you one day hope to see your book in any of these places, then you’ll want an ISBN.

If you are going with a self-publishing company, ISBN, may be bought from or given to you by a self-publishing company that you prints the book with, however, that doesn’t mean you own the number. I’m sure there are those that will disagree with me about this, so here is the proof from R.R. Bowker where everyone eventually gets their ISBN’s. “ISBNs cannot be transferred on an individual basis. If a self-publisher wants to be identified as the publisher, the self-publisher must get their own ISBN. A printing company or publisher services company cannot sell, give away or transfer one of their ISBNs to a customer…. The ISBN identifies the one who holds the publishing rights—that is, the publisher who should be contacted when ordering the book.” This helps you and them “identify and circulate your books properly in the industry supply chain.”

Word of warning, even though there are over 160 Agencies worldwide, each agency being responsible for the publishers residing in their area, if you encounter an offer to purchase single ISBNs at special offer prices, you should be wary of purchasing from this sources because: 1) last I checked ISBN were not sold separately but in groups of 10, 100, 1000, etc.; 2)  if they are listed as the publisher who bought the numbers, and publishers cannot resell, re-assign, transfer, or split its list of ISBNs among other publishers–a guidelines that  has been established to ensure the veracity, accuracy and continued utility of the international ISBN standard—then if you buy one of these re-assigned ISBNs, you’ll not be correctly identified as the publisher of record in Books In Print or any of the industry databases such as Barnes and Noble or Amazon or those of wholesalers such as Ingram; 3) there will be no change in the publisher of record for any ISBN in the block as originally assigned, therefore, searches of industry databases for that re-assigned ISBN will identify the original owner of that assigned prefix as the publisher rather than the second publisher (which would be you). To fix this later can be expensive because you’ll have to apply for a new prefix, re-assigning a new ISBN, and potentially leading to the application of stickers to books already printed and in circulation.

So how do you go about getting an ISBN? Before you apply for ISBN registration, you need to establish your self-publishing business identity, including the name of your “publishing house” and the address and telephone number(s) you have chosen to use. These will be listed as your contact information in Books in Print. Then fill out the application at or, but be forewarned, ISBNs aren’t cheap. I bought a set of 10 ISBNs this year and it cost me $275 and that didn’t include the set up fees. Some people have suggested buying 100, because the smaller amount of numbers reflecting badly on publishers. I suggest getting enough for what you have or think that you will use in the next five years. And remember you must apply a separate ISBN to each edition and format of the book you publish, for example, if you are offering the same title in a hardcover edition, a paperback, and an e-book, each of these editions would require a separate ISBN. (This enables a bookstore or customer to order the correct edition of the correct book.) If you revise a book, it will also need a new ISBN. It is always best to select the block that will last you for a few years because you’ll be able to maintain one publisher prefix, and minimize the unit cost per ISBN. When purchasing a larger block of ISBNs, the price per ISBN decreases.

Along with the barcode you can have your ISBN translated into a worldwide compatible bar code which allows your book to be sold through bookstores, online or off, or by distributors. Barcode scanning is a required step for many retailers in the sales transaction process for book publications and book-related items. You can obtain the barcode in several different formats: a film that can be “stripped” directly into your book cover art, an electronic file that can be incorporated into your electronic art, or a hardcopy that you can paste onto artwork. It can be requested directly online at or Barcodes usually cost less than $100. For a list of companies that provide barcodes, visit

Once you’ve assigned an ISBN to a product, you need to file an “Advance Book Information” form (ABI) to submit to Bowker. You can also register your book information online at the BowkerLink Publisher Access System ( You’ll have to register for a password to use the system. You can also use this site to change information about your books or publishing company (e.g., to change your address). They’ll add your title to the database of record for the ISBN Agency. As a publisher you are eligible for a free listing in various directories such as Books in Print, Words on Cassette, The Software Encyclopedia, Bowker’s Complete Video Directory, etc. Having your ISBNs does NOT guarantee title listings, you must submit the title information to get into the database. After you’ve received your ISBNs, you must then inform Bowker of your new title(s). Otherwise, your book won’t be listed in Books in Print and other references — which means that it won’t be listed on or, or be orderable through bookstores.

I hope that answered your question. Please feel free to ask any more or comment below.

Copyright © 2010 Stephannie Beman

Stephannie Beman is a 14-year veteran of writing, a full-time writer and mother of two girls. In 2010 she self-published her first romance novel, My Lord Hades, through her publishing company, Ruis Publishing ( Stephannie loves to hear from readers and other writers, and invites you to contact her via e-mail at or visit to learn more about her.

8 thoughts on “ISBN’s for Self-Publishers: Q&A

  1. Hi Steph…. wow… a wealth of info there….many many thanks! I have had a quick read but will go over it properly asap. NB It seems quite a bit more complex than i thought…and much more expensive too. If i was going to go through my business name ie DPK Publishing i would really only need a couple of ISBNs i think…. IE one for my e-book and one for the self published book too ….not very practical costings wise based on the info.

    .. not really sure what the benfits would really be as if i was to go the self publishing / P.O.D route they would distibute the book but wouldnt i still own the rights to the book?

    Steph in a nutshell…did you buy the 10 ISBN’s so you had total control over everything? Thanks for your efforts and all your advice too! Dave- AscensionForYou- Knight


    • Dave, when broken down, each ISBN costs about $21 per published format. If you ony plan on having the one books and nothing after that, then buying the ISBN isn’t the way you want to go. I bought the ISBN’s because I wanted Ruis Publishing, my company name, to be listed as the publisher. If you go the self-publishing or print-on-demand (POD) route, then these companies will sometimes provide the ISBN for free, it just means that they are listed as the publisher in Books-in-Print.

      The beneifit of the self-publishing and POD comapanies is that they distribute the book and you don’t have to pay for the business license and sellers permit that most states require. It’s about $200 in the state of Wyoming where I live, plus another $100/per year to register my Trade Name. When you go through companies like Smashwords or Amazon, they are distributing your book, which keeps you out of the retail side of the business, which means you don’t need the sellers permit or the business licenes. Now each state is different and you really should look into the business laws for them.

      The other reason I bought the ISBN’s is so that when it comes time to switch my POD/self-publishing company from Createspace (which I found to be an inexpensive company) to Lightning Source (a POD company that deals with publishers) I already have everything in place. Of course I can also go the other route and make my own books and truly self-publish at little cost.

      As for your rights, you own the copyright to the book. Which is a whole another subject that will be better served in a post of it’s own.

      I hope that answered your questions,


      • Where I live it cost me $35 to set up the business. I heard some people say to register in Deleware, but why? I only set up a sole proprietorship and a DBA. I did have to register with NY to get a sales tax certificate. That has actually opened the doors for some commission sales, when I tell them I have it. The business owners are impressed I have my licenses in order.

        I did start with the 10 ISBNs, but now my husband wants to go into greeting cards. Guess what, they use ISBNs. I told him if he plans on selling enough, I will splurge and get the 100 ISBNs


        • Nice. I set up the sole proprietorship and company name, but am waiting to get the business license and seller permit. In Wyoming it costs about $100 for the trade name registeration and $50 every year after than. The license will cost me about $100. So at this moment it’s not worth it.

          Very cool about your husband. Have fun with the greeting cards.


    • Exactly as Stephenie said, Dave. Basically, in order to use the name DPK Publishing you have to buy the ISBN’s, but if you’re willing to have Create Space, or Smashwords, etc etc. listed as your publishers then you don’t need to buy one.

      I chose not to buy my own ISBN’s because it is 250$ a year to register for a business license in Missouri, plus registering for a tax ID and registering the business name, and I had to look into zoning laws (seriously!?!) because that would make my house a “business”. It was more money and hassle than I wanted to deal with for the number of books I have out/will put out.

      One argument for making your own “publishing company” is that if you have other author friends, you can go together on it and split the registration costs.

      And this si an excellent article Stephannie! I can’t think of a single thing to add!


      • It’s the one thing I like about Wyoming. As long as I don’t do the distributing and selling myself I don’t have to have the business license. I use CreateSpace to print and distribute my books, but with the ISBN’s I get to have my name as the publisher.


  2. Maybe because I work in retail, I understand the barcodes a little better, not an expert. But you can make your own. The ISBN barcode is easy to set up with the right program. The one that tells how much the book cost is a little harder to find. Most programs will not set it up for you, at least the free ones.
    I found a program called ZINT. I enter my ISBN under the ISBN drop down, it makes a barcode for me in a .png file. The second part of the barcode (the price which is really important) Is under UPC-E. With the price you fill it out like so: country code price. So $13.00 book in the United States would look like 51300. I only know the code for the US, but there are places to look this information up online.
    After a little cut and paste in your favorite graphic program. You have a book bar code.

    Online there are some good generators too: or
    Good one page guide here


    • Thanks for the added information, Mari. I have my book printed through Createspace and have no clue about barcodes since they provide them. What I did find I put in the post, but it was limited. But the information you provided adds so much to the post. You should do a post for people like me who are interested and clueless. 🙂


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