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.