What is An ISBN and Do I Need One?

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© kritchanut

Rudy Dees

Editor @ GoneWithTheWord

An International Standard Book Number, or ISBN, is a universally accepted number that defines a book as a product in the marketplace.

An ISBN is a number, not a bar code.

ISBNs are not always required for digital books, but it’s better to use one. 

Here’s why. The ISBN identifies and standardizes the metadata of the book, such as title, author name, publication date, copyright information, publisher and book category and subcategories as one publication by one specific publisher in one specific format.

Benefits of ISBN include:

  • Creates an unique, internationally recognisable identifier of your published work,
  • Differentiates various editions of your book ensuring customers receive the version they require,
  • Allows for efficient ordering and distribution of your book,
  • Enables machine-readability for fast, error free service and electronic point-of-sale,
  • Big chain stores require it, and
  • Creates an accumulation of sales data.

Each country has an agency that assigns ISBNs to all publishers including self-publishers in that country. Agencies cannot assign ISBNs to publishers and self-publishers located outside the country where you conduct your business.

Does this mean that if we publish in Canada, we will need a Canadian ISBN and then another one for the United States and another one for the United Kingdom? No. It is the country in which the publisher lives or maintains its business that determines the book’s ISBN—not the language of the text or the place where the book will be sold.

Keep in mind that ISBNs are not transferable. Once an ISBN is assigned it belongs to the publisher and the published work.

The International ISBN Agency does not standardize cost across all the countries. This falls to local agencies. For example, American publishers have to pay for ISBNs, whereas, Canadian ISBNs are free.

When do you need different ISBNs?

Use the same ISBN when:

  • You make minor edits or updates to the book’s text,
  • You change the end matter (i.e., your list of book releases or an excerpt),
  • You make minor changes to the cover art, and
  • You change the price.

Assign a new ISBN when:

  • You make substantial revisions to the text and/or cover design,
  • You change the title or subtitle,
  • You release the book in a new format (hardcover, paperback, eBook, audio book, etc.),
  • You create and publish an eBook in a different file format such as EPUB or MOBI, and
  • You publish in another country because you issue a translated version of your published work.

Where do you put the ISBN?

For eBooks, the ISBN must be displayed on the copyright page. In print books, the ISBN must appear on the published work in the following locations:

  • The copyright page,
  • The lower section of the outside back cover, and
  • The foot of the back jacket or wrapper.

By using ISBNs you identify your published work as a product in the marketplace. It becomes easier to distribute and identify your book and/or eBook and thus get paid for your hard work.

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