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Of all the mysteries surrounding the process of self publishing, the book ISBN ranks among the most intimidating to many new authors. We’re here to allay your concerns and give you answers.

The ISBN. Seldom have thirteen little digits been so misunderstood. Our BookBaby publishing specialists field calls all day long about the International Standard Book Number – also known as the ISBN. Let me take this opportunity to field a few of the most common questions.

  • What is an ISBN? The ISBN is a numeric identifier that is used around the globe by book stores, publishers, and just about everyone in the publishing industry. ISBNs have either 10 or 13 digits (all ISBNs assigned after January 1, 2007 have 13 digits).
  • Am I required to have an ISBN to sell my book? If you plan to sell your book in bookstores, to libraries, or through most online retailers (with the notable exception of, you will need an ISBN.
  • Does Amazon use ISBNs? Yes, and no. Amazon ignores the ISBN you assign to your Kindle eBook and instead assigns its own identifier, called an ASIN (Amazon Standard Identification Number). This ASIN is what you and the public use to identify your Kindle eBook on Amazon when linking to the book. However, if your book does have an ISBN, that number can be used as a search term on the Amazon website.
  • I’m doing a print book and an eBook. Do I need two ISBNs, or can I use the same one?  You will need an ISBN for each format, one for your eBook and another one for your printed book.
  • Do I need a separate ISBN for my hardcover and softcover version of the same book?  Yes, you need a separate ISBN for each edition, to identify each volume for anyone who might want to find it in directories, catalogs, and databases.
  • If I get an ISBN, does that mean my book is automatically copyrighted? No. Copyright is administered by the Library of Congress and is an extension of intellectual property law. Understand that common copyright law states that the moment your work is in tangible form – once you commit words to paper or save to a digital file – it is protected under intellectual property law without any formal registration. That applies even if you do not use the copyright symbol in your book. However, registering your work with the Copyright Office allows you greater power to litigate if needed in the future and is the most definitive way to protect your work from theft or plagiarism.
  • Who can purchase an ISBN?  A self-published author is considered as a publisher, so you purchase a number like anyone else.
  • How do I get an ISBN? When you publish your book through BookBaby, you can purchase an ISBN for eBook and printed versions of your book. If you prefer to purchase this directly from Bowker – the company responsible for ISBNs in the United States – you can go to
  • What do ISBNs cost? BookBaby sells ISBNs for $29 each. If you go direct to Bowker, a single ISBN costs $125, while 10 ISBNs cost $250. I should note, there is no difference in the ISBN purchased from BookBaby vs. one bought from Bowker. BookBaby purchases blocks of ISBNs from Bowker to provide to our authors.
  • I live outside of the United States. Can I purchase an ISBN? If you do not reside in the USA, you may purchase an ISBN through BookBaby. There are over 160 ISBN Agencies worldwide, and each ISBN Agency is appointed as the exclusive agent responsible for assigning ISBNs to publishers residing in their country or geographic territory. Bowker is the only source authorized to assign ISBNs to publishers supplying an address in the United States.
  • I have my own ISBN number. Can I use that? Yes – as long as your ISBN has not previously been used for a print or digital book. ISBNs that have been assigned to books should be reported to Bowker as the database of record: book titles can be registered at
  • If I make minor revisions to my book, do I need to give it a new ISBN? No. If you aren’t making substantial changes to the text, it is not considered a reprint or a new edition. Let me add that the degree of changes that require a new ISBN can be a very subjective issue. The ISBN guidelines state that the inclusion of substantially new material, a major revision, or the addition of completely new elements would be defined as substantial change. Conversely if elements are deleted from the original book, this would also require a new ISBN. In addition, publishing a book in a different language also requires a unique ISBN number. Anything that makes it a new and different book from the original volume is likely to create a new edition.
  • Does changing the cover constitute a significant change? Will I have to get a new ISBN? No, you do not need a new ISBN if you are just changing a cover. You can continue to use the same ISBN, since the text has not changed.

Still have unanswered questions? You can search for more answers on the BookBaby FAQ page in the help section at, go directly to Bowker on the ISBN website, or reach out to our publishing specialists at or at 877-961-6878.


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Steven Spatz

About Steven Spatz

Steven Spatz has written 100 posts in this blog.

Steven Spatz is an author, marketer, and the President of BookBaby.

32 thoughts on “Your ISBN: Answers To Frequently Asked Questions

  1. Starlene says:

    I bought a “bundle” when they were on sale at Bowker. I have non-fiction books already available in my real name and am planning to write fiction in two different genre’s and will be using pen names. Can I use those ISBN I purchased for pen names of my own? Thanks.

  2. JoAnne says:

    Canadian authors and publishers can get their ISBNs at no charge through Library and Archives Canada.

    1. Doro says:


    2. Gabriel says:

      Wow! Can anyone help me to get ISBN from Canada? I will be grad!

  3. Rita Clay Estrada says:

    Great clear and concise info on a topic not all understand. Thank you!

    1. Ysen says:

      What this article does NOT tell you is that the numbers indicate OTHER identification, i.e., the first numbers indicate COUNTRY of origin, the second set identifies exactly WHO purchased these codes, the last set of numbers identifies the PRODUCT it is assigned to. So realize that when you buy a barcode from an “outside” entity, that entity is in the barcode.

      What Does the Barcode Actually Say?
      Sample of a barcode: 09789703563764

      Four Basic Things:
      1. The country identifier.
      2. The COMPANY identifier (the name of the entity who purchased the barcode DIRECTLY FROM THE UCC.)
      3. The specific PRODUCT number.
      4. The verifier number.

      In other words, the first number(s) identify the country the product is from — in this case, the U.S..

      The second set of numbers “say” GOODNIGHT KISS PUBLISHING.

      The next set “say” MUSIC HORROR STORIES.

      The next number(s) are the ones, when put to a UCC formula, show that the barcode is not “made-up” — or consist of random numbers.

      So yes, you are buying a “unique” code, but it also identifies more than your work.

      see more:

      1. Bettinita C Harris says:

        What this story does not say is that if you purchase the ISBN number from an agency outside of Bowker, the imprint will not be your name or the name of your company if you have one. The imprint belongs to the outside company that you purchased your ISBN number from.

  4. Michael W. Brinkman says:

    Thank you for this informative and objective article.

  5. It’s amazing how tricky this can be. Thanks for the informative article! The question I had (which took a long time to answer) is can you start out with a CreateSpace ISBN, then change it to your own at a later date without losing your reviews etc? In case anyone else is wondering, the general consensus seems to be that as long as your paperback and ebook are linked on Amazon, you can remove the paperback, and re-publish it as a new version with the new ISBN, without losing any of your reviews. Hope this helps someone!

    1. You can recoup your reviews from Amazon with a request to Author Connect. You can’t pick and choose among them, though. You can also ask to have them put a widget on the first edition’s buy page that leads with one click to the new edition. They will not want to remove your first edition. I know of no one who has convinced them to do this. Their reluctance may be that they are invested in 2nd party book sales and that is a profit stream for them.

      You can learn more little tidbits about reviews in How to Get Great Book Reviews Frugally and Ethically at

  6. Ani says:

    A very clear, straightforward article, thank you. Just want to clarify: you say that an ISBN purchased from Book Baby is no different than one purchased from Bowker? Does that mean the ISBN purchased at BB is not affiliated with Book Baby in any way? Also does Book baby also make available bar codes as well?

    1. John says:

      The barcode is actually no different than one purchased yourself as far as identifying your book. However, it will show BookBaby as the owner of the barcode.

  7. LG says:

    When using an ISBN purchased through BookBaby, who appears as the publisher – or me?

    1. John says:

      BookBaby will appear as the publisher

  8. John Boyd says:

    I’m going to use a cover I’ve purchased for a novel I will e-publish. If I buy an ISBN, where is it located in the novel? I don’t want to have to pay to have it inserted in the cover.

    1. John says:

      The ISBN is located in the front matter of the book along with the copyright notice. A barcode, however, is usually placed on the back cover of the book.

  9. joe sixpak says:

    your book is copyrighted the moment you fix it in a medium.
    that is different from REGISTERING the copyright which your article confused,

    the publisher is the owner of the copyright. you have to own and use your own copyright to be a self publisher. else you were either vanity published or traditionally published but not self published.

    ISBNs are free in canada and other countries. you dont need to buy one from anyplace else to print a book in the usa.

  10. Carolyn Howard-Johnson says:

    Many of my clients ask about changing their ISBN when they issue a new edition. The answer is yes. The trouble is, they tend to believe that an update is the same as a new edition. New editions should have substantial changes over the first. A change in the cover. An additional chapter. Be longer. Maybe a new subtitle. Maybe even a new publisher. Or all of these!

    The new cover might include a “New Edition” or “2nd Edition” notification.

    Doing a second edition also affords a new reason to plan a marketing campaign.

    Ask yourself: Is the new iteration more than just a repair of broken links or the fixing of typos or other edits that should have been done the first time around.

  11. Babs says:

    Do audio books require ISBN numbers?

  12. Wendy Jones says:

    Here is what would be useful — explain what each of the numbers, in the ISBN sequence signify. I know that certain segments tell (some algorithm) a lot about the book that it was assigned to — but what?

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