About ISNB numbers

Please note: This information was correct at the time of publishing. Always do your own research to ensure you have the latest details.

What is an ISBN?

ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number, and is simply a number to uniquely identify a book.

It consists of either 10 digits (before 2006) or 13 digits (from 2007) and most commonly starts with 978 (although 979 also occurs). It is divided into four parts, separated by hyphens.

It may seem a random collection of numbers, but it actually contains markers that identify the language, location, publisher and title of the book. The last number is the ‘check number‘, which is automatically calculated.

It can be found inside the book on the Colophon or copyright page at the front of the book, and also on the back cover, in the form of a barcode.

Do I need an ISBN for my book?

Not necessarily – it depends on how you want to get your book out into the world.

You MAY NOT need an ISBN:

  • if you get a traditional publishing deal – the publisher will provide this
  • if you decide to publish your book in ebook format via an online platform, such as Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble Nook, Kobo etc – they can assign their own unique identifier for your book
  • if you decide to publish your print book via Amazon’s print-on-demand service KDP Print (formerly CreateSpace) – again, Amazon can assign its own unique identifier
  • if you decide to publish your book via an aggregator service, to appear on multiple platforms (an ISBN is most often included in the service).

You DO need an ISBN:

  • if you decide to independently self-publish your print book and have copies printed to sell (for example, via your website, in local book stores, at events, or via the Amazon website)
  • if you decide to publish your ebook directly on the Apple iBooks store
  • if you plan to release several versions of your book (see ‘How many ISBN numbers do I need for my book?’ below)

There is a more detailed list of examples of when you do and do not need an ISBN on the Nielsen ISBN page.

Where can I get an ISBN number?

It depends where you are based. The ISBN International website is a great starting point – here, you can select your country and you will find detailed information about where you can purchase ISBNs.

Here in the UK, you can buy ISBN numbers at Nielsen UK ISBN Agency. In their ISBN Store, you’ll find pricing information. Processing takes around 10 days, but there is a fast track option available.

How much does an ISBN number cost?

On Nielsen’s ‘ISBN page, UK prices are currently:

  • one ISBN for £89
  • 10 ISBNs for £164
  • 100 ISBNs for £369
  • 1000 ISBNs for £949

The more you buy, the cheaper per ISBN; and you may find you need a few for your book anyway depending on how you choose to distribute it (see ‘How many ISBN numbers do I need for my book?’ below). Probably not thousands, though – unless you’re a publisher.

For other countries, visit the ISBN International website to find out further details.

How many ISBN numbers do I need for my book?

Different versions of your book will require different ISBN numbers. Depending on how you plan on distributing your book, you will need separate ISBN numbers for the:

  • hardback print book
  • paperback print book
  • PDF version
  • ePub version
  • Apple iBooks version (if going direct)
  • plus any (major) updates or new editions

If you decide to only publish on Amazon Kindle and/or KDP Print (formerly CreateSpace), you don’t need an ISBN since they can assign their own unique identifier for you.