ISBN barcode

If you want to publish your book you have to have an ISBN right? Well, actually, no! Not all books need an ISBN and in this blog, I’m going to explain what an ISBN is, when you need one and when you don’t and other ISBN myths that have become widespread. (Not all books that are sold, need an ISBN, myth #1)

What is an ISBN

ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number. You don’t call them ISBN numbers, they are simply ISBNs, otherwise you’re saying International Standard Book Number number! (myth #2)

Any book that is going to be sold in bookshops or through online retailers (like Amazon* or Waterstones online) require an ISBN.

If you are selling your book on your website, or directly through your sales channels, (like Facebook or Instagram) then you don’t necessarily NEED an ISBN.

*If you are only going to sell your book on Amazon and nowhere else, then you can use one of their FREE ISBNs – But be warned, that ‘free’ (nothing is free, remember) ISBN contractually ties you to publishing exclusively on their platform and nowhere else. That means you can’t sell your book on your website! If you want to sell your book directly or on other online retailers then you’ll need to get an additional ISBN.

Publishing your book doesn’t REQUIRE an ISBN. It’s only necessary if you’re selling it somewhere that needs to scan a barcode – like the previously mentioned Amazon. An ISBN doesn’t make it any more ‘official’ either (myth #3). A properly designed, well edited printed book is just as ‘official’ as a book that has an ISBN.

Who is the publisher?

Whoever owns the ISBN – whoever bought the ISBN from Nielsen’s* – is the publisher. If you bought the ISBN directly from them; you are the publisher, and you can assign any name to this. The ‘publisher’ does not need to be a registered company (myth #4). It can literally be anything you wish, like Blue Ray Publishing.

However, if you bought the ISBN from any other broker that ISN’T Nielsen’s, then THEY will be the publisher, and you have to declare that as such. You cannot claim to be the publisher (myth #5).

All publishers (be it you, or whoever you bought the ISBN from) needs to be declared on the title verso page. If you don’t know what that is, click here for more details.

*Nielsen’s are the UK ISBN agency and all UK ISBNs originate from there.

In the US it’s Bowker’s. In Australia it’s THORPE-Bowker.

One of the biggest myths is that ISBNs somehow enhances your copyright. It does not (myth #6). Your copyright is claimed by using the copyright symbol and wording which states that you are the copyright holder on the title verso page. Don’t confuse the US copyright rule that requires registering your work to copyright it… there is no registration process in the UK.

Think about it; ISBNs we’re introduced in 1967 and if you applied that logic anything published before this time didn’t have copyright! Tosh!

What ISBNs do mean

As this is an international standard book number, it will need to be registered once it’s in use. This process then assigns all the details about that book; things like the title, author, date of publication, price etc. This registration also triggers a set of legalities, one of which is sending various copies to the libraries around the UK.

I’m always surprised at authors reticence to do this. Yes, you need to send them at your expense, but your book will be in the BRITISH LIBRARY! That is very cool.

If you are publishing your book as a kindle and by that, I mean on Amazon, then you don’t need an ISBN. (Myth #7) if however your selling your book as an ePub, then you will (Smashwords for example). Check with each upload platform for full details of whether you are required to have an ISBN.

ISBNs are NOT barcodes (myth #8) these are created separately and include the 12 numbers that are your ISBN.

When you need a new ISBN
  • If you change the title of your book, you’ll need a new ISBN – even if the contents stay the same.
  • If you change more than 20% of the content, you’ll also need a new ISBN.
  • Each language the book is translated into will need its own ISBN and each style of book as well, so a hardback and softback of the same title will need their own ISBNs.
  • If you change publishers then you’ll need a new ISBN.
  • If you use one of Amazon’s FREE ISBNs, then you will need to purchase one to publish to any other outlet/platform. Amazon’s FREE ISBN is only allowed to be used on Amazon, and nowhere else. Not even your own website or selling channels.
When you don’t need a new ISBN

If you’re just fixing typos or the price changes, no new ISBN is needed. However, if the price does change then you’ll need to update the metadata – which is the info you submitted when you registered the ISBN. If a publisher did this for you, then you’ll need to contact them.

If you’re changing the cover.

Now, this is a bit of a grey area. If you’re giving your book a refresh, then you won’t need a new ISBN, however, if you’re totally changing the style and you think it would lend to customer complaints then you may need one. Seek advice from your publisher or Nielsen’s directly.

So, that is how ISBNs work, and what they mean in terms of publishing. Remember, not all books require one, and if you’re selling your book to family and friends, or just on your website – think carefully before you buy.

If you have any questions regarding ISBNs or you want to buy one then get in touch. Or simply click here.  

ISBN Myths