ISBN for Ebooks: Things to Know

Did you know ISBNs aren't necessarily needed for self-publishing? Learn more as we take an in-depth look at ISBNs.

Monica Dube |

You wrote a book and decided to go into the publishing industry your way. From figuring out what the differences are between epub, pdf, and mobi to if you have to buy an ISBN, it can be a lot. We got you covered on the  ISBN (International Standard Book Number) part.

Publishing authors think that applying for an ISBN is like going to the dentist: a painful, unavoidable necessity. In the following article, we will demystify ISBNs, tell you everything you ever wanted to know about them (and everything you didn’t), and guide you through the application process and offer some alternatives.

(P.S. If you’re looking for more help than just ISBNs, like distributing ebooks, audiobooks, and books in print, try PublishDrive for free!)

What does ISBN stand for?

That very long number just under or above the bar code on the back of the book is designed following a very strict set of rules. The rules are made by the International Standards Organization (ISO): they sell the rulebook to countries or companies, who then sell the International Standard Book Number to you. It was developed in 1970, designed to make referring to book titles and different editions of the same book easier across the publishing world and help the supply chain to be more trackable. It started with ten digit numbers, but since 2007 they consist of 13 digits so that they can be also read as bar codes. They can be assigned to books, audiobooks, even apps belonging to a book.

However, journals, magazines, and other periodicals, cannot get them: they have an ISSN number assigned to the whole series which doesn’t change with every new title.

So isn’t it just a random number assigned to a book?

Ebook ISBN example

No, it isn’t. The number you receive is a unique ISBN for your book. The first 3 numbers are the “prefix” element; this currently can be either 978 or 979. (And yes, you simply put 978 in front of older ones to make them 13 digits.) The next group is the registration group element: it can refer to a country, a language group or a particular territory. (10 digit ISBNs start with the country identifier.)

0 and 1 stand for the English language, 615 in the example above stands for Hungary. If you are interested, you can check out the whole list of registration numbers here. The next group of numbers, the registrant element belongs to the publisher or to the agency giving out the number.

You might already noticed that all these groups have a differing length of digits: if the registration agency expects the publisher to publish several books, the registrant element is shorter, giving more space for the publication element, and vice versa.

You can buy the list of 900.000 registrant elements in a very expensive book. The next set of numbers refers to the particular publication. And the last number is the check digit: it is always a single number, the weighted sum of the digits the ISBN is made of (used for error detection).

What is ISBN good for?

It’s a unique identifier belonging to a specific book formats: an audiobook version, an ebook version and the revised second edition of a book all have different ISBNs. If you ever went to language school holding a textbook just slightly different from everyone else’s, you know how important it is to actually check for matching ISBNs. New editions, even with a new cover, however, don’t get a new one unless they have been rewritten.

ISBNs are a very handy way to order books, refer to them and check books in circulation: the main reason why recent statistics struggle to provide indie sales data is the lack of ISBNs in the industry. It is also a powerful search engine tool if you are looking for a specific version of a book.

How do I get it?

Well, it depends on where you (as a person or as a publisher) are based. The International ISBN Agency is giving out the registration group identifiers to local authorities who then decide what to do with them. In the United States and in Australia, you can get them at a place called Bowker: you can buy them as cheap as one for $125 or a prefix for 10 ISBNs for $250. There’s also related resources like this or this.

In the UK, you can buy them from Nielsen, one for £89 and prefix for 10 for £149. Other countries, such as Hungary issue national ISBNs for free: in Hungary, the National Library is responsible for assigning ISBNs. You can get one within four days on the promise of sending in to the library six copies of your book (called “legal deposit”) within 15 days of getting published – by law.

You can check the agency in your country or language here. They will ask you the title, authors, publisher, publishing date and genre before issuing one. For an extra fee, you can get your book put in a list like the Books in Printdatabase, to enhance discoverability.

So, do I need one for my ebook?

Almost certainly not. First of all, there are no rules stating that you need an ISBN in order to publish books – at least definitely not in England or in the US.

On the other hand, you might live in a country where it is a legal requirement (make sure to do a Google search on that). Unless you are thinking about getting a physical copy of your book into bookstores, you won’t need one.

Neither Amazon nor iBooks requires you to have one (we neither). However, if you would like to sell your books in several stores, you still need a unique identifier, just to make your life (and your retailers’ life) a bit easier: we developed PUI (PublishDrive’s Unique Identifier) which is a fast, free and simple way to get an identifier globally accepted in stores and libraries.

No days of waiting, no high fees. PUIs are automatically assigned to your books during the publishing process.

We leave you with more self-publishing tips about metadata: