Do You Need an ISBN?

Today's question is this: Do you need an ISBN to self-publish your book? My answers are "yes and no," and "it depends." You can already see there's a lot of debate on this issue. Let's see what we can do to debunk some of the issues.

First of all, what is an ISBN? An International Standard Book Number is like your book's Social Security Number and is unique to your book. ISBNs are issued in the U.S. through a company called Bowkers. Prior to 2007, ISBNs were 10 digits in length. After 2007, they expanded to 13 digits.

Here are a few other frequently asked questions about ISBNs. Please note that there are TONS of differing opinions on this subject. I think it's quite possible that every self-published author has a different opinion on whether or not we need ISBNs and where/how we should get them. Like everything else on this blog, this is only MY opinion, formed through trial and error while self-publishing 12 books.

How Are ISBNs Issued?
Quoting directly from Wikipedia here:

International Standard Book Numbers issuance is country specific, and is tailored for each country's national goals. In Canada the stated purpose of issuing International Standard Book Numbers for no cost was to encourage Canadian Culture. In the United Kingdom and United States apparently the issuing of International Standard Book Numbers has become a profit center for the companies involved. Whether or not any of the profits accrue to the taxpayers is not known.
Canada: In Canada Library and Archives Canada, a government agency is the responsible entity, and there is no cost.
United Kingdom and Ireland: In the United Kingdom and Ireland the privately held company, Nielsen Book Services, part of Nielsen Holdings N.V., is the responsible entity, and there is a charge. ISBNs are sold in lots of ten or more.
United States: In the United States the privately held company R. R. Bowker is the responsible entity, and there is a charge, which varies depending upon the number of ISBNs purchased, with prices ranging from $125.00 for a single number. (Marie: You can buy them in bulk, too. Ten ISBNs are $250.)
Publishers and authors in other countries need to obtain ISBNs from their local ISBN Agency. A directory of ISBN Agencies is available on the International ISBN Agency website.

Why Do I Need an ISBN?
Quoting directly from the Bowker's website:

ISBNs are linked to essential information allowing book-sellers, and readers, to know what book they are buying, what the book is about, and who the author is.
  • ISBNs are the global standard for identifying titles ISBNs are used world-wide as a unique identifier for books. They are used to simplify distribution and purchase of books throughout the global supply chain.
  • Most retailers require ISBNs to track book inventory Without an ISBN, you will not be found in most book stores, either online or down the street from your house. Buying an ISBN is your first step to insure that your book is not lost in the wilderness.
  • Buying an ISBN improves the chances your book will be found Buying your ISBNs and registering your titles on My Identifiers, insures information about your book will be stored in our Books In Print database. This opens up a world of possibilities that your book is listed with many retailers, libraries, Bowker Books In Print, Bookwire, as well as online services like Google Books, Apple’s iBooks, Chegg and the New York Times.
What Retailers Require ISBNs?
Amazon does not require ISBNs and issues its own AISN number. Barnes & Noble does not require the ISBN. Apple, Kobo and Google Books DO require an ISBN.

If Amazon and BN Don't Require ISBNs and I Only Plan to Publish There, Do I Need an ISBN?
No. You don't NEED the ISBN to publish at Amazon or BN. However, I recommend that you list one anyway. We never know what book is going to break out of the pack and sell like gangbusters. If your self-published e-book sells 10,000 copies in the first week, wouldn't you like to see it listed on the NY Times and USA Today bestseller lists? That won't happen without an ISBN because the lists use sales data attached to ISBNs to determine bestsellers. So even for retailers like Amazon that don't require the ISBN, you should include it anyway to ensure all your sales are counted.

I've Heard I Can Get ISBNs Free Through Smashwords. Should I Do That?
It is true that Smashwords provides free ISBNs to self-published authors. However, I believe it makes more sense, in the long run, to get the ISBN from the issuing company, which is Bowkers in the U.S. This is why... Years ago, when we were first putting up websites, a lot of authors went the free route. They snapped up the free sites offered by Yahoo, AOL and other providers. Then they discovered when they wanted to leave their original provider, they couldn't take the URL with them. They had to start all over with a new URL, which is a major pain. Now meet the other group of authors who went directly to, which issues URLs in the U.S. and got a web address from the source. It's theirs for life. No worries about moving it around from one platform to another. Is my metaphor making sense? The point is, anything can happen. And using a Smashwords ISBN makes Smashwords the publisher of your book. I don't know about you, but I want my company's name listed as the publisher of my books. There is also considerable debate about whether Smashwords ISBNs can be listed on other platforms. Regardless, if you want to keep things simple, buy your ISBN. Then there's no gray area.

I've Heard That You Need a Different ISBN for Each File Format (ePub, Mobi, PDF, etc.) Is that true?
According to the Bowkers website, that is true, but keep in mind, they profit from each ISBN that you buy. My self-pub loop (, everyone welcome!) talked about this a week or so ago, and the consensus was that Bowkers might require that, but no one does it—not traditional or self-publishers. One ISBN works across all digital platforms. However, you do need a different ISBNs for print and audio versions of the same book (one for print and one for audio). 

CreateSpace Offers Free ISBNs for Print-On-Demand Books. Should I Get My Print ISBN There or Go Through Bowkers?
Personally, I use the CreateSpace ISBN because I don't expect to see huge print-on-demand sales, so I don't went with the ISBN CreateSpace provided. In short, I don't care as much about properly tracking those sales as I do about e-sales.

What questions do you still have that I didn't answer? What did I get wrong? Please tell me if I'm wrong about something. I want to hear that, too! The learning curve is endless, and I'm still learning, too. :-)