Traditional Publishing

ISBNs for self-published books

What is an ISBN?

"ISBN" stands for "International Standard Book Number". It's a unique number that originated as a stock-keeping identifier, to help identify a particular edition of a particular book. It is now an international standard used throughout the book publishing industry by publishers, distributors, retailers, and libraries. Contrary to what many writers assume, it has nothing whatsoever to do with copyright. For information on copyright, click here

Do self-publishers need an ISBN?

Any book which is going to be sold through a retailer needs to have an ISBN, and this applies as much to self-published books as it does to traditionally published books. There are certain rare instances where you can get away without one (such as if you are printing a book for personal or family purposes; or to give away as a freebie; or if you plan to only sell it directly to customers yourself; etc.), but by and large the answer is simply yes: you will need an ISBN.

How to get an ISBN

The traditional route for getting ISBNs is to obtain them directly from the body responsible for issuing the numbers in your country. For the main English-speaking countries these are as follows:

If you live in Canada or New Zealand then you're in luck: you can get an ISBN for free via the relevant link above.

For everyone else, unfortunately, obtaining ISBNs can be an expensive business. The absolute minimum you will have to pay is $125 in the US; £144 in the UK (about €200 in Ireland); or $97 in Australia. And while this will get you 10 ISBNs in the UK and Ireland (the minimum you can buy), in the US and Australia these prices will only get you one single solitary ISBN. You may think that's all you need if you're only publishing one book, but unfortunately you need a different ISBN for every version of your book: hardback, paperback; and each and every type of ebook. At the very least you will need two ISBNs, so that means buying a pack of 10 from Bowker / Thorpe-Bowker, and that will set you back $295 in the US and $139 in Australia.

Free ISBNs

At this point you're probably wondering how you can get round this and get your ISBNs for free – and no, you can't just opt to get them through the Canadian and New Zealand outlets. Those are available to people and businesses with addresses in Canada and New Zealand only.

However, you will find that lots of self-publishing services (including CreateSpace) will give you an ISBN for free. They can do this because they buy ISBNs in such huge bulk that each individual one costs them very little indeed. They are "real" and fully-fledged ISBNs and not cheap knock-offs or imitations in any sense, but they do suffer from some limitations.

The first problem is that the imprint of record will be the name of the self-publishing service that gave you the ISBN. So, even though you are "self" publishing, all the records held around the world will list the company that gave you the ISBN as the publisher, not you. If you take the CreateSpace route and use one of their free ISBNs your book will be listed as published by "CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform". This is what will appear on all the websites and book ordering systems around the world. On your copyright page at the start of the book you would need to write "Published by CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform". Many authors don't like this, as there is a perception that this can make a book seem unprofessional.

The second problem is that you don't own the ISBN – your self-publishing service does. This doesn't mean they own your book, or its content, or your copyright, but it means they control the ISBN, which means you probably won't be able to use it with any other platform. In a new and rapidly changing industry, this is a real concern. What if you find a better way of taking your book to market? What if the one you have chosen declines, goes out of business, or (having got leverage over its authors by owning their ISBNs), adopts less favourable policies, knowing it will be hard for you to move elsewhere?

The answer is you'd have to get a new ISBN, and this can be a more difficult process than you might imagine. For starters, it will mean that you will have to change both your interior text file and your cover (including the barcode). Depending on the self-publishing path you chose, you may not own or have rights to access these files yourself, so you may need to create new PDF press proofs and a new cover just for the sake of the ISBN.

That, however, may not be the worst part. When you change your ISBN you are effectively hitting the reset button on your book. As far as all the book systems around the world are concerned, this will be a totally new book, unconnected to its previous incarnation. If somebody searches for your book by its old ISBN they will not find your new version. Your sales figures will be reset to zero, and so your book will have to prove itself all over again. Amazon and other booksellers promote books with strong sales records more than unproven books, creating a snowball effect where successful books become more and more successful under their own momentum. Once you change your ISBN, that all has to start all over again.

You'll also lose all the reviews you had built up on websites, as they will be attached to the original ISBN. What if all your original sales were thanks to a really good review left early in its life? What if, this time, the first review is a bad one? What if this means that you never manage to recover the success you enjoyed with the first ISBN?

And don't forget that we already advise that the best approach is to have a CreateSpace version of your book for Amazon sales, and another version with a printer for other sales channels. With a free ISBN from CreateSpace, however, you wouldn't be able to use it on another platform. You'd therefore have to have two ISBNs (one of which you'd probably have to buy anyway), and your total sales figures would therefore be split between the two books, rather than being aggregated under a single ISBN, reducing the exposure you receive.

Using a free ISBN – while initially attractive – can often be a decision self-published authors come to regret.

Retail ISBNs

The third option for acquiring ISBNs is through an ISBN retailer. These companies buy ISBNs in bulk from the ISBN issuers, and can then sell authors the right to use them individually at a much lower cost than the ISBN issuers sell individual ISBNs – if they sell them individually at all.

This makes getting your own ISBN much more affordable than buying it directly from the ISBN issuer, and also means that you get control over your ISBN. You will be able to use it with multiple printers at the same time, so you can have the same ISBN on the version of your book produced through CreateSpace, and on your version produced through an on-demand printer. If you change printers, you can take the ISBN with you. You won't need to change your internal files or your cover, and you won't lose the vital history you've built up for your book.

Importantly, however, the retailer cannot transfer the ISBN to you – they can only allow you to use it. Again, this doesn't mean that the retailer owns your book or your content or your copyright, but it does mean that this solution shares one of the drawbacks of the free ISBN option: the imprint of record will be the name of the ISBN retailer. The name of the ISBN retailer will appear as the publisher on all the records on all the systems all over the world. Now imagine having a copyright page for your book that reads "Published by Discount ISBNs 4 U" (for example), and you can see why this option can also be off-putting.

However, the good thing is that you are not stuck to the name chosen by your self-publishing system, as you are with free ISBNs. You can shop around and find an ISBN retailer that will use an imprint name that you're happy with.

The retail ISBN is therefore a good solution for avoiding astronomical costs, while maintaining control of your ISBN, but when selecting which retailer to buy from you need to watch out for a couple of important points:

  1. Check what the imprint of record will be, and that it won't compromise how professional your book appears.
  2. Ensure that the service includes the submission of your book details to the central record maintained by the issuer, and check whether there are any additional charges for this. Never buy an ISBN without knowing that you can get your book details included in the central record.


The whole thing can get very complicated, so we've put together the following comparison to help you make your decision:

  Is this option available everywhere? What's the minimum cost? Do you control your ISBN? Can you choose the imprint of record? Is distribution limited? Can you choose your own distributor? Rating
Free ISBN Yes $0 No No No No 3/6
CreateSpace Custom ISBN No – Available in the US only $10 No Yes Yes – Expanded distribution is limited No 2/6
CreateSpace Custom Universal ISBN No – Available in the US only $99 Yes Yes CreateSpace distribution is limited, but you have the freedom to create other complimentary arrangements. Yes 4/6
Retail ISBN Yes Varies, but can be as little as $40 / £30. Yes You cannot create your own, but you can choose from the variety available No Yes 5.5/6
Directly Issued ISBN Yes $125; £144; AUS$97 Yes Yes No Yes 5/6

Based on the comparison above, we think that the retail ISBN option provides the best balance of affordability and author control for self-published authors.