Should You Use the Retailer’s ISBN or Get Your Own ISBN?

What is an ISBN? ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number and every book should have one in order for it to be identified by retailers. The minimum information required for every ISBN is the book title, author name, imprint (publisher) name, book price and country/region/language.

Let’s look at an example: 978-1-64153-269-3

  • 978 = EAN (European Article Number) prefix, either 978 or 979
  • 1 = registration group, usually country or region; in this case 1 = US
  • 64153 = imprint/publisher
  • 269 = publication; this identifies edition or format (eBook, paperback, hardback, etc.)
  • 3 = check digit, mathematically validates the ISBN

Every book edition needs its own and separate ISBN, which means you need a separate ISBN for your eBook, paperback, hardback, etc. You also need a new ISBN if you rewrite your book or publish a second edition. Most authors would therefore need at least two ISBNs: one for the eBook and one for the paperback.

Where to get an ISBN?

It depends on your country. In the US, it is Bowker (https://www.myidentifiers.com), the only official ISBN issuer. You register with them and get your own imprint/publisher name (one ISBN = $125 or buy in bulk: 10 ISBNs = $295).

In the UK you can get your ISBN from Nielson (https://www.nielsenisbnstore.com), £89 per ISBN or £164 for 10 ISBN.

In Canada get your ISBN here, free: https://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/services/isbn-canada/Pages/isbn-canada.aspx

In Australia from Thorpe-Bowker: https://www.myidentifiers.com.au (one ISBN = $44 or buy in bulk: 10 ISBN = $88)

In New Zealand, free: https://natlib.govt.nz/forms/isn

If your publisher assigns the ISBN (or you purchase one from a publisher), the imprint name will be the publisher’s name and not your own name. The same applies if you use the free assigned ISBN from retailers or distributors like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, IngramSpark, D2D, etc. The imprint name will be the retailer/distributor name and not your name.

Printed Book ISBN

Many authors opt to use Amazon’s free ISBN for the printed book, but please be aware that you cannot use this ISBN anywhere else and it will show Amazon Digital Services as imprint – meaning that it can only exclusively be used with Amazon and no other retailer. Barnes & Noble uses Barnes & Noble Press as imprint if you choose their free assigned ISBN for the printed book.

E-book ISBN

Many retailers require an ISBN for the e-book and they will assign a separate unique number/internal code which is NOT an ISBN. For example, Amazon assigns an ASIN. Many authors confuse this with an ISBN, which it isn’t. The ASIN is just an internal Amazon number (Amazon Standard Identification Number) that is assigned to every product on its store and has no relevance anywhere else but on Amazon and its partners.

The most common issue you may encounter

You can use the same ISBN but be careful when assigning a distributor/aggregator. Once your book (and ISBN) is linked to your distributor, it will later be almost impossible to upload yourself and difficult to use this ISBN again directly (even though it is your own ISBN). This issue mostly occurs with printed books; here’s an example:

  1. You buy your own ISBN for your paperback
  2. You upload to Amazon POD (print-on-demand) using your own ISBN
  3. You choose wide (expanded) distribution with Amazon (this means Amazon will also sell your paperback with others; e.g. list your book with Barnes & Noble, libraries, etc.)
  4. You later decide to directly upload your paperback with Barnes & Noble as well as IngramSpark or any other retailer
  5. Barnes & Noble, IngramSpark and other retailers will NOT accept your ISBN as they have this ISBN already in their system (through Amazon’s wide distribution). Canceling Amazon’s wide distribution won’t help.

How you can solve this problem…

  1. Be prepared for this and first upload to all retailers you wish to publish directly to. Upload to Amazon POD, Barnes & Noble POD, IngramSpark POD but do NOT enable any wide distribution with anyone until your book is live with all those retailers. Only then should you decide to work with a distributor (who will handle distribution to libraries, stores and other retailers).
  2. This issue does not occur with e-books, mainly because retailers do not check on e-book ISBNs or in most cases do not even require one.

How about barcodes?

Barcodes are only needed for printed books – the barcode shows the ISBN, as well as the price of the book and is placed on the back cover. The first (left) part of the barcode shows the ISBN and the second (right) part is the currency and price assignment, here’s an example where the second part of the barcode shows 51399. 

  • 5 means USD $5 and 
  • 1399 means $13.99.

If you let the retailer create the barcode you will most probably miss out on the price assignment and it will show 90000 which means currency/price unknown. This will make your book look slightly unprofessional but at the end of the day it’s not a huge deal.