Everything you wanted to know about the ISBN but were too afraid to ask

Many authors seem perplexed when faced with the question of whether they prefer an ISBN for their book. They are not sure whether an ISBN is required, what are its benefits and how it should be obtained. Here is an attempt to answer these questions.

Much of this is borrowed from Joel Friedlander’s blog, which every person wishing to self-publish must visit.

1. What is an ISBN?

ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number. It is a 13-digit number that is assigned to one title and one title only (it is actually a bit more complicated than that). It is accepted universally.

2. Why does a book need an ISBN?

An ISBN is required to identify a book uniquely, irrespective of where that book originates from. It is also used to differentiate one edition of a book from another. The ISBN also serves the purpose of being able to identify the publisher of each edition of a book. Booksellers, distributors and libraries the world over rely on the ISBN to accurately catalogue and retrieve each book.

3. Does my book need an ISBN?

The short answer is that it is a good idea to have an ISBN assigned to your book. If you plan to have your book distributed and sold, more often than not your book will be expected to have an ISBN.

4. Does the ISBN have to be assigned by a publisher alone?

This rule differs from country to country. In India, ISBNs are assigned to publishers who then assign it to books. They are also assigned to authors. You simply need to contact the ISBN issuing authority in India.

Note that an ISBN is issued to a publisher (or author). Whoever “owns” the ISBN is recognized as the publisher of the book.

5. Does the presence of an ISBN guarantee a copyright on the ideas included in the book?

It does not. An ISBN is not a registration of copyright, it is a unique number by which your book can be identified and tracked down during trade. That said, an idea once penned down into a book is automatically protected by copyright law, whether or not a copyright is filed for. Hence filing for copyright may not be necessary unless in some unique cases.

6. How much does an ISBN cost?

In India, it costs nothing. Any publisher offering you an ISBN must also do it free of cost. In some other countries, an ISBN must be purchased. In India, ISBNs are issued (to authors and publishers) by the Ministry of HRD, The Ministry has now begun issuing separately to educational and research institutions to encourage them to issue ISBNs for their publications, including conferences/seminar proceedings.

7. Can I reuse an ISBN?

No, you cannot. Once assigned to a book, an ISBN cannot be reused. This is a very important point to keep in mind. The same ISBN cannot be used for different formats of the book, whether the book is in printed or electronic form. That means hardcover and softcover versions of the book have to be assigned separate ISBNs. Similarly, the epub, mobi and pdf versions have to be assigned separate ISBNs.

We recently encountered a case where a publisher had licensed a book to another publisher for a different geographical market. Both books used the same ISBN. If the publisher of the book changes (even if nothing else about the book has changed), the ISBN must also change.

8. Where do I put the ISBN in the book?

You’ll print it on the copyright page (sometimes called the imprint page), and it’s included in the Cataloging-in-Publication (CIP) data block, if you use one. Otherwise, just print it on the copyright page and on the back cover as part of the bar code.

9. So does there have to be a bar code too?

Again, a matter of choice. However, if you plan to have your book distributed through physical book stores, your book might be expected to have a bar code. You can have your bar code generated here.

10. I am publishing a paperback and hardcover version of my book. Do I need two ISBNs or can I use the same one?

You need a separate ISBN for each type, to identify them for anyone who might want to find them in directories, catalogs and databases.

The jury is still out on whether an e-book needs a separate ISBN. While the book sellers are asking that an e-book be assigned its own ISBN, many publishers don’t see why that is needed. However, it is good practice to issue separate ISBNs to e-books in each format (eg. EPUB and MOBI).

11. If I revise my book, do I need to give it a new ISBN?

If you only correct minor typographical errors, and don’t make any substantial changes to the text, you don’t need a new ISBN because it’s considered a reprint and not a new edition. A new edition would contain substantially new material, a major revision, or the addition of completely new elements. Anything that makes it a new book is likely to create a new edition and, therefore, will need a new ISBN. The jury is still out on what constitutes a “major revision” but significant additions or deletions might warrant a new ISBN.

A change in the cover of the book alone does not require that a new ISBN be assigned.

12. I had self-published my book and now an established publisher has picked it up for publishing. Will the book need a new ISBN?

Yes, it will. Since the ISBN identifies, among other things, the publisher of the book, it is necessary for the next publisher to issue you a new ISBN. Please note that the first ISBN cannot be reused.

4 comments

  1. If I don't have an ISBN number for my own published book then would any other publisher or any other author print my book without my permission? I mean if I don't have an ISBN for my own published book then would any other publisher theft my all content without my permission? Please help me.

  2. The ISBN can do nothing – absolutely nothing – to protect the contents of your book from being plagiarized. That (plagiarism) can be prevented by registering for a copyright on your book. The ISBN is merely an identification device for your book so that the book is easily identified by booksellers and librarians around the world.

  3. Paras, we definitely wouldn't charge. However, we will need to see the book you are publishing under our ISBN to ensure that our concerns regarding content and propriety are met.

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