What’s the deal with ISBNs?

300px-EAN-13-ISBN-13.svgISBNs, or International Standard Book Numbers, are those little digits you find on the backs of your favorite paperback or hardcover books right above the barcode. If you go to any bookstore and look at any traditionally printed book — even the stationary! — you’ll see one of them. They’re always 10 digits long (sometimes they’ll have an X at the end), and each country has its own version.

All books produced through the traditional publishing house model will have an ISBN. When you’re self publishing a book, however, how important is it to have one? And what does it even do? After the jump, we’ll tell you all about the process so you can decide whether or not it’s right for you.

What is an ISBN for?

According to the official ISBN website, “The purpose of the ISBN is to establish and identify one title or edition of a title from one specific publisher and is unique to that edition, allowing for more efficient marketing of products by booksellers, libraries, universities, wholesalers and distributors.” This means that each printed version of a work — the hardcover version, the ebook version, the paperback version, the 20th anniversairy edition of a classic, etc. — will have a completely different ISBN number. Let’s say you want a copy of the Bell Jar, but you don’t want the cover art that we talked about last week — typing in the particular ISBN of the edition that you want on an online bookstore will give you exactly the version you’re looking for, so you can avoid the one you don’t.

How do you get one?

Because each country has a different means of licensing ISBNs, you have to go to your country’s individual website to get your own. If you want to publish in the US market, you can only buy an ISBN through Bowker, which is the official source. Anywhere else that markets ISBNs, including Print on Demand websites like Lulu or LightningSource, is acting as a middleman between you and Bowker. However, these websites will also offer you pretty good deals and packages that combine the cost of a new ISBN with the cost of your publishing.

Screen Shot 2013-02-04 at 1.02.48 PMISBNs are often sold in blocks of 1, 10, 100, and 1000, and can cost anywhere from $125 to $1000 depending on which package you select. Remember, you’ll need a different ISBN for every edition of the book you wish to publish, so if you’re buying directly from Bowker then it’s probably better to get the block of 10 for $250 — it’s the same as the cost of 2 ISBNs, and you’ll probably have plenty left over for your next books.

It should be noted, though, that the ISBN and the barcode are two different things, and you can buy an ISBN without the barcode. However, barcodes are so important in retail that you’re probably better off getting one as well. Most bookstores use a special type of code called the Bookland EAN Barcode, which most PODs (and Bowker) will offer to you. Of course, if you’re only looking to publish an ebook, then you obviously won’t need one.

Do you really need an ISBN?

If you want to get your book into brick-and-mortar bookstores and on websites that aren’t Amazon without much difficulty, then you really do need an ISBN. Larger chain stores such as Barnes and Noble usually won’t accept books without them.

However, it’s not illegal to publish a book without an ISBN. If you’re only looking to print up a few copies for friends and family, or if you’re only going to sell your book on consignment to independent bookstores that don’t care about ISBN, then you can opt not to buy one. And if you change your mind, you can get an ISBN for the second print run of your book easily, even if your first run didn’t have one.

If you’re looking to publish solely through Kindle Direct Publishing, however, you won’t need an ISBN at all, because Amazon has their own version that they’ll give you — an ASIN, or Amazon Standard Identification Number. However, with this you’ll only be able to publish on the Kindle marketplace, which might decrease the amount of exposure you get.

Despite the fact that one company, Bowker, is responsible for all the ISBNs in the US, there’s no one right way to go about buying and using an ISBN. You can buy one separate from your POD service, or as part of a package, or you could choose not to buy one at all. The important thing is to decide what kind of market you want your book to be available in and how much you’re willing to spend to give your book the best chance it has of reaching the widest audience.

That’s all for today — if you have your own stories about what it was like getting an ISBN, let us know in the comments!