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Does Your Ebook Need Its Own ISBN?

Guest Expert: Sue Collier

When I talk to authors about ISBNs and ebooks, they usually have two questions: The first is do they need an ISBN if they are publishing an ebook. The second is whether they can use the same ISBN for their ebook that they used for the paper version of the book. The short answer to the first question is—it depends. And the short answer to the second question is simply—no.

Before we get into it, let’s backtrack a bit and talk about what an ISBN actually is. It’s your ID number in the book world. An ISBN—which stands for International Standard Book Number—is to a book what your Social Security number is to you. The ISBN is a mandatory sales tool if you intend to make your book available in bookstores, as it provides the basis for identifying books in all industry-wide systems. Bookstores, wholesalers, and distributors keep track of books solely by their ISBNs.

The answer to the first question, then, is that whether or not you need an ISBN for your ebook depends on your distribution plans. If you are distributing your ebook only through your website via download, you probably don’t need an ISBN. But if you plan to sell your ebook through other resellers, you’ll have to find out what each website requires.

Amazon.com does not require an ISBN if you are publishing content with Kindle. The website says, “An ISBN (International Standard Book Number) is not required to publish content with Kindle Direct Publishing. Once your content is published on the KDP web site, Amazon.com will assign it a 10-digit ASIN (Amazon Standard Identification Number), which is unique to the eBook, and is an identification number for the Kindle Book on Amazon.com. If you already have an ISBN for your eBook, you’ll be able to enter it during the publishing process. Do *not* use an ISBN for the print book edition.”

BN’s new PubIt! service takes a similar stance: “You do NOT need an ISBN to sell your eBook through PubIt!. If you don’t have an ISBN, just tell us that you don’t have one by answering No when prompted. In that case, Barnes & Noble will assign an internal 13-digit identifier to your title for you when you submit the title to go on sale.”

Apple’s iBookstore, however, does require that you have an ISBN for each title you intend to sell.
Other sites, such as SmashWords, Sony, and others, all have their own requirements. If you plan to distribute through any of them, you’ll have to check each site for instructions.

The International ISBN Agency recommends that publishers assign ISBNs to each ebook format separately available. Which leads us to the answer to the second question introduced at the beginning of this post: Each format through which you publish your book requires its own ISBNbecause this thirteen-digit numeral unmistakably identifies the title, edition, binding, and publisher of a given work. So your paper book will have its own ISBN, the audiobook will have its own ISBN, and the ebookits own ISBN.


Self-publishing expert SUE COLLIER is coauthor of The Complete Guide to Self-Publishing,5th Edition (Writer’s Digest Books, 2010) and the forthcoming Jump Start Your Books Sales, 2nd Edition (Communication Creativity, 2011).She has been working with authors and small presses for nearly two decades, providing writing, editing, production, and promotions work for hundreds of book projects. Visit her website and blog at Self-Publishing Resources.

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33 comments on “Does Your Ebook Need Its Own ISBN?

  1. Jon says:

    The International ISBN Agency also suggests to have a different ISBN for each separate digital format: Kindle, epub, pdf.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 2

  2. Sue Collier says:

    Thanks for pointing that out, Jon!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  3. Allison says:

    So, if I’m submitting my ebook to PubIt, Kindle & Smashwords, I have to use *three* separate ISBNs? That sounds like a huge waste of money!

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 5 Thumb down 4

  4. TRX says:

    Publishers are telling readers that the physical book isn’t worth anything and that the entire value is in the story.Except when a writer’s cut of a book’s cover price is determined. Then the value of the story is minimal.As you said, that’s another matter.While the view that the story is the entire value of a book is flattering to the writer,that’s not the way that readers see it.To readers, e-book cost nothing to produce. Publishers know that isn’t true.Writers know it too. But try to convince the general public of that. As far as readers are concerned,the incremental cost to produce more copies of an e-book is zero.So the readers expect an eBook to be priced less than a physical book. The real costs have nothing to do with it. Design and Graphics

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 4 Thumb down 5

  5. [...] to add, but doesn't fit in the exact outline, then add it as a bonus product to the main PDF file.As a work at home marketer, you need to understand the main reasons that people purchase eBooks. The…the question of how long an eBook needs to be. The answer to that question is 'as long as it needs [...]

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 3

  6. CES says:

    What if you want readers to be able to buy a printed copy of your book if they want as well as e-book?

    Do you need a separate ISBN for printed as well as ebook? And why do you need a separate ISBN for different carriers? It seems like a marketing gimmick to me for the ISBN distributor.

    I looked up the ISBN official website and they are so expensive!! How many do you need? Can you get away with only buying one?

    Thanks for your insight however, well written!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 3

  7. [...] Collier at BookBuzzr: Does Your ebook Need Its Own ISBN? Joel Friedlander at The Book Designer: ISBN 101 for Self Publishers Ron Pramschufer at Publishing [...]

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  8. [...] Collier at BookBuzzr: Does Your ebook Need Its Own ISBN? Joel Friedlander at The Book Designer: ISBN 101 for Self Publishers Ron Pramschufer at Publishing [...]

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  9. Jacob says:

    Awesome, and thorough…

    So it appears ISBN is for tracking purposes, and each media type needs to be tracked it’s own way.

    And if you are “independent” at the moment you don’t need to be kept track of or organized in that way.

    It’s simply a unique identifier to facilitate handling in the various distribution settings.

    Righto?

    By the way… I saw your technologies portion do you do product reviews or advertising? Thanks!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  10. c.e. wolfe says:

    OK, I could see a different ISBN for each media “type” (print, ebook, audiobook.) That makes sense. But a different ISBN for each ebook sales platform? That is just nuts. It sounds like ISBN’s “recommendation” is just a way for them to rake in some extra money from starry-eyed self-publishers.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 2

  11. Ian Thorpe says:

    Allison, (August 17) said:
    “So, if I’m submitting my ebook to PubIt, Kindle & Smashwords, I have to use *three* separate ISBNs? That sounds like a huge waste of money!”

    The same thought occurred to me, and as self publishers are more likely to sell in dozens rather than millions I wanted to ask is there any reason why we cannot obtain an ISBN for a print edition and on the information page or each e-book format, under copyright details etc. add a statement somethink like:

    A Print versionb of this book is also available from ….., ISBN xxxxxxxxxxxxx. This would not boost print sales because nobody would look, but it would warn potential plagiarists that a hardcopy of the text was stored in one of the libraries of record.

    On a more cynical note it adds a veneer of respectability.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 0

  12. Steve Foulds says:

    I was under the impression the ISBN covered you for all formats – print or ebook and regardless of the format, ie. pdf, kindle. I was sure it was basically assigned to the title. Id better double check, Ive got 2 ebooks about to launch!!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  13. Sue Collier says:

    Ian and Steve–It is true that you’ll need a separate ISBN for each format. Just as you would need a separate ISBN for a paperback version of the book and a hardcover version of the book, so too will you need a separate ISBN for an ebook.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  14. Since EPUB format (can be read on a NOOK) and MOBI format (can be read on a Kindle) are interconvertible with Calibre for example (see Calibre manual http://manual.calibre-ebook.com/ ), does it make sense that you have to have one eISBN for EPUB and another eISBN for MOBI? It makes sense that there is a different ISBN for hardback and paperback, and each of these from an ebook, but if the conversion between two ebook formats is just a software conversion process, does it make sense that an ebook in the two ebook formats needs a different ISBN for each format?

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  15. Antony Green says:

    I think that the point here that is being missed by most people is that if you WANT to buy an ISBN number the minimum number you can buy is 10. Current cost in the UK is £93.20 for 10. Sure, that makes them relatively expensive if that’s all you need, but if you WANT to sell through booksellers then that’s a price you’re going to have to pay. At least with 10 of them you can assign one to each format you want to use without any problem at all.
    Publishers will be buying them in blocks of 1000 for £453.20, which at 45p a book is hardly a significant cost at all.
    If you use all 10 because you’re going to make your book available through every available channel in every format you can find, then is your book worth £9.32 to be able to put it into that channel? If it isn’t then I’d suggest that you think that your book isn’t worth publishing at all.
    If you are only publishing through Amazon and your own website then you don’t need one anyway.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  16. Jason says:

    Having a different ISBN for each eBook format makes sense; the ISBN identifies what it is and in which format. It allows customers to purchase simply by specifying the ISBN alone; guarantees they won’t get an ePub format when they wanted Mobi or some other format.

    Just because some software tools can convert between book formats doesn’t invalidate that fundamental principle.

    Different ISBNs are a pain and cost to the author or publisher but a convenience to the buyer. The question one has to ask is; am I more interested in myself or in serving my potential customers. As noted, one doesn’t need to have an ISBN to be able to sell through many eBook stores so there is a choice.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  17. Ian Thorpe says:

    This thread keeps coming back to life.

    There seems to be a lot of variance in the understanding of ISBN numbers and e books. e-book publishers seem to be quite willing to ignore the strictures about different ISBN numbers for different ebook formats and rightly so. Tranditional publishers and the bureaucracy simply do not understand the technology (but then tradtitional publishers don’t understand the publishing business). Kindle and ePub are NOT diffferent formats, they are only different labels for a very basic HTML format with DRM added.

    These people, Reallyloveyourbook (whom I know but am not associated with), seem to have the business sussed out, they’re technologists you see. They supply tailored packages offering many services from file prep to PoD and will supply individual or small batches of ISBN numbers as well as a range of other services. Andy and Michelle are based in Wales and aim to provide a UK based self publishing service.

    Someone at bookbuzzr might like to get in touch and tell visitors about them on the front page.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  18. Freya Freya says:

    Thanks for the heads-up on Reallyloveyourbook Ian. Will definitely check them out :)

    Cheers
    Freya
    Author Community Manager – BookBuzzr

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  19. Ian Thorpe says:

    Freya,

    You’re welcome. And for what it’s worth I think your site is a great resuorce for information.

    When I finally get my arse in gear and make my own books availble (with ISBN Nos. upplied by Realyloveyourbook) I will be looking in regularly and will contact you about the site I’mn putting together to help self publishers promote their work.

    BTW I have an article preped but not published yet on how independent bookshops can benefit from the PoD boom. It draws on my thre decades Information Technology experience. If you would be interested in seeing that let me know and I’ll have an incentive to get it finished. I’m making myself sound lazy but there are good reasons it takes me a long time to get things done – and then I’m a bit of a stats junkie on my sites.

    best regards,
    Ian Thorpe

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  20. Joseph says:

    Does anyone know if e-books will also be going to the “979″ prefix for ISBN-13 numbers?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  21. Hi, I’ve just read all of the above threads here and many good points have been brought up.

    I’ve just spent the best part of 20 years getting my book together and I have a really hard time justifying (roughly) $250 for the (10) ISBN numbers for my book (e-book etc). To get my story out there, (which is unique and is about my 64,000 miles of hitchhiking around the world), and as I type this memo its being read in 8 different countries, I got X amount of my book printed up and then sold them for what it had cost me to get the books to my front door. Shipping to those who had an interest of course, was extra.

    As one person above put it, if you have an issue with the expense of the ISBN then is your story worth putting out there, or words to that effect. To me its a huge lay out of money for something that in ‘my opinion’ is a monopoly.

    I can justify say $10 for an ISBN but to have to buy them in batches of 10, come on. I live in a right to work state, the wages are crap and to some folks $250 is pocket change. To me that is a lot of money. Thanks for this website, the inputs are great.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 2

  22. Sue Collier says:

    I can’t disagree, Johnny, that $250 for 10 might seem steep. If you have more books planned, then 100 (for $995) certainly lessens the cost per ISBN. Monopoly or not, if you intend to sell your book to the trade, you’ll need this identifier. There are certainly ways around having one–for instance, ebooks often don’t, depending on how and where you are selling them. Appreciate the thoughtful comment!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  23. Mister M says:

    Hi

    I have an illustrated children’s book I intend to publish on Apple iBooks to start with, then maybe also physically, if I get enough/any sales.

    I’m a little confused by the minimum 10 Isbn number issue. The Nielsen application form asks for the binding type of the publication you want to buy the isbn numbers for.

    How can I later assign the remainder of the isbn numbers to different formats, if I have already specified one format on the application form?

    The application form seems very rigid with only 1 option available and I can’t seem to find how I could re-assign the isbns :/

    I’ll probably contact them directly about this, but wondered if anyone else is as confused as me?

    http://www.isbn.nielsenbook.co.uk/uploads/3971_ISBN_Application_Form_2012_WEB.pdf

    Many thanks

    Mister M

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  24. Scott says:

    According to Bowker, an e-book that is the same as a hard-copy book (same title, author, content, etc.) does not need its own ISBN. They state that the hard-copy book and e-book can share the same ISBN.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  25. SYH says:

    @Scott “According to Bowker, an e-book that is the same as a hard-copy book (same title, author, content, etc.) does not need its own ISBN. They state that the hard-copy book and e-book can share the same ISBN.”

    Would you please share the link to this information? It would be helpful as it seems to be contradictory to all the comments that are listed here and the direct article itself. Thanks

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  26. Olivia says:

    Can an ISBN number be applied to a document that contains only loose pages shrink wrapped together as a package?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  27. Lucy Gray says:

    Altho it may seem like a mere identifier, if you read the fine print of the fine print on Amazon and some of the others, they have no problem assuming rights to work that you may be too careless or unaware or too cheap to protect. If you think your book is really worth all the time you put into it, why not spring for a block of 10 ISBNs? Don’t you plan to write more than one book? I have spent a lot more for advertisements, publicity, give-aways at book signings, to squeak about forking over some money for ISBNs. No, I don’t have tons of money, but I also want to protect three years of work. It’s mine, not Amazons. Best wishes to all in today’s publishing world.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  28. Karen Syed says:

    Seems this topic will never die. I have been a publisher for 12 years now. ISBN numbers play a very important role other than just tracking/organization. They also indicate ownership.

    Yes, you must have an ISBN for any format that you want to be sold in a non-virtual venue. I don’t know of any bookstores that will sell a book without one. And to muddy the waters further, that ISBN and the price should be embedded in a UPC sode on the back of the book — or a sticker on an eBook product being sold on disk or drive. This is a very important factor for the retailer as they use that ISBN as a prodcut code for inventory and accounting purposes.

    NO, you do not need an ISBN if you plan to sell only out of your own hand. Festivals, events, family, friends. It is not needed and the expense can be stepped around.

    In terms of eBooks being sold in online retail venues. This is a tough one, but one thing to consider is how you want that book listed as published. Amazon does not require you to have an eBook ISBN. But if you do not have one, Amazon will be listed as your publisher. This is also true with BN/PubIt, Smashwords, and many other retailers. This does make it difficult for marketing purposes. I suppose it wouldn’t matter if you only plan to write one book and you don’t care how far it goes. But if you are a serious self-publisher and are setting up your own imprint to publish multiple books, you need to consider if you want to lose that recognition and credibility. Lack of an ISBN leaves you in the author seat only.

    ISBN numbers are expensive, but if you are establishing a career as an author, you should be willing to make that investment in yourself and your work.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  29. Jean says:

    From Bowker:
    The purpose of the ISBN is to identify one specific version of a book. If you wish to have a hard bound copy, a soft bound copy, an ePUB, a PDF, a MOBI, or even register a new version, you will need a unique ISBN for each version. This allows retailers to help the customer understand exactly which version of a title they are purchasing. To make it easier, we have bundled groups of 10 ISBNs for the price of 2.

    https://www.myidentifiers.com/isbn/main

    It also allows Bowker to make more money. It’s absurd, in that Apple, B&N, and amazon don’t buy ebooks if you publish through their programs like KDP and PubIt. Smashwords might be the way to go, in that you can publish to various outlets with one ISBN (I think, still looking into this).

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  30. Jean says:

    And, just to drive home the unpleasant news that each format needs its own ISBN, here’s from ISBN itself:
    Different formats of an electronic or digital publication are regarded as different editions and therefore need different ISBNs in each instance when they are made separately available.
    http://www.isbn-international.org/faqs

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  31. ian Thorpe says:

    From Bowker:
    The purpose of the ISBN is to identify one specific version of a book. If you wish to have a hard bound copy, a soft bound copy, an ePUB, a PDF, a MOBI, or even register a new version, you will need a unique ISBN for each version.

    They would say that, wouldn’t they?

    Be honest, who looks at an ISBN number when buying a book. Go in a bookshop and ask for Dodger by Terry Pratchett and (when it is actually published ) they might ask, “Do you want that in hardback, audio CD or standard paperback.

    They are not going to ask “Do you want it for Kindle or ePub because nobody is ever going to buy ebooks froma bookshop. I sympathise with the independent bookshops but protectionism is not going to save them.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  32. Paul Gresham says:

    I’m fairly sure that I’ve read on the Nielsen book website (link in a previous comment) that an ISBN number isn’t intended to be protection against copyright theft and should not be regarded as such.

    I’ve published print books before, small local history publications, and I bought a block of ten ISBN numbers for them.

    It is a lot of money, for what might be a negligible return, i.e. you might not sell enough books to cover the cost of buying ten numbers, but I look at it this way.

    If my book has its own ISBN number I might be able to sell copies of it from my website, thereby avoiding Amazon’s 30% commission.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  33. joan torres says:

    Above you wrote Do *not* use an ISBN for the print book edition.”…..don’t you mean do not use Amazon’s number for the book edition?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

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