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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