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Best Practices – A Note On ISBNs

Posted on 2014-Mar-13

by Paul Salvette

What is an ISBN?

An International Standard Book Number (ISBN) is a way to uniquely identify your book and is issued by a wide range of institutions depending on your country of publication. ISBNs were 10-digit numbers until 2007, but now they are 13-digit numbers, which for books begin with the prefix 978- or 979-. If you choose to use an ISBN, we recommend just using the 13-digit ISBN even if you get a 10-digit ISBN issued as well.

Why You Don’t Need an ISBN for eBooks

ISBNs are required for print books, but no major eBook vendor requires them for eBooks (except for Smashwords which can provide one for free). There is some conventional wisdom about ISBNs in eBooks: 1) they make your eBook and brand look “professional”, and 2) they increase your eBook’s discoverability. BB eBooks is skeptical about both these claims. Many of our clients who have cracked the Top 20 for all books on Amazon have never used ISBNs in any of their numerous eBooks. Further examination of other bestsellers confirms that ISBNs have little to no bearing on whether a book and author is deemed “professional.” Would you still buy a great book even if it didn’t have an ISBN? Probably!

The second claim about eBook discoverability with ISBNs is even more dubious. The ISBN agencies provide little to no information that would be useful for eBook platform or web app developers to utilize in making online discoverability tools and catalogs. The ISBN agencies are run by governmental organizations or government-sanctioned monopolies that are perfectly content to keep things like it was 1972 (i.e. just providing antiquated databases to libraries and registered booksellers). Google tried to organize books online based on ISBNs during the previous decade, but all they got was a lousy, unnecessary, and prolonged lawsuit from the Author’s Guild that was finally dismissed in 2013. It is our opinion that the tech world is not going to do cartwheels to utilize ISBNs anytime in the near future. Rather, the major eBook platforms have their own algorithms and methods to determine how an eBook is promoted to readers. This is based on the metadata you enter when you publish your eBook at their platform. Furthermore, the 800-lb. gorilla doesn’t use the ISBN system for its product API. Amazon uses their own proprietary Amazon Standard Identifier (ASIN) system for all their products—everything from your eBook to an old VHS tape of Sweatin’ to the Oldies has a unique ASIN that gets automatically assigned when the product page is created. Amazon has, by far, the most advanced and well-documented product API available on the internet because of their massive server infrastructure. Developers can utilize this to create web-based discoverability tools and apps much better than anything the ISBN agencies are providing.

Uniquely Identifying Your eBook

Per the International Digital Publishing Forum, all eBooks are required to have a unique identifying number embedded in the metadata. They can be either an ISBN or what’s called a Universally Unique Identifier (UUID). The best way, in our humble opinion, to uniquely stamp your eBook is to generate a UUID. This is a 32-character alphanumeric combination that can be generated with a few simple lines of code. It is so unique that you are more likely to get hit in the face with a meteorite than generate the same combination twice. We can always generate one for our clients’ eBooks during the production of their eBooks, but for DIY formatters you can make some UUIDs at our metapad. However, if you would like to use an ISBN, please make sure it is the 13-digit ISBN (this is required per the EPUB spec if you use an ISBN in an eBook). The ISBN gets embedded within your eBook’s metadata and is usually written on the copyright page. It is advised that you use a different electronic and print ISBN. The UUID is generally not written on the copyright page, but it certainly can be if you like.

ISBN for Print Books

Traditionally, all print books have an ISBN due to the way books are distributed to bookstores and libraries. If you are using an ISBN for the eBook edition, the ISBN for the print edition should be different. There usually is a barcode with the ISBN number on the back cover. Below is an example of an ISBN barcode:


If you are going through Createspace for Print-on-Demand, they will assign you an ISBN for free. Additionally, they will place the ISBN barcode on the back cover when you upload the PDF of your back cover/spine/cover. Alternatively, you or your cover designer can add this barcode ahead of time. For Lightning Source, they require that you obtain an ISBN before publishing. When you make the PDF cover template for Lightning Source, you can type in the ISBN and the template-maker will conveniently place the barcode inside the template for you or your cover designer to utilize.

Where Do I Get an ISBN?

Below is a non-exhaustive list of where to obtain ISBNs based on your country of publication, as well as the costs. As you can see, in the USA and UK they are extremely expensive! Your hard-earned money is probably better invested elsewhere than buying a 13-digit number:

Keep in mind, if you publish through Smashwords, Draft2Digital, or Createspace, they will issue you an ISBN for free. Also, keep in mind that you probably don’t need to purchase an ISBN.

Don’t Get Multiple ISBNs for Your eBook

In a sleazy and cynical attempt to make you part ways with your money, many of these agencies like to say that you need a unique ISBN, not just for print and electronic, but also for different formats of eBooks. Hypothetically, you would need to purchase different ISBNs for your EPUB2 for Nook, your EPUB3 for iTunes, your MOBI/KF8 for Amazon, your PDF ARC, etc. Some clients require up to 12 different editions of their eBooks bound for different vendors. This would be more than $250 worth of ISBNs for one eBook (if you’re U.S.-based)! For that kind of money you could get a killer cover, a good proofread, or something else with real benefit to your craft besides a bunch of 13-digit numbers. We have formatted many eBooks for clients who use the same ISBN for all eBook editions, and so far these publishers and BB eBooks has not been visited by the ISBN police. BB eBooks recommends using one ISBN for all eBooks, if you even choose to use an ISBN for your eBooks at all.

Label: Technical and Design

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