ISBN: what is it and do you need one?
I was about to publish my very first eBook when the question popped up. As I studied a little bit about how to make a book, getting an ISBN seemed like a good idea. After all, this number allows the book to be recognised as such. It allows every bookseller, librarian, etc. to know this particular story exists somewhere. However, there are differences between publishing in print and in digital. Did my eBook need the same treatment as a printed book? The question grew stronger and stronger in my head, so here are the result of my researches.
Last updated: May 2017
- What's an ISBN?
- How can you get an ISBN?
- Do you really need an ISBN for your eBooks?
- Case study: Amazon
What’s an ISBN number?
ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number (believe me, I didn’t know what it meant until now). It is an identification number used on books for many things: tracking sales, controlling stocks, listing, ordering, etc. You can go to a bookshop with the ISBN only and they can find the book you’re looking for just with it. No, really, an ISBN is quite useful.
If you want to know what the numbers represent - because yes they do mean something - I advise you to check the International ISBN Agency’s website.
How can you get an ISBN?
As an author who thinks about self-publishing, you can acquire an ISBN on various websites, depending on the country you’re living in:
- For the UK, Ireland or a British Overseas Territory: Nielsen
- For the US: Bowker
- For French Territories: AFNIL
- And so on…
However, acquiring one of those ISBN is quite expensive. If you’re like me, looking at the money you spend on things, your eyes will pop out their sockets. And if, like me, you think about self-publishing a short story in digital, you’ll think about it twice before entering your card’s details into any ISBN seller’s website.
Important note: If you have your own ISBN, please don’t use the same number for all versions of your book. A printed book will have a different ISBN than its digital version.
Do you really need an ISBN for eBooks?
The question is hard to answer: ISBN is used for tracking the sales of your books but your digital retailer has its own tracking system for you to know how many sales your book did. Once you decided that your story will only be in eBook format, I don’t think an ISBN is needed. Especially since the big five ebooks (Amazon, Kobo, Sony, Apple and Barnes&Noble) retailers don’t require you to have one.
I recommend the reading of this comprehensive article by Will Entrekin. He explains more in depth why an ISBN is not needed for digital books.
Case study: Amazon
Amazon has two publishing platforms:
- CreateSpace, which is more specialised in printed books (even if you can publish eBooks on it too). (Update: CreateSpace no longer exists as of 2018)
- Kindle Direct Publishing, the one that interests us here.
If CreateSpace offered you a free ISBN, Kindle Direct Publishing has a different approach concerning eBooks. Amazon will indeed assign an ASIN (standing for Amazon Standard Identification Number) to your eBook. This number works as an ISBN but is specific to Amazon and the Kindle Store. However, it’s important to say that an ASIN won’t be enough if you want to publish via other retailers, which will assign their own tracking number.
What you learned:
- ISBN is mandatory for printed books but is not for eBooks (if you decide to publish only in digital).
- Amazon has its own tracking number so there’s no need for an ISBN if you're publishing an ebook exclusively on their platform.