All you ever wanted to know about ISBNs.

ISBNAndBarCode Oddly enough, today the idea of getting an ISBN for my floundering novel entered my mind. In the same way that all other ideas of its kind occur to me, a fleeting thought that never sticks around long enough to take hold. In this case, the trail it left as it raced through my mind made me think about the process of getting an ISBN for a book and what it entails.

My first stop was actually to search Google for ISBN to see what turned up. Interestingly, the first few results were quite relevant: a wikipedia reference page, and pages that linked to, (an ISBN broker) and several international links to ISBN organisations (,, etc.)

The next thing I found, was that I needed to know exactly what an ISBN is because although I was peripherally aware that it is a number used to uniquely identify books. As it turns out, it’s a little bit more complicated than that.

The letters ISBN are an acronym for International Standard Book Number and uniquely identifies a book based on it’s “national, geographic, language, or other convenient group, and its publisher, title, edition, and volume number” (Britannica, 2012). It is only a part of the International Standard Biobliographic Description (or ISBD) which was adopted in 1969 and is distributed by central authorities in the United States, United Kingdom, and Germany. is the agency responsible for distributing ISBNs in the United States.

So off to I went. It took a few minutes, but I eventually found the page for ISBNs for authors here: They explain the benefits of purchasing an ISBN in clear terms: it’s a global standard, all retailers and libraries are required to index items by ISBN, hence it makes your book easily identifiable and searchable. maintains a separate website to manage ISBN supply: And it is here that we get into the meat of the matter.

The most startling fact I found out in my reading is that each ISBN is limited to a particular edition or format of a book. So if you as the author intend to publish a digital, paperback, and hardcover versions of your book, you will need 3 ISBNs – not 1. Remember, the ISBN identifies on many facets, one of which is “edition” and that implies a particular format. If you have ever paid attention to the copyright page in a book, you will notice that among the text is a line that looks similar to this:

Copyright Page Example

If you notice the line that says “This edition published by Barnes & Noble, Inc.,” – that refers to the particular binding that I was holding in my hands. This means that when I search for the ISBN 0-76070-478-3, I will find a reference to this particular binding and no other printings of this book. This same book published in paperback actually has an ISBN of 0-29781-104-5.

The other startling piece of information I found is that ISBNs are not cheap. A single ISBN is priced at $125. This tells me that unless you are serious about publishing your work, it is probably best to just leave the acquiring of an ISBN alone. The good news is, though, that have a bundle of 10 ISBNS for the price of 2. That makes it real easy for you if you are planning to produce all formats for your book.

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