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ISBNs and E-Publishing

Saul Bottcher, IndieBookLauncher.com—Updated 22 August 2013

The ISBN (International Standard Book Number) is well-known in the world of print publishing, but how do ISBNs work when you e-publish? Read on for the details.

Do you have a question about ISBNs and e-publishing?
E-mail me at freehelp@indiebooklauncher.com and I'll help you find the answer.

What is an ISBN?

An ISBN is a unique 10-digit or 13-digit number assigned to a specific edition of a book and catalogued by an ISBN agency.

What is the Purpose of an ISBN?

The purpose of an ISBN is to serve as a unique reference to a specific edition, format, and publisher of a book. In the world of print publishing, this is of vital importance when a book store needs to re-stock a book: the ISBN is what allows them to order, say, the hardcover 2nd edition of a book rather than the paperback 1st edition.

However, in the world of e-publishing, there's no such thing as re-stocking. For e-books, the ISBN serves as a universal indexing system. For example, if the EPUB edition of your book is available on several websites, it will have the same ISBN on each website, regardless of how else those sites may choose to categorize or catalogue it. This can help readers find your book at their preferred online store.

Do I Need an ISBN for My E-Book?

Only if your on-line vendor or distributor requires it.

As of mid-2013, the largest on-line stores have moved away from requiring ISBNs. Sales channels such as iBooks, Amazon.com's Kindle Direct Publishing, Barnes and Noble's Nook Press, and Kobo's Writing Life don't require an ISBN.

However, if you are working with other vendors, or if you are using a third party to submit your book to these vendors, you may require an ISBN. Check with your vendor or distribution service to be sure.

(References: www.apple.com/itunes/content-providers/book-faq.html, kdp.amazon.com/self-publishing/help?topicId=A36BYK5S7AJ2NQ, https://www.nookpress.com/support/faq, http://www.kobo.com/publishers, 22 August 2013.)

Why Might I Want an ISBN for My E-Book?

Even if your vendors don't require an ISBN, there are several other reasons to consider getting one:

In summary, getting an ISBN is a business decision, not a requirement. Depending on your choice of vendor or distributor, whether you use sales data services, and who your target market is, there may be more or fewer reasons to consider an ISBN.

How Do I Acquire an ISBN?

There are two ways to acquire an ISBN.

The first is to purchase it directly from your national ISBN agency. Most countries have one national ISBN agency that allocates ISBNs. It may be a government department or a private company. You can check the National ISBN Agencies page at www.isbn-international.org/agency to find the agency in your country.

The second method is to work with a service provider that will assign an ISBN to your book. (For example, IndieBookLauncher.com offers a ISBN-only publishing service that is also included for free with our e-book production packages.) In this case, the service provider would be listed as your “publisher” in the ISBN registry, but (as detailed below) this has no effect on your copyright, business dealings, or any other rights.

What Does an ISBN Cost?

Anywhere from $0 to $125+, depending on the country where you register the ISBN.

For example, Bowker in the United States charges $125 for a single ISBN or $250 for a block of ten, Nielsen in the UK charges £126 for a block of ten, and ISBNs in Canada are issued at no cost by the federal government via Library and Archives Canada.

(References: www.myidentifiers.com, www.isbn.nielsenbook.co.uk, www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/index-e.html, 17 June 2013.)

Can I Register an ISBN in Another Country to Save Money?

According to the rules, a publisher must register their ISBNs in the country where they operate, which leads to two possible answers.

If you act as an author-publisher and register your ISBNs in your own country, you're stuck with the prices set by your national ISBN agency. (Furthermore, some countries may restrict who can apply for an ISBN.)

If you use a service provider to register your ISBN, you can take advantage of a lower ISBN price in their country of operation. (For example, at IndieBookLauncher.com, we're able to offer inexpensive ISBNs through our ISBN-only publishing service, because the Canadian government issues ISBNs to us at no cost.)

If you use an ISBN issued by a service provider, you should be aware that they will be listed as your publisher in the ISBN index, and will be responsible for submitting your book's metadata (title, author, subject, category, date of publication). However, this has no legal significance and does not affect your copyrights or ownership (see below).

Can an ISBN Registered in one Country be Used to Publish in Another Country?

Yes.

When registering, the publisher must register the ISBN through the ISBN agency for their country. (See above.) Once the ISBN is registered, it can be used to print and sell books in any country and through any online bookstore.

What is an e-ISBN?

There's no such thing.

For some reason, some online book sellers have begun using the term 'e-ISBN' to refer to ISBN's that are assigned to e-books. It's possible that they're doing this to emphasize the fact that e-book editions need separate ISBNs from print editions (see below), but their terminology makes it sound like an e-ISBN is something different from an ISBN. It's not.

There's only one ISBN system, and it's applicable to both paper and digital books.

Can I Re-Use my Print Edition ISBN for my E-Book?

No.

This is not allowed by the International ISBN Agency, and is also explicitly forbidden by the major online vendor. The ISBN system is meant to index each format of a book separately. (In fact, even separate e-book formats need their own ISBNs—see below.)

(Reference: http://www.isbn-international.org/faqs, 17 October 2012.)

Do I Need a Separate ISBN for Each E-Book File Format?

Yes.

If an e-book is published in two file formats, such as EPUB and PDF, then each file needs its own unique ISBN. This makes sense when you consider the possibility that a customer may want to order your e-book in a specific format that they prefer.

Furthermore, different DRM permissions also require a separate ISBN, even if the file format is the same. For example, if you publish your book as an EPUB file with DRM that prevents copying and printing, and you also publish it as a DRM-free EPUB, then you need two different ISBNs for those files.

Passive copy-protection measures, such as an unobtrusive watermark, are not considered DRM in the context of ISBNs.

(Reference: http://www.isbn-international.org/faqs, 17 October 2012.)

If I Update My Book, Do I Need a New ISBN?

Sometimes. For an e-book, any of the following changes require a new ISBN:

If you make any of the above changes, the International ISBN Agency considers this a new edition of your book, and a new ISBN is required, even if the old edition will no longer be sold or distributed.

However, the following changes do NOT require a new ISBN:

(Reference: http://www.isbn-international.org/faqs, 17 October 2012.)

Do I Need an ISBN for a Master File that I Send to a Service Provider?

No, as long as the master file is not being published.

For example, if you upload a master file (manuscript) in MS-Word format, and your e-book producer uses the manuscript to create an EPUB file, then you only need one ISBN—for the EPUB file that is actually published. You don't need an ISBN for the master MS-Word document, because it isn't being published.

(Reference: http://www.isbn-international.org/faqs, 17 October 2012.)

Does an ISBN Affect Copyright or Ownership?

Absolutely not.

An ISBN is just a reference number to be used for indexing. It has no effect on ownership, just like your apartment number or telephone number don't determine who owns those objects.

You may have heard concerns that a criminal posing as a publisher or distributor could 'steal' your book by assigning an ISBN to it, thus making themselves the publisher. This is a myth.

The right to publish and profit from your book are determined by your copyright and by legally valid contracts, not by the ISBN.

(For more on copyright, see Copyright 101 For Indie Authors.)

Does a Free Sample Need an ISBN?

Only if a vendor requires it.

In all likelihood, none of the places where you distribute your free sample will require you to assign an ISBN to it.

However, if you do assign an ISBN, it must be unique from the complete edition of the book. The sample is considered a different publication by the International ISBN Agency, and you cannot re-use the ISBN from the complete book.

(Reference: http://www.isbn-international.org/faqs, 17 October 2012.)

Are Store-Assigned Numbers like Amazon's ASIN the Same as an ISBN?

No.

When you sell a book through Amazon without an ISBN, Amazon assigns a number they call an ASIN (Amazon Standard Identification Number). The ASIN is Amazon's own internal tracking number. It is not used by anybody outside of Amazon, and is not even universal across Amazon's international sites. (Your book might have a different ASIN on Amazon.com, Amazon.ca, and Amazon.co.uk.)

All of this means that the ASIN does very little for you as an author. It's a number designed to help Amazon keep track of their products, whereas the ISBN is a number designed to help all stores, libraries, sales trackers, and readers find and index your book more easily.

Other online bookstores issue their own numbers, and the same comments apply to any store-issued number: it's not globally unique, which greatly reduces its usefulness.

Do you have a question about ISBNs and e-publishing?
E-mail us at freehelp@indiebooklauncher.com and we'll help you find the answer.