A rumor is floating around out there on the Web, one that says the need for the International Standard Book Number, or ISBN, is fading somewhat. In fact the opposite is true; with millions of books being published every year globally, the need to track those books by assigning them unique identifiers is greater than ever.

What Is an ISBN?

As a refresher for those not familiar with the ISBN:

ISBNs provide unique identification for books and simplify the distribution of your books throughout the global supply chain. The purpose of the ISBN is to identify one specific version of a book. If you wish to have a print (hardbound or softbound) or electronic (ePUB,  PDF) version, or even register a new version, you will need a unique ISBN for each format. This allows retailers to help the customer understand exactly which version of a title they are purchasing. The 13 digit ISBN links to essential information used in sales tracking, retail inventory systems, library catalogs, bookstores, online stores, and for new digital editions for old books. A book can be found by its ISBN and the title data connected with it, long after the publisher has ceased to sell the book itself.  (Source: Bowker, http://www.bowker.com/products/ISBN-US.html)

How are ISBNs Assigned?

How ISBNs are assigned differs from nation to nation. In the US, ISBNs are available for purchase through Bowker only. In Canada, ISBNs are free and are available from Library and Archives Canada. Note also that the eBook file “.mobi” is the Kindle format, which is only distributed by Amazon. Technically, the .mobi format doesn’t need an ISBN because Amazon assigns its own ASIN number to Kindle eBooks.

Although I’m sure that exclusions from the rule for Amazon add confusion, I sense that further misconceptions about ISBNs have been generated by the provision of “free” ISBNs via self-publishing companies. The fact that the ISBN is seen to be “free” waters down its importance. Authors who obtain an ISBN from a self-publishing company as part of their package may not understand the significance of the ISBN, how it is assigned, or the role it plays in linking the publisher to the book.

Stages of Obtaining an ISBN

There are two stages to the ISBN process.

Step One is to purchase the ISBN(s). As stated previously, ISBNs in the US are available only through Bowker. They can be purchased individually or in a block. Whoever sets up the Bowker account and purchases the ISBN is registered as the publisher. Thus, the publisher name is entered at the time of account setup. The ISBN purchase can only be made on the Bowker website.

Step Two is to assign an ISBN to a title. This process, which can be done any time after the ISBNs have been purchased, involves adding the book title, author’s name and additional information into the Bowker database. This step can only be done at Bowker as well.

When You Get a “Free” ISBN from a Self-publishing Company

Some self-publishing companies blur these two steps when authors ask questions. They assure the author (who may have heard somewhere that they should never use a free ISBN) that the title will be registered in their name. This answer is correct but incomplete, and it’s meant entirely to deceive.

Here’s what some self-publishing companies do. They purchase blocks of ISBNs ahead of time. As stated above, the publisher name is entered at the time of purchase.  Therefore, the publisher is the self-publishing company. When the author is given a “free” ISBN by the self-publishing company, the company is going into their Bowker account and adding the author and the book title to an unassigned ISBN in their block of numbers.

If the author understands the process and realizes that the publisher name can never be changed from the self-publishing company to the author’s (even if the company goes out of business), that’s fine. However, authors have unwittingly gone down this path with self-publishing companies, only to find that updating and reprinting the book is way more complicated than they realized, especially if they no longer wish to deal with the original self-publishing company or if the company has gone out of business.

Do I Own My ISBN?

If you are at all confused about whether or not you own the ISBN, it’s really quite simple: if you didn’t open the Bowker account yourself on the Bowker website and didn’t make the purchase, then you don’t own the ISBN and you’re not the publisher!

Bonus tip: We suggest that you purchase a block of ten ISBNs. The ISBNs never go “bad” and you will pay less per ISBN. (In the US, a single ISBN costs $125; a block of ten ISBNs costs $295 or less, depending on available discounts.) When you publish another book in the future, you will already have an ISBN ready to go.