ISBNs, International Standard Book Numbers, have been the gold standard in the book publishing world since the late 1960s.
Currently, ISBNs are 13 digits and are unique, first to each publisher, and then to each book published by them. It has become a simple way for booksellers to see where the book is coming from, what the book is, and lastly, what the price and currency of the book is. No two ISBNs will ever be identical for the obvious reason: that will create confusion at the point of sale. Each ISBN is unique.
Mini-History of ISBNs
The system started in Ireland as a way to identify books for the commercial booksellers. At that time, it was only a 9 digit series of numbers referred to as the Standard Book Numbering. Within just a couple of years, the International Organization for Standardization developed a 10-digit number for the international book market.
Since 2007, although we saw some as early as 1997, ISBNs have been formatted for 13 digits, making it compatible with barcodes (Bookland European Article Number).
Realize, though, ISBNs are not barcodes and can’t be read by barcode scanners. They are specially formatted for booksellers and their special inventory technologies to identify book titles, publishers, and book price. Barcodes are used for non-traditional book outlets (drug stores, grocery stores, and so on).
RR Bowker and Company is the official issuer of ISBNs in the US.
Reasons to us ISBNs for eBooks
When self-publishing, you need to meet industry standards and using an ISBN is industry standard, even for eBooks.
The eBook industry is growing exponentially. The eBook markets are no different than traditional book outlets; the sellers need the same info. Thus, use an ISBN on your book to:
1. Sell books without market constrictions. You want your book in any market which has the possibility of selling your book. Granted, if you are selling the book on your website, direct to your public, you really don’t need an ISBN. But, wouldn’t it be nice to be able to place it on other websites (think amazon, B&N, as well as the other eBook sellers out there, even if they don’t require an ISBN) with everything in place?
2. Look professional. With the lack of an ISBN, you appear to be an amateur and the thought appears in any potential bookseller’s mind: what else is she missing?
3. Any eBook which has an ISBN will be tracked by Nielson BookScan. In other words, your sales could propel you to national or international fame if they are good. The data that Nielson records every quarter and year can help you tap into trends and markets that you might not have considered.
Recording eBook sales has been somewhat sketchy in the past, but Nielson is refining the process and the results are proving to be quite valuable to eBook authors and publishers.
4. Having an ISBN is just one more means of asserting your ownership of your intellectual property. You obtain the copyright, but if you also have an ISBN for your eBook, you have gone one step further in support of that copyright.
5. An ISBN allows you to be able to register your eBook with Books in Print (another Bowker service).
Buying and Using ISBNs for eBooks
Although a great number of eBook companies offer ISBNs, your best decision will be to go right to the source, RR Bowker and Company, and purchase your ISBNs directly from them. When you do that, you are designated as the “publisher,” and you don’t receive some generic title like “independent publisher.” Bowker recommends that you purchase enough ISBNs for your publishing needs for at least 5 years. The more you buy, the cheaper they are.
Purchase your unique ISBN well in advance of the release date of the book. Use that number on all press releases pertaining to that book, as well as any other marketing that you might do in the early stages.
You can buy your ISBN after the book is published, but at that point, you have lost a lot of marketing ground.
Print the ISBN number for your eBook on the title page, and no “bar code” is needed for an eBook. Only use that marking when you have physical items to sell (audio recordings, paperbacks, etc.). Never reuse an ISBN. The information you have recorded for that ISBN won’t be appropriate for any other book.
No, an ISBN is not absolutely necessary for your eBook, but why restrict your marketing efforts by not getting one. As you can see, there are some great benefits to that little 13-digit number.