Self-publishing and ISBN

I published my first book without an ISBN number, so there’s the first thing. It can be done. Is it a good idea? Not if you ever want your book stocked in or ordered from a bookshop. This meant that when I wrote my second book, I thought to myself ‘where do ISBNs come from?’ ‘And why are they necessary?’

An ISBN is an International Standard Book Number

You might add another question. ‘What the hell are they?’ An ISBN is an International Standard Book Number and relates only to books. If you have seen an ISSN, this is an International Standard Serial Number and it relates to magazines, newspapers and periodicals. And, finally, there is an ISMN which is an International Standard Music Number and is issued for musical scores.

They first appeared in the mid-1960’s, the invention of mathematician, Frederic Gordon Foster from Trinity College, Dublin who developed the book identifier system. Two years later, in 1967, David Whitaker evolved this into the ISBN system. Unsurprisingly, Whitaker is known as the Father of the ISBN. The 9 digit code was used in the UK until 1974 (although a 10 digit system was used in other places around the world) when it also adopted the 10 digit system. In 2007 it further evolved to the 13 digit system, which is the one in use today.

It is how booksellers can identify your book

‘So what?’ you cry, ‘how does this affect me and my books?’ Put simply, it is how booksellers can identify your book when a customer goes into a shop and orders a copy. Imagine a customer goes into your local Waterstones and asks for your book. The bookseller then checks their computer and finds the relevant ISBN number and this is how they know your book in cases where someone else might have the same title. But how does this magic happen? Read on …

Nielsen Book Services Ltd

Where do ISBNs come from? In the UK, they are issued by Nielsen Book Services Ltd, known to all and sundry as Nielsens. You can buy them individually at £89, a batch of ten for £164 or go mad and buy 100 for £369. What is very important to realise is that the ISBN is issued to the ‘publisher’. This means that if you self-publish with a company (such as ours or others) then the publisher will own the ISBN for the book. This has no bearing on the copyright. With our company, the author always retains full copyright. We would own the ISBN though. What this means in practice is that if you change publisher then you would need a new ISBN. It sounds a bit complicated, but it isn’t.

How do ISBNs work? In a 13 digit number such as the following: 978-1-911559-89-4 it would be broken into five sections. 978 confirms that the product is a book. 1 denotes that the book is written in English. 911559 relates to the publisher. 89 is the number of the book and 4 is a check digit. These vary between 0 and 9. Exactly what a check digit is resides in those that understand binary code. I don’t. I just know it is a check digit.

How are they assigned?

The next question is how is a book assigned an ISBN number? This is the easy bit. If you work with 3P Publishing we assign your book two ISBN numbers: one for the paperback and one for the ebook. It is worth noting that every incarnation of your work will need a separate number so as well as these two you will also need a different number for the hardback and the audiobook. How are they assigned? For us, it is in chronological order. Really simple.

Make sure you have one of these

The only other thing to know about ISBNs is that they denote how your barcode will look on your book. Magic technology takes the ISBN number and turns it into black and white lines that then go onto the back cover as a barcode. If your book is going to be sold in shops make sure you have one of these. Which brings us to the end of all things ISBN.

As always if this has inspired more questions contact us at 3P Publishing on 01536 560410 or email We look forward to hearing from you.

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