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ISBN Q&A: Everything You Need to Know About Barcodes

What the Heck Is an ISBN? Probably one of the most confusing single discussion points among indie authors today is the topic of ISBNs. A question concerning ISBNs comes up at just about every presentation I give—from large international conferences to small gatherings of writers. So here I am today, blogging about the ISBN question… [Read More]

ISBN Q&A by Robin Cutler for

What the Heck Is an ISBN?

ISBN Q&A by Robin Cutler for BookWorks.comProbably one of the most confusing single discussion points among indie authors today is the topic of ISBNs. A question concerning ISBNs comes up at just about every presentation I give—from large international conferences to small gatherings of writers. So here I am today, blogging about the ISBN question in hopes that I can bring some clarity for you.

Essentially the ISBN is a product identifier for books. In case you didn’t know, ISBN stands for “International Standard Book Number” which is a number assigned to every published book that identifies it in the marketplace so that it can be sold to bookstores (physical and digital) and libraries. Since 2007, ISBNs have been 13 digits making them compatible with the European Article Number known as an EAN. So sometimes you’ll hear publishers and industry people refer to the ISBN as an EAN but essentially they are talking about the same thing.

Where Do I Get an ISBN for My Book?

The ISBN is country specific and must be obtained from the agency designated to assign ISBNs for the publishers and self-publishers located in that country. Once you obtain an ISBN in your country, it can be used worldwide. Some ISBN registration agencies are based in national libraries or within ministries of culture. In other cases, the ISBN registration service is provided by business entities. If you live in the United States, you obtain an ISBN from the agency known as Bowker for a fee— A citizen of the United Kingdom would obtain their ISBNs from Nielsen, also for a fee— If you’re lucky enough to be Canadian, your government issues ISBNs for free as do many other countries. To find out where you would obtain an ISBN in your country, click on to see agency contact information for countries around the world.ISBN Q&A by Robin Cutler for

Why Do I Need an ISBN?

According to Bowker, “using ISBNs allows you to better manage your book's metadata, and ensure maximum discoverability of your book”. I totally agree with this statement. An ISBN is assigned to every different format of the same book to help distinguish that edition in the marketplace. So the hardcover version has a different ISBN than the paperback version; the eBook version carries a different number than the large-print edition, and so on. So for one book alone, it is possible to have two to five different ISBNs that are assigned depending on the number of formats being published. I recommend that you also list all the ISBNs associated with the same book on your copyright page like so:

ISBN Q&A by Robin Cutler for

As I’ve written about before, I recommend that you make your book as widely available as possible in as many formats as you can afford.

ISBNs Are Expensive!

ISBN Q&A by Robin Cutler for BookWorks.comYes, I know and it’s true that US citizens have to pay for each one while those lucky Canadians get theirs for free. I preach a lot about how important it is to purchase and own your ISBNs if you are publishing your own work because the ISBN is associated with you, the author, for the life of that book. It is possible to obtain free ISBNs through many author services companies but invariably a free ISBN has limited distribution or will tie your book to that service longer than you may want. Bowker sells ISBNs for $125/single or a block of 10 for $250.00. For these ISBNs that you purchase directly from Bowker, you can use them whenever you set up your book on any self-publishing platform such as IngramSpark. Note that you may also purchase a single ISBN directly within IngramSpark for $85 that is registered in your name just like you bought it directly from Bowker. But this is more of a convenience when using the service. Buying the block of 10 is definitely the best value for you and should be considered an investment in your own work just the same as hiring an editor and designer.

What Happens to My ISBN If Another Publisher Wants to Republish My Book?

Generally, if you sign a contract for your previously published book, the new publisher will want to assign their own ISBN to their edition. They will probably also ask you to retire that first book with the ISBN you used. This is because they will want to give the book a new life and distinguish their edition from the previous book. Basically, they are relaunching the book as if it were new, which could be a great thing for you.

Do the ISBN Numbers Mean Anything Specific?

Yes, they do and so glad you asked.  As you can see in the graphic of the ISBN barcode below, the numbers are not random but provide meaningful data to the book trade.ISBN Q&A by Robin Cutler for
A - the 978 prefix designates a book (opposed to music, magazines etc.)

B - ISBN group or country identifier

C - publisher identifier (typically unique to specific publishers and will be part of the same block)

D - title identifier

E - a check digit

What Do I Do With an ISBN?

As mentioned, the ISBN will be a required piece of metadata that you will need to supply for any title that you place into distribution with a service like Ingram. The ISBN should be transformed into a bar code that is placed on the back cover or jacket so it can be scanned by retailers when customers purchase. The bar code can be purchased from Bowker and other services but you can easily get the barcode for free if you use IngramSpark’ s Cover Generator tool which translates the ISBN into the barcode and places it automatically on back cover template for you. You also will have the option to add the price to your ISBN barcode as in the sample below. This is a recommended if you plan to sell your book in stores.ISBN Q&A by Robin Cutler for

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8 thoughts on “ISBN Q&A: Everything You Need to Know About Barcodes”

  1. Sherry Glaser says:

    I’m a Canadian citizen and live in the U.S. Am I able to get free ISBN numbers??? You said Canadians got free ISBN numbers but didn’t specify being in Canada. I know it’s probably a stupid question, but I new at this author stuff.

    1. Profile photo of Tyler D Tyler D says:

      Hi Margery—yes, you should be able to get ISBNs in Canada depending on if your book is in English or French from the following agencies:

      Canada – English Language
      Canadian ISBN Agency, Library and Archives Canada / Bibliothèque et Archives Canada
      Library and Archives Canada / Bibliothèque et Archives Canada
      395 Wellington Street
      ON K1A 0N4
      Phone 1:
      (+1 819) 994 68 72
      Phone 2:
      (+1 866) 578 77 77 (toll free)
      Fax 1:
      (+1 819) 997 7019
      Fax 2:

      Canada – French Language
      Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec
      Agence ISBN
      2275, rue Holt
      Montréal (Québec)
      H2G 3H1
      Phone 1:
      (+1 514) 873 11 01 x3785
      Phone 2:
      Fax 1:
      (+1 514) 873 43 10
      Fax 2:

  2. Brad Smith says:

    Question about how a 13 digit ISBN is written with hyphens.

    The one shown in the image above is 978-1-943328-35-2
    This is a group of three,
    a group of one,
    a group of six,
    a group of two, and
    a group of one.

    Yet the code breaks down to
    A 3
    B 2
    C 4
    D 3
    E 1

    1. Profile photo of Robin Cutler Robin Cutler says:

      Sorry for the delayed response, Brad…

      Every system is different in terms of how hyphens for ISBNs should be entered. The safe bet is to enter without hyphens and then the system will add where appropriate.

    2. Ben says:

      All ISBN-13s are basically just a subset of EAN-13 (including EAN-13+2 and EAN-13+5). Long story sort: they’re all separated by country, but publishing (not just books, music and other cultural works too) is such a huge volume of individual products that it effectively became easier to allocate an imaginary country out of the EAN classification to the industry. Hence all the occasional references to something called “Bookland” and other eclectic bits and pieces.

      If you really want the gory details, though, the main page to check is here:

      For the plus 2 or 5 digit extensions, this page has the details:

      Fair warning, it includes all the calculations for the checksums too. So read until you reach your personal boredom/tech threshold. 😉

  3. Very good article for the newbie author. Thanks!

  4. Profile photo of Robin Cutler Robin Cutler says:

    Thank you, Stuart…glad you found it helpful.

  5. Thanks for the information, Robin! I soon plan to self-publish through Ingram Spark and Createspace. I’m also living in New Mexico.

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