One of the first things a retailer or distributor will look for on your book to decide whether to sell it is the ISBN. If you have one, you’ve passed one of the tests for a professional book. If you don’t have one, your book will likely be rejected.

Most booksellers, retailers, and distributors will not accept a book without an ISBN and its corresponding Bookland EAN bar code.

What Is an ISBN?

When you publish a book, your publisher (or you, if you’re self-publishing) will—or should—assign an ISBN to your book. An International Standard Book Number, or ISBN, is a unique 10- or 13-digit number assigned to every book and book-like product. This number identifies the title, author, specifications, and pricing of your book and is used in ordering and cataloging books throughout the publishing industry. Because an ISBN is owned by the publisher who purchased it, an ISBN also identifies the publisher and/or imprint. Each ISBN is unique to an edition of a title (paperback, hardcover) or book-like product (audiobook, ebook). For example, if a title is available in hardcover, paperback, and as an ebook and an audiobook, it will have four unique ISBNs for each edition or product.

Each country has its own agency that assigns ISBNs for publishers and self-publishers in that country. In the US and its territories, that agency is Bowker. ISBNs can be purchased individually—a newer option—or in blocks of 10, 100, 1,000, 10,000, and 100,000. In the 1980s and ′90s, you were probably being scammed when you purchased a single ISBN, but thankfully, the need for single ISBNs on behalf of self-publishers and indie publishers has changed that.

An ISBN Is Unique

Once an ISBN is assigned to a title, it can never be used again. Even if that title goes out of print, the ISBN can’t be reused because the out-of-print title will continue to be cataloged by libraries and sold by used booksellers, both online and brick-and-mortar.

ISBNs can be transferred to new ownership if a publisher is bought by another publisher or company, but ISBNs can’t be transferred to an individual. A publisher, printer, or publisher services company also can’t sell, give away, or transfer an ISBN to a customer.

If a printer or publishing services company assigned an ISBN to a book, and the author of that book subsequently wished to instead be identified as the publisher, she would need to get her own ISBN to self-publish. This new ISBN would then need to be assigned to the book, labels with the new ISBN and EAN bar code would need to be made and placed on all existing printed books, and all industry databases would need to be updated with the new ISBN.

The main industry database to be concerned with is Books In Print, administered by Bowker and available by subscription only. When you assign an ISBN and save the information associated with that title through the website, it populates the Books In Print database.

Why Are Some ISBNs 10 Digits and Others 13 Digits?

Prior to January 2007, all ISBNs were 10 digits, but it had become apparent long before then that the ISBN system, started in 1970, lacked the capacity to handle all the new material published each year worldwide, from books and pamphlets to newer media such as CDs, audiobooks, and ebooks. The US alone produces more than 300,000 new titles and re-editions each year. (Now you know why it’s so hard to get your book noticed.)

The expansion to 13 digits did two things. First, it increased capacity. By adding a three-digit prefix, it allows the system to change as the volume of printed material increases. Currently, the prefix is 978. When those numbers are depleted, a new 979 prefix will be put into use, and so on. (The new prefix is not just added to the front of a previous 10-digit ISBN. The ISBN agencies use an algorithm to convert 10-digit ISBNs to 13 digits, which often results in a change of the last digit of the ISBN.)

The second thing the expansion did is to allow ISBNs to conform with the EAN (European Article Number) bar code format used internationally for commercial products. While the 12-digit UPC (Universal Product Code) is more popular in North America, the EAN bar code is used for commercial products worldwide—and is always used for books in the US, sometimes accompanied by a UPC code.

Does My Particular Book Need an ISBN?

Your book really only needs an ISBN if you intend to sell it. Privately published books for families or corporations often are not assigned an ISBN. Some authors intend to only sell their books directly, so they don’t register an ISBN for their book. Other authors don’t realize an ISBN is required to sell their books until they run into a retailer or distributor who tells them it’s a problem.

What’s a Bookland EAN Bar Code?

The Bookland EAN bar code is a book’s ISBN number transferred into machine-readable form, like a UPC bar code on other consumer products. The bar code is encoded with information about the book, including title, publisher, and price. Bookland refers to the imaginary country that exists only in the EAN system to catalog all books—no matter where they are published—into the otherwise geographically keyed EAN coding system. The ISBN and EAN bar code work in tandem to help retailers categorize and sell your book.

What’s the Difference between an ISBN and an ISSN?

The ISSN (International Standard Serial Number) is an eight-digit number used for the same purpose as an ISBN but for periodicals or serials—a magazine, journal, newsletter, or newspaper published at regular intervals, including annual publications. All US and foreign serials (including electronic versions and websites) are assigned an ISSN. To register an ISSN, visit the Library of Congress’s US ISSN Center.

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