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Understanding ISBNs: Costs, Significance, and Its Meaning

Updated: Nov 10, 2023


In the sprawling world of literature, an inconspicuous code wields remarkable power. The International Standard Book Number, or ISBN, quietly links authors, publishers, readers, and retailers, ensuring books reach their intended destinations. These numeric identities are more than mere strings of numbers; they encapsulate a book's essence, facilitating its journey and discovery.

In this blog post, we will explore ISBNs, delving into their history, structure, and pivotal role in the literary realm. From their assistance in book discovery to their challenges in the digital age, ISBNs prove to be unassuming yet indispensable, making this journey through their world an eye-opening experience for authors, readers, and those intrigued by the magic of books.

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What is an ISBN?

An ISBN, which stands for International Standard Book Number, is a special code given to every book to help people identify and find it easily.

Historical Background of ISBNs

The history of ISBNs, or International Standard Book Numbers, can be traced back to the mid-20th century when the publishing industry faced a significant challenge in cataloging and identifying books. Prior to the introduction of ISBNs, books were often referenced using complex and varied systems, making it difficult to ensure the accurate identification and ordering of specific titles. In response to this problem, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) introduced the ISBN system in the 1960s. The first ISBN was assigned to a book in 1967, marking the beginning of a standardized and globally recognized identification system for books. Since then, ISBNs have played a pivotal role in the distribution, discovery, and management of books, helping to streamline processes in the publishing industry and making it easier for readers to access the literature they seek.

Structure and Components of an ISBN

Before 2007, the primary ISBN format in use was ISBN-10, consisting of 10 digits. However, this format had certain limitations that became increasingly evident as the publishing industry evolved in the digital age. With the growing number of books, formats, and editions, ISBN-10 struggled to provide unique and distinct identifiers for each publication. This inadequacy hindered the ability to accurately manage and catalog an expanding array of books. As a result, the need for a more comprehensive and flexible ISBN system became evident, leading to the adoption of ISBN-13, which contains 13 digits, making it better suited to the changing demands of the publishing world. This transition, which began in 2007, aimed to ensure that ISBNs could continue to serve as effective and adaptable tools for identifying and tracking books.

The structure of an ISBN-13 is divided into five parts, each serving a specific purpose:

1. Prefix Element

This element serves a significant role in transforming the ISBN into a universal product code known as an EAN (European Article Number). This integration ensures that the ISBN system seamlessly meshes with the broader product identification system overseen by the EAN system.

The allocation of prefix elements in the ISBN system is the responsibility of GS1, a globally recognized standards organization. Previously, EAN International was a part of GS1.

Within the EAN system, these 3-digit prefixes denote the country of origin for a product. In the case of ISBNs, this prefix is designated for the fictional country known as "Bookland." It's not uncommon to encounter references to an ISBN as a "Bookland ISBN." This term refers to the 13-digit EAN resulting from the conversion of a pre-2007 10-digit ISBN into a 13-digit EAN code.

Presently, the only available prefix elements for ISBNs are 978 and 979.

2. Registration Group Element

This part identifies the specific national, geographic, or linguistic group that the book belongs to.

3. Registrant Element

This segment identifies the publisher or the imprint, which is the specific entity responsible for the publication of the book.

4. Publication Element

This part represents the unique identifier for the particular edition, format, or version of the book.

5. Check digit

The final digit is a calculated check digit, which helps ensure the accuracy of the entire ISBN.

Who Needs an ISBN?

ISBNs are essential for anyone who intends to publish and distribute a book. This includes traditional publishers, self-published authors, universities, businesses, and even government organizations. Essentially, if you want your book to be widely available and easily discoverable, you need an ISBN. While there are some exceptions, such as personal family histories, most books benefit from having an ISBN to reach a broader audience.

How to Get an ISBN

Obtaining an ISBN involves a straightforward process. You can usually apply for one through your country's national ISBN agency or the designated ISBN registration authority. In the United States, you can obtain ISBNs through the Bowker Identifier Services. In Canada, the Library and Archives Canada serves as the ISBN agency. Authors and publishers in Australia can acquire ISBNs through Thorpe-Bowker, and in the United Kingdom, you can obtain ISBNs from Nielsen ISBN Agency.

Many of these agencies offer online registration systems, making the application process convenient and efficient. Typically, you'll need to provide information about your book, such as its title, author, publisher, and format. Once your application is processed, you will be issued one or more ISBNs, depending on your needs. It's important to plan ahead, as getting an ISBN can take some time, and it's best to secure one before publishing your book.

ISBN Costs and Pricing

The cost of obtaining an ISBN can vary depending on your location and the agency you work with. In some countries like Canada, ISBNs may be provided free of charge, while in others, there may be a fee. It's important to research the specific requirements and costs associated with ISBN acquisition in your region. Keep in mind that ISBNs are typically sold in blocks, and you may need multiple ISBNs if you plan to publish different editions or formats of your book. Understanding the pricing structure is crucial for budgeting and planning.

Multiple ISBNs for Different Formats and Editions

If you publish your book in various formats, such as hardcover, paperback, e-book, or audiobook, each format typically requires a unique ISBN. Additionally, if you release revised or updated editions, each of those should have its own ISBN. Multiple ISBNs help distinguish the various versions of your book, making it easier for readers to find the format they prefer. When applying for ISBNs, consider how many formats and editions you intend to release, and obtain the necessary ISBNs accordingly. This approach ensures a comprehensive and well-organized representation of your work across different platforms and mediums.

ISBN Options for Self-Published Authors

Self-published authors have several options when it comes to obtaining ISBNs. One common approach is to purchase ISBNs directly from the national ISBN agency in your country. Another option is to use an ISBN provided by a self-publishing platform or service. However, be aware that some self-publishing platforms may offer ISBNs for free or at a reduced cost in exchange for certain distribution rights. It's crucial to understand the terms and conditions associated with these ISBNs, as they may affect your book's distribution and future publishing options. One important point to note is that the free ISBN can only be used within their platform.

ISBNs for E-books and Print-on-Demand

The advent of digital publishing and print-on-demand (POD) services has significantly impacted the use of ISBNs for self-published authors. When it comes to e-books, many online retailers and platforms don't require an ISBN for digital editions, making it easier for self-published authors to enter the e-book market. However, having an ISBN for your e-book can still enhance its discoverability and credibility.

For print-on-demand, ISBNs are often essential, as they allow self-published authors to make their printed books available through bookstores, libraries, and distribution networks. In many cases, POD providers may offer to assign an ISBN to a book as part of their service. This can be a convenient option, but it's important to understand the implications, such as who retains ownership of the ISBN and what distribution rights you have.


ISBNs, those unassuming yet indispensable identification codes for books, have been the guiding stars in the vast literary cosmos. From their unpretentious beginnings to their seamless adaptation to the digital era, ISBNs have consistently played a pivotal role in the world of publishing.

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