ISBN and Barcodes

Before we get started on book production, let’s tackle a couple of issues self-publishers tend to get confused about: ISBNs and legal deposits.

What are they?

ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number. It’s a row of 13 digits containing information about your book which allows it to be conveniently catalogued.


The ISBN is used to create a barcode to store the data in a form which can be scanned into a machine. This is usually found, along with the ISBN, at the bottom right hand corner of the back cover.

These two together allow your book to be easily entered onto a database and made available to wholesalers, bookshops and lending libraries and through them, your customers.

So I need to get one

Not necessarily. You don’t need an ISBN to sell your book directly through your own website, to friends and family or at corporate/social events.

It is, however, necessary to have one to sell through bricks and mortar or online bookshops. At this stage, you’re probably thinking, ‘Duh! That’s exactly what I want to do!’ However, I’d advise you to wait for my posts on distribution and weigh up the economics of each option before making any decisions.

As we’ll be discussing later, one of the more economically viable ways to distribute your print book is to use CreateSpace to access Amazon. If you do this, they’ll give you an ISBN and barcode for free. Lulu also provide a similar service with free ISBNs.

In addition, many companies that offer self-publishing packages, such as Matador, provide an ISBN and generate a barcode for you. This is usually done either free or at a small cost. Technically, like Lulu and CreateSpace, they then become the publisher of your work and you publish under their imprint. Providing they’re reputable, this matters not a jot. In fact it has the advantage that you don’t have to deal with registration or data management.

What about eBooks?

You don’t need to worry about ISBNs for eBooks. Amazon, by far the biggest market for digital books, doesn’t even use them, preferring its own ASIN (Amazon Standard Identification Number). You’ll be given one of these for free when you upload your eBook using KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing).

Most of the other major retailers, such as Apple’s iBooks and Barnes & Noble, may like you to have an ISBN but don’t require it. There’s only the occasional one, like WHSmith, who insist upon it. However, if you access these markets via Smashwords, as I suggest, they’ll automatically assign you an ISBN for free.

There’s nothing to stop you buying an ISBN for your eBook. It’s just that it’s a waste of money. The one thing you musn’t do is use the same ISBN for your eBook as for your print book. This will cause untold confusion. Technically, you should also use a different ISBN for every format your eBook is available in whether that be PDF, ePUB or MOBI.

How do I purchase an ISBN?

If you decide you do want to buy an ISBN, it’s a simple process.

You need to purchase from whichever agency supplies the country you’re living in, regardless of where you intend to sell your book. In the US, this is Bowker, in Australia Thorpe-Bowker. A simple internet search will tell you the agency which provides ISBNs for your country/region.

In the UK or Ireland, Nielsen Holdings is the sole distributor. To buy an ISBN, head to

The cost is currently £89 for registration and one ISBN. Further ISBNs can then be bought for £34.28 each or you can go all out and get a block of ten with registration for £149.

The purchase process is quick and easy. Add the quantity required to your basket and register as a new user, filling in all relevant information. Your company structure is probably best described as sole trader but ‘Other’ may also be an option.

After payment, you’ll need to complete information about your book, such as its genre, title, publication date, size and number of pages. Some of this information won’t be available until your internal layout (typesetting) is well on its way. This creates a slight hiccup as the ISBN is usually placed on the copyright page so you can’t fully complete typesetting until you have it. If you’re working with a designer, he/she will advise you on the logistics of this. If you’re doing the layout, yourself, it’s simply a case of having everything else done but leaving a space on the copyright page, ready to receive the 13 digit number, when it arrives.

Assuming the information you provide is correct and there are no glitches, you should receive your ISBN(s) by email within 10 days.

Nielsen’s Free Listing Service

Obviously, the ultimate point of an ISBN isn’t to have a pretty string of numbers on your book cover but to reach bookshops. Purchasing an ISBN automatically registers your book on Nielsen’s database. Its details will then be available to bookshops and lending libraries across the UK and beyond.

One consequence of this is that you’ll see your book pop up on Amazon with the information about physical properties and expected publication date you provided.

Inclusion on Nielsen’s database doesn’t indicate that your book will be on the shelves of Waterstones. On a practical level, it simply means that anyone walking into a bookstore should be able to order a copy to collect later. I’ll tell you more on the logistics of this in the distribution section.

How do I edit my listing?

Once your book is listed, it’s a good idea to be able to edit its details yourself. That way you can add an image of your book cover when it becomes available and keep information about availability and price up to date.

To do this, register with Nielsen’s Title Editor ( It’ll take five to ten days to get your account set up. After that, simply login, locate your book by using the search function and then click ‘Edit Book’. You are, however, limited in what information you can change once an ISBN number has been issued. Changes to size, binding and publisher will require a new ISBN.

Further Information on ISBNs

If you’re in the UK or Ireland and have any queries, Nielsen provide lots of information on the process at their website:

In my experience, they are more than happy to answer even the most stupid of questions from inexperienced publishers. You can email them at:

If you live anywhere else, contact your national or regional agency who will be happy to help with any of your concerns.

How do I get a barcode?

Once you have an ISBN, your designer or printer should be able to provide you with a barcode either free or at a small cost.

If you’re publishing via an all-in-one package provider, they will usually deal with barcodes for you.

CreateSpace provide one for free.

If you want to know more about barcodes and find advice on software to create one yourself, BIC (Book Industry Communications) provide a helpful guide:

CreateSpace? Matador? Smashwords? EPUB? MOBI? Help! I’m completely lost!

I’m aware I’ve used a lot of terms that you might not be familiar with yet. If you’re feeling a bit bamboozled, fear not. All will be explained in simple posts as we go along. For the moment, just be aware of what an ISBN is and where to get one if you need it after deciding how you’re going to distribute your book.


Next time: Legal Deposit Libraries


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