Better Basics: What is an ISBN, and do they matter?

Better Basics: What is an ISBN, and do they matter?

There’s countless articles explaining what an ISBN is, but many new authors and small publishers have to wonder – do they even matter? I would say that for most self-published authors, they don’t. Keep in mind this article is about ISBNs and not ISSNs, which are only for magazines and publications.

An ISBN is just a number that is meant to identify your novel, serving as a unique identifier so that books with similar titles or metadata are not confused. It is also a way to distinguish between different types of the same novel, for example an eBook and a paperback version of the same book will have different ISBNs.

While a number is free to create, official distributors in every country have a monopoly on the issuance of ISBN’s. As they don’t even maintain the various databases of ISBNs, they are just charging you because they can. It is a scam, really. Nowadays with the ability to have a decentralised ledger, this system is outdated, but participation in this system can be useful to a small publisher, and essential for large publishers.

Who needs an ISBN?

An ISBN is mostly useful for large publishers, and that’s reflected in ISBN pricing which is cheap in bulk but very expensive for an individual. An ISBN is far superior to using titles, when uploading, editing and managing large amounts of books. Traditional publishers use ONIX as a way to send their book catalog to the various bookstores and retailers, and in terms of management using the ISBN as the main identifier prevents countless misunderstandings. If you only have a few books, the usefulness of an ISBN is greatly reduced. I strongly suggest that if you are self published, you should only bother with an ISBN if one is required, or if the cost is not much money to you. There are a few ways to get a free ISBN.

How do you get a free ISBN?

One way to get a free ISBN is to issue your book through a retailer that will give you a free ISBN. The most well known example is Amazon, however with a free Amazon ISBN you will only ever be able to use that ISBN for selling on their platform. That is to say, if you want to upload your book elsewhere, it is not your ISBN anymore. Barnes & Noble also give a free ISBN, with similar limitations. Smashwords, Draft2Digital, and eBookPartnership all provide a free ISBN. 

How much do ISBNs cost in each country?

Each country has a different official retailer for ISBNs, and they charge widely different prices. If you have the ability to purchase an ISBN overseas for a cheaper cost, I recommend you do so, as they are all recognised worldwide. The number does contain the language the book is written in, as well as some other information such as publisher group. As it’s an imaginary number, prices are all over the place.

United States

$ 125
  • $295 for 10 ISBNs
  • $575 for 100 ISBNs
  • $1500 for 1000 ISBNs

United Kingdom

£ 89
  • 164 for 10 ISBNs
  • 369 for 100 ISBNs
  • 949 for 1000 ISBNs


$ 44
  • $88 for 10 ISBNs
  • $480 for 100 ISBNs
  • $3035 for 1000 ISBNs


$ Free
  • Free
  • Free
  • Free


  • 139 Entry Fee
  • 229 for 100 ISBNs
  • 229 for 1000 ISBNs


  • Free
  • Free
  • Free

As you can see, some governments provide ISBNs for free. If you are from a country not already listed here, I would really appreciate if you could make a comment and let us know what you paid for an ISBN in your country. A list of the ISBN issuing companies are as follows:

  • Australia – the commercial library services agency Thorpe-Bowker;
  • Brazil – Câmara Brasileira do Livro; 
  • Canada – English Library and Archives Canada, a government agency; French Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec;
  • Colombia – Cámara Colombiana del Libro, an NGO;
  • Hong Kong – Books Registration Office (BRO), under the Hong Kong Public Libraries;
  • India – The Raja Rammohun Roy National Agency for ISBN (Book Promotion and Copyright Division), under Department of Higher Education, a constituent of the Ministry of Human Resource Development;
  • Iceland – Landsbókasafn (National and University Library of Iceland);
  • Israel – The Israel Center for Libraries;
  • Italy – EDISER srl, owned by Associazione Italiana Editori (Italian Publishers Association);
  • Maldives – The National Bureau of Classification (NBC);
  • Malta – The National Book Council (Maltese: Il-Kunsill Nazzjonali tal-Ktieb);
  • Morocco – The National Library of Morocco
  • New Zealand – The National Library of New Zealand;
  • Pakistan – National Library of Pakistan
  • Philippines – National Library of the Philippines;
  • South Africa – National Library of South Africa
  • Spain – Spanish ISBN Agency – Agencia del ISBN
  • Turkey – General Directorate of Libraries and Publications, a branch of the Ministry of Culture;
  • United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland –Nielsen Book Services Ltd, part of Nielsen Holdings N.V.;
  • United States – R.R. Bowker.

An ISBN does follow a logical format, the five properties described succinctly by wikipedia as follows:

  1. for a 13-digit ISBN, a prefix element – a GS1 prefix: so far 978 or 979 have been made available by GS1,
  2. the registration group element (language-sharing country group, individual country or territory),[c]
  3. the registrant element,
  4. the publication element, and
  5. checksum character or check digit.

Although I don’t recommend it, I have heard of people simply generating their own ISBNs that comply with the above requirements, and using them without any negative effects. If you have any questions about the ISBN process, or if you want to share a bit of knowledge about the ISBN process in your country, please leave a comment below. 

Leave a Comment