The Writing Zone: Stage 15 - ISBNs and Barcodes

The Writing Zone: Stage 15 - ISBNs and Barcodes

Self-publishing is as intensive and time-consuming as you make it out to be.

Whether you create your own book cover and do the bare minimum on the marketing front or pay professionals to design your creation and assist with a full-blown marketing campaign, the end result of your work is having a novel publicly available for the masses to purchase. However, since I’ve committed toward getting as many eyes on my book as possible, I’ve chosen the latter direction. This also means I get to experience far more aspects of the professional publication side of things.

Translation: I get to complete a lot of digital paperwork.

A part of this paperwork is a very important question one must ask when deciding to self-publish their novel: “Do you want to control how your book is sold?”

It sounds like a simple question - one with a simple, single-word answer. However, the reality of today’s publishing world makes it not so clear-cut. You can choose to skip much of the administrative paperwork and allow Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) or Barnes & Noble Press to handle the administrative aspects of your novel - assigning it a code which it can be easily identified and searched upon while you spend nothing for that work. However, what’s the real cost of going that direction?

This is where ISBNs come into play.

What is ISBN?

The International Standard Book Number (ISBN) is a 13-digit number, an official identification which is recognized globally. Those thirteen numbers represent many things for a book.

  • It makes your book searchable in scores of bibliographic databases around the world, such as Books in Print, and search engines like Google.

  • All book sales will be associated to the ISBN, ensuring you can easily track the success of your book over time.

  • It identifies a specific version of your book, making it easy to quickly track data for each format your book is in.

  • It is required if you want your book sold in bookstores and wholesalers, or held in libraries and universities.

Why Purchase an ISBN

ISBNs tend to be purchased in batches, even when an author wants to publish a single book. Going back to the point on versioning, a single book can have multiple formats: paperback, hardback, audiobook, and multiple ebook formats (ex: MOBI, ePub, and PDF) for starters. If you wanted your book to exist as a paperback and in two ebooks formats - KDP and B&N Press (MOBI and ePub, respectively) - that would require three different ISBNs for one book.

For books published in the United States, ISBNs are sold by Bowker, the official vendor.

I purchased a batch of ten ISBNs and currently assigned three to my upcoming novel, leaving me with seven unassigned ISBNs. This isn’t a bad thing, at least because I intend on writing more books over time. You see, ISBNs never expire and they are yours forever once they are assigned to you.

Did I mention these ISBNs are assigned to you? This is important, particularly where choosing where you want to sell your book comes into play.

Free ISBNs: What’s the Catch?

As mentioned earlier, you don’t have to purchase ISBNs to get your book listed for sale online - at least if you want to sell ebooks. Amazon uses their own method of book identification, called an Amazon Standard Identification Number (ASIN). Whether you have an ISBN or not, an ASIN is automatically assigned to any ebook that’s to be sold on the Kindle platform. More importantly, Amazon will give you an ASIN for free as part of allowing them to host your ebook.

Barnes & Noble offers a similar solution, except that instead of using their own unique ID, they outright assign you an ISBN for your ebook, for free - if you don’t have one of your own.

On the surface, this sounds great. For the cost of simply allocating time to complete the ebook registration forms on their platforms, you wouldn’t spend a dime on getting an ID for your ebook. However, being assigned a free ISBN or ASIN doesn’t mean it’s yours. The owner of that number is the publisher - in these cases, it’s Amazon and B&N. This could become an issue if you ever decide to change where you’d want to sell your novel.

This is particularly true of paperbacks. For example, because I own the ISBN for my book’s paperback format I’ll be able to apply that one ISBN across all print-on-demand retailers like Amazon, B&N, and IngramSpark.

In addition, since any assigned ISBN is restricted to the place of origin, it makes it hard for you to track sales metrics across multiple retailers.

ISBNs: Conclusion

Knowing this, it is worth knowing where you want to sell your book as this will determine the direction you wish to go. It’s also worth thinking about how much you care about potential book sales and understanding that data. If you believe you’ll be selling your book solely as an ebook format, perhaps the free solution is the best way to go - and there’s nothing wrong with that. However, if you intend on getting your book sold in bookstores or distributed in physical formats, the justification for owning your own ISBNs increases.

Speaking of selling your book in stores…

About Barcodes

A barcode is required if you intend on having your book sold in bookstores or sold by distributors to retailers in a print format (paperback, hardback). If you require a barcode, you also require an ISBN.


The numbers on a book’s barcode today have 13-digits, referencing the ISBN associated with that barcode. These numbers are comprised of the following:

  • European Article Number (EAN) - 978 - the prefix added as part of the 13-digit ISBN. Currently only 978 and 979 are in use.

  • Registration Group Number - 1 - this represents the language the book is in; “1” is for English.

  • Publisher Number - 402894 - the number assigned to the publisher/imprint that’s printing the book.

  • Book ID - 62 - provides details such as the book title, genre, edition, and format.

  • Check Digit - 6 - part of a mathematical formula designed to prevent errors and ensure that all ISBNs are unique.

(It’s worth mentioning that the numerical breakdown above doesn’t match all books. Barcodes are funny that way.)

An important detail regarding barcodes: They store your book pricing information as well. These are the numbers on the upper-right of the barcode.

  • Currency Designation - 5 - the currency the book is to be sold. “5” is for US Dollars.

  • Book Price - 0495 - how much the book is to be sold for. “0495” equals “$4.95.”

According to Bowker, once you’re set a book price for your barcode, the price is permanently linked to that barcode. Therefore, if you want to ever change the retail price of your print book you’d have to purchase a new barcode.

I ended up purchasing a batch of ten ISBNs - one of the first major financial decisions made once I moved to self-publishing. It set me back $295 (the package was for 10 ISBNs and 1 barcode), but I believe it’s worth the investment. Which direction did you go regarding ISBNs and barcodes? Did you purchase your own or use what was provided by businesses like Amazon?



Self-Publishing - My First Forty-Five Days

Self-Publishing - My First Forty-Five Days