Self Publishing Tips: ISBNs

This post is part of an ongoing series aimed at explaining various aspects of the self-publishing process. Its a daunting, complicated endeavor sometimes, so I hope these articles help! If there’s anything you have questions about or subjects you’d like to see covered, please feel free to send me an email through the contact page.

What’s that number on top of the barcode of a book? It’s an ISBN number, and you need one if you’re publishing your own work. When I was learning how to publish miniature ships I was pretty confused by ISBNs, whether I’d need one, how many I’d need, and I hope to share some of my learnings in case you’re also confused. Here’s a quick look.

The ISBN, or International Standard Book Number, is like a fingerprint for your book. It’s specific to the edition, format, and publisher, and was developed to offer more efficient marketing of the many versions of books that exist in the marketplace.

Getting an ISBN Yourself

You can purchase ISBNs by the 1s, 10s, 100s, and 1000s at These ISBNs will be tied to you (if you self publish) or the publisher of your choice. The cost is $125 for a single ISBN, $250 for 10, $575 for 100 and $1000 for 1000. Bowker also offers barcode services, but we’ll get to that. If you’re looking to procure your own ISBN, Bowker’s the only option.

Alternatives to Getting Your Own ISBN

Depending on your publisher status or your intentions for your book, you can save money by using print-on-demand services like Createspace or Lulu. These services will offer an ISBN for much less than the cost of purchasing one yourself (or free), but there’s a catch: the ISBN lists these services as the publisher. That ISBN is forever tied to that format of that book on that publisher. If you decide to take your book elsewhere, you will need a new ISBN. This aspect convinced me to start my own publishing company – the portability I would have with printers and the ability to keep one ISBN tied to one format, regardless of what might happen.


The barcode pulls the ISBN and book price together and creates a scannable SKU for your book. Bowker offers barcode services for a fee, and most print-on-demand companies will include it if you purchase your ISBN through them. Don’t be mislead by Bowker’s service; there are several programs a Google search away that will generate your barcode for free. From there just import it into your cover design, and you’re all set.


The one place that you don’t strictly need an ISBN is for a Kindle edition. Amazon offers an ASIN (Amazon Standard Identification Number) for Kindle books, and that identifier will suffice for selling a Kindle book on the Kindle store. Although it wasn’t necessary, I opted to have an ISBN for my Kindle editions of miniature ships and distant friends to allow for better accounting of all versions in one place – namely, my Bowker account.

This is just an eagle’s glance at what the ISBN is and why you need one if you’re serious about making your book available for purchase. If you’ve got a print edition of your book and you want to be in the marketplace, an ISBN is essential. I hope this info helps clear things up for you a bit. If you have any tips you’ve learned or questions about the process, please comment!