ISBNs, Lesson Learnt

Hey. My name is Atticus Ryder. I’ve been writing in earnest for 10+ years. In this article, I’m going to talk about filling gaps in publishing knowledge, specifically what I learnt about ISBNs. Google is your friend. Context. I needed ISBNs for the print and ePub editions of The Minor Gentleman and I didn’t want to have to go through a 3rd party to get them, but wasn’t sure if I’d have to. 

I had a bunch of questions. What is an ISBN? Are they different? Is it a one-off purchase? Do you need to have a registered company to get them? How do you link them to a book? How much does it even cost? What’s an ISSN vs ISBN? 

What is an ISBN number?

An International Standard Book Number (ISBN) is a unique 13 digit number assigned to a book. It used to be 10 back in the day but they extended it. You can see them on the back cover of any book.  It’s the method used by everyone to identify your book in the marketplace. 

Every edition or format of your book will need to have a different ISBN. For me, I published The Minor Gentleman in two formats; paperback and ePub, therefore needed two. 

Do I need to have an ISBN number to publish?

If you want to sell your book through Amazon, local bookshops etc, then yes. Also the same for getting it stocked in local libraries. If success is giving a copy to family or friends then it’s optional. For me, it made it feel official.

What stuff doesn’t officially need an ISBN?

Journals, newspapers etc, Ephemeral printed stuff like advertising, Printed music, Art prints, Greetings cards, Music sound recordings, Updating websites, Games etc

How do I get an ISBN?

They can be ordered from the Nielsen UK ISBN Agency. ISBN’s are issued in singles, tens, and even hundreds. When I got them it was £89 for one OR £164 for 10. I got 10. It’s a one-off purchase as well. You have to indicate the publishing imprint you’re getting them under e.g. Penguin or Random House. Note, this imprint doesn’t need to be registered as an official company but it’s worth doing a trademark check. 


How long does it take?

It’s like buying something online so pretty immediate. You get them emailed to you. I recommend you copy them into a spreadsheet and keep a track of where you’ve assigned them. 

What if you're not comfortable buying online?

You can call them. The number is on their website. 

How do I get the barcode bit on the back of my book?

Once you’ve bought the actual numbers, you’ve got two options. 

1./ Buy the barcodes from the same place e.g. Nielsen UK Agency (or equivalent in your country)

2./ Ask your book designer if they can do it. I was lucky. I created my own covers but I had a book designer add the bleed lines and special things needed by printers. They added the barcodes for free. 


Now I’ve bought them, how do I get the marketplace to associate the ISBN with my book?

Good question. Nielsen isn’t just a place to buy ISBNs, it’s also the bibliographic database that drives a lot of the information you see about books on amazon, libraries etc. Also how different editions link together etc. For example if you republish your book with a new front cover, you’ll need a new ISBN and you’ll have to associate.

Nielsen are ok. They email afterwards with another step to do this. It’s a bit of pain. 

Enter Nielsen Title Editor:

You’ll need to register separately. I’ll do a post on how to fill that in at some point. It’s simple in some ways but there is a lot of publishing lingo that can be overwhelming. 

What’s the difference between an ISBN and an ISSN?

An International Standard Serial Number. This is the numbering system for journals, periodicals and newsletters. It is administered by the British Library. Basically if you’re an academic, you need one. 

That’s it for now. Hope that was helpful. All the best with your publishing / Work-in-Progress.