So, you’ve finished your book and are ready to publish. Congratulations! One of your final steps in the journey is the attainment of an ISBN number and a barcode. An ISBN identifies your book’s publisher, edition, publication region, and physical properties. The barcode is a graphical representation of your ISBN and pricing information. Simply put, they are a unique identifier for your publication—no other number or media will have that exact ISBN or barcode.

What is an ISBN?

An International Standard Book Number (ISBN) is a unique 10- or 13-digit number that is assigned to every printed book and if done professionally, most electronic books. The ISBN identifies the publisher, registrant group (country), and publication type (format). A hardcover and a soft cover of the same title will have different an ISBN. Even its eBook will have a different identifier because the ISBN is unique to that format.

Books are published with a 10-digit ISBN and a 13-digit ISBN. The 13-digit ISBNs were introduced in January 2007. Some newer books may only use the 13-digit classification.

An ISBN is found in two places—on the copyright page and the back cover.

Books published before 1970 do not have an ISBN. If a book has been reprinted since that time, with changes and so forth, then one will be assigned to that specific printing.

Each country has an ISBN registration agency that is responsible for that area. In the United States, it is Bowker.

Anatomy of an ISBN

An ISBN consist of 5 elements separated by a hyphen.

How to read an ISBN

EAN Prefix

The EAN prefix is always three digits in length and is currently only 978 or 979. EAN stands for European Article Number and is a numbering system used internationally on books and book-related products. Traditionally, 978 has been used for books but 979 is starting to be used as more and more ISBNs have been assigned.

Registration Groups

Registration Group identifies the particular country, geographical region, or the language of the publication. It may be between one and five digits in length. The original 10-digit ISBN did not use a registration group identifier. Here are some examples of single-digit identifiers for particular regions.

  • English-speaking countries use 0 or 1.
  • French-speaking countries use 2.
  • German-speaking countries use 3.
  • Japan uses 4.
  • Russian-speaking countries use 5.
  • The People’s Republic of China uses 7.

For ISBNs that use an EAN prefix of 979, they use the following identifiers.

  • France uses an identifier of 10.
  • The Republic of Korean uses 11.
  • Italy uses 12.

There are many more and the rarer the language, the longer the identifier will be.


The Registrant element identifies the particular publisher or imprint of a publication within the registration group. It may be up to 7 digits in length. It also has the same publisher identifier as in a 10-digit ISBN.

For example, Diana Gabaldon’s Dragonfly in Amber was published by Dell which is a subset of Random House LLC. Their registrant element is 440.

Simon & Schuster’s publication for What Happened by Hillary Rodham Clinton uses a registration element of 5011.

What does this mean and why does it matter? If you look up other books by this particular publisher, you will find that they also use 5011 as their registrant number. Think of it as a membership number. This number distinctly identifies that publisher or imprint for that particular edition. If you decide to self-publish and buy your own ISBN from Bowker’s, you will also get a unique registrant ID. Any books that you register an ISBN for under your registrant ID will be tied to you as the owner. If you use an ISBN through Amazon’s CreateSpace or KPD, then they’ll provide you with an ISBM using their unique registrant number.


The fourth element is Publication, which identifies the specific format and edition of a specific title. This element may be up to 6 characters in length.

Check Digit

A check digit is a number that validates the ISBN. There is a complicated mathematical formula that goes into it, but the digit is used primarily as a way to check for redundancy, and it shows that the number has been verified.


How do you get an ISBN?

The publisher, the person or group responsible for the production of a publication, is the one who would apply for an ISBN. In the United States, they are administrated through Bowker.

However, if you are self-publishing, then you are considered the owner/publisher. Create an account with Bowker where you can purchase ISBNs in blocks of 1, 10, 100, or 1000. If you know that you will be writing more than one book, buying 10 is a better value for the price. Once you have your ISBN, be sure to register it at Bowkerlink to add your title to Bowker’s Books in Print and Global Books in Print.

If you are using services such as Amazon KDP or CreateSpace, they have a free ISBN that you can use. However, this lists them as the owner/publisher. It’s limiting because you usually only use the ISBN with the company that generates it. You would be restricted by the use of the free ISBN to just that printer and their distributors if any. You could use the same book with another distributor by creating yet another ISBN, but it starts getting complicated. It’s bad form to have multiple ISBNs with different providers, so it’s often best to stick with something like Bowker so that you have more freedom in distributing your book.

If you are wanting to start independently publishing a series of books, your best bet would be to buy a block of 10 ISBNs from Bowker and go from there. You can still use many of the printing services such as CreateSpace, Smashwords, etc., even with your own block of ISBNs.

If you are outside the United States, you can find your local ISBN Agency here.

What about ASIN?

An ASIN is a unique identifier generated by Amazon for its Kindle Direct Publishing (KPD) program. These 10-character alphanumeric unique identifiers are used to manage and identify the products they are selling. If you are only intending on selling on Amazon through their Kindle program, you can get away with using just an ASIN.

It can only be used with Amazon, however, so if you want to sell on other platforms or in a print store, you will still have to get an ISBN. Best choice? If it is an eBook, get both.

Quick Tips

  • Different formats require different ISBNs. For example, let’s say your paperback became a best seller. Congratulations! If you want to create a hardback, an audio version, and an eBook, you will need a different ISBN for each format or title. Publishing a series? Each book should get its own ISBN.
  • ISBNs are international, so you don’t need a different ISBN to sell in each country. The local requirement is just where the publisher is located, so a self-publisher can stock their book worldwide using one ISBN.
  • The ISBN does not convey any form of legal protection with regards to your copyright. Be sure to copyright your book as soon as it is ready to go to press (or digital format).
  • If you are reprinting a book without changing the text or binding, you do not need a new ISBN. If you do change the text or images within the book, it is considered another edition, and you will need a new ISBN.
  • Speaking of reprints, if you change the title of a book, you need a new ISBN. Even the internal copy and layout is the same; you still need to register the title to a new ISBN.
  • Also, if you have an older book that went out of print, do not re-use an existing ISBN. Get a new one as that ISBN is explicitly tied to the older edition (and it creates a mess on search engines).
  • Are you changing the price? You are not required to get a new ISBN.
  • One final bit of good news. ISBNs do not expire so there is annual registration fees or license requirements to keep it up to date.


What is a Barcode?

A barcode is a machine-readable graphical representation of your book’s ISBN and the price information. You’ll often notice barcodes on the back of books with the price on one line, followed by the ISBN, and then graphical bars, followed by a specific number. It’s not important to get too in-depth about it, know that you have to have the ISBN to get the barcode.

Barcode with ISBN example

You’re not required to have a barcode if you are not planning on printing and distributing hard copies. So if you want to just sell ebooks on Amazon’s KPD? Feel free to skip it. However, if you want to sell in any physical retailer, you’ll need one. When the retailer scans it, it enables the vendor to keep track of sales and maintain their inventory.

The barcode must be in the EAN (European Article Number) barcode format to be sold in bookstores and other physical retailers. It has the ISBN on top of a graphic, followed by a specific number.

Where do I get a barcode?

Good news! It’s a lot easier than you think. If you purchased your ISBN through Bowker, you can order a barcode and tie it directly to your ISBN. After purchase, it will be available to download as a .eps, .pdf, or however you need it to place on your back cover.

If you are going through a traditional publishing house, they will generate the barcode themselves along with the ISBN.

It’s important to note that while your ISBN for a publication will remain the same, your barcode can change. For example, let’s say that you change the price for a book that is sold by retailers. You would want to update the barcode to reflect the new price. [This does not include sales or promotions. You do not need a new one for those.]


One Final Note: ISSN

International Standard Serial Number (ISSN) is an eight-digit serial number that uniquely identifies a serial publication such as a magazine. The ISSN is tied to a standardized form of the serial, known as the “key title.” Additional elements are then added to that key title element that differentiates it from other publications having identical titles. Think of it this way—ISBNs are for books and ISSN are for serial publications. These publications include newspapers, journals, periodicals, and magazines of all kinds, both print and electronic.

You will not need one for a book publication, ebook, and so forth.

For additional information about ISBNs, check out the International ISBN Agency, which is the international registration authority for the standard.


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