What is an ISBN and why do I need one?

An ISBN (International Standard Book Number) is a book’s identifier, much like a social security number. It’s a 13-digit number which is applicable worldwide and unique to your book. The ISBN system uses a 13-digit number on the copyright/information page, and it also uses a bar code and number on the back cover.

But what’s it for? I have a lot of people who ask me that question. Do you really need an ISBN?

That depends. Sometimes you do, and sometimes you don’t. It depends on where and how you intend to sell or distribute your book.

The ISBN provides a standard way for publishers to number their products so they cannot be duplicated by other publishers. You need an ISBN if you are going to sell your book in bookstores, through retailers, or online storefronts, like Amazon.com. There are no exceptions—if you’re going to sell your book in the traditional marketplace, you must have an ISBN.

That’s the big advantage to having an ISBN, and one that is usually the driving force behind acquiring one.

However, if you don’t intend to sell your book through any of the avenues mentioned above, you don’t really need an ISBN. For instance, if your book is a free promotional item that you’ll give away or package with another product, it doesn’t really need an ISBN. Or, if you use your book as a business card, distributing it free to potential clients, it’s not necessary to have an ISBN. Also, if your book will be sold solely at the back of the room during your speaking events, you won’t need an ISBN.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of an ISBN?

1. Advantage: You can sell your book in brick and mortar stores. By scanning the bar code, retailers identify the book title, publisher, and author, ensuring that you are credited with the sale and that their inventory is updated with each purchase.

2. Disadvantage: ISBNs, both the numbers and the bar code, cost money. Getting both in a package costs around $150, but you can check for current prices at Bowker.com or BowkerLink.com, who is the exclusive supplier of ISBNs.

3. Advantage: An ISBN gives your book credibility to others. It’s viewed as a symbol of prestige to your book. By the way, the absence of an ISBN is one sign that your book is not published through a traditional mainstream publisher.

4. Disadvantage: It takes up to six weeks to receive your book’s ISBN, so if you’re not going to sell it through retail stores or on line sites which require it, it might cause an unnecessary delay in your book’s release.

5. Advantage: Purchasing an ISBN for your book puts it in the worldwide catalog of published books. You must be included in this catalog if you want your book available in libraries.

Given those points, the determining factor in whether you need an ISBN is how you intend to distribute or market it. Even if you aren’t going to sell your book through online or retail vendors, you might want to order an ISBN anyway, leaving the option open later should you change your mind. It’s your call—only you know the value that an ISBN will give to your particular book. Only you can determine the advantages it will bring to you in terms of sales and credibility.

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