Q: What is an ISBN?
A: It’s short for International Standard Book Number. Nowadays they’re 13 digits long and unique to each edition of a book.
Q: Does my book have to have one?
A: They’re a requirement for print books, but ebooks can do without. You can still apply them to ebooks, especially if you want to give them a more professional finish. Traditional publishers do this, and having one is generally a requirement for getting into libraries.
Q: Will one ISBN do, or do I need one for each edition?
A: Every edition of your book requires a unique ISBN number. So if someone wants the paperback with the dragon on the cover and a purple spine, they expect the ISBN to bring up that exact edition, not the hardback with an elf on the cover. Put simply: every time you upload a copy of your book to CreateSpace, IngramSpark or KDP Print then you should have a fresh ISBN.
Q: How do I get ISBNs?
A: This depends on your country. Numbers are managed globally by the International ISBN Agency, and they delegate authority out to regional and national organizations. For example, in New Zealand they’re managed by National Library of New Zealand. In the USA they’re run by Bowker. To find who you should contact, there’s a website with each country’s national authority. Click here.
Q: Do I have to pay for my ISBNs?
A: Sometimes. In New Zealand ISBNs are free for locally published books, as long as you meet their requirements and file two copies of your book with the National Library. Canada is also free, but in the USA and Australia you have to pay.
Q: Don’t on-demand publishers provide free ISBNs?
A: Yes, some do. When you sign up with them, they’ll offer you a free ISBN for your book, or you have the choice of using your own. The thing is, ISBNs are linked globally to a publisher’s name. If you own your own one, the name you choose will be associated with your ISBN wherever it appears online, such as on Amazon or Book Depository. If you take a free ISBN from one of these companies, then their name appears in that field. This may not be a big deal for you so you may decide to roll with it.
Q: Does this mean they own the book?
A: No, you still own your book, but by using a free ISBN number you’re associating your publication with that company. It looks cleaner and more professional if you have your publisher or business name there. When it says CreateSpace or some other service, it makes your book imediately look self-published. This may also effect sales to bookshops and libraries.
Q: Once I have an ISBN, where should I put them?
A: Print services will require the ISBN with a barcode on the back of your book. CreateSpace and KDP Print will add this themselves. For IngramSpark you’ll need to download a template with the ISBN included. You’ll also want to include the ISBN on the copyright page, as well as numbers for other editions of the book.
Q: Are ISBN just, well, random numbers?
A: There is a logic to them. Currently they all start with 978 and some people who’ve been in the book industry a long time will be able to tell you a lot about a book by the number it’s given. One of our staff once read a number out on the phone to a publisher and without a pause the publisher said it wasn’t one of their books and gave us the correct publisher (faulty book data!). But the number said it all. After 978 the following numbers corresponds to region or language. 9782 are French books, while 978606 are Romanian. Macau, at only 30 square kilometers has both 97899965 and 97899937. After this comes the publisher. So HarperCollins is 00, and Penguin is 14 etc... the subsequent numbers are for the book edition, and a final check digit.
Q: What’s a check digit?
A: It’s the last number in the ISBN. It is used in databases to check that all the ISBNs are correct, just in case someone’s entered them wrongly or they’ve been corrupted in transmission. You’ll notice this on CreateSpace or IngramSpark when you enter the ISBN of your book they’ll notice straight away if you’ve provided an invalid number.
Q: How does one number prove the accuracy of the previous 12 numbers? That doesn’t make sense.
A: This is where things get interesting. Take one of our ISBNs: 9781545265895. The check digit is 5. We then take the other numbers and do maths like this:
Now we add them up (9+21+8+3+5+12+5+6+6+15+8+27) and get 125. Exciting huh? But we’re not done yet. 125 isn’t the check digit. We now need to find 125 modulo 10. The answer is 5, because 125÷10=12.5 and 125-(12x10) =5.
5 is our check digit, so we can reasonably assume the other numbers in the ISBN are correct.
Q: Did I have to know any of that?
A: No, but it’s good to learn something new. Now tell us the check digit that should go on the end of 978067091721-_
Q: Okay, so I’ve read this far – can’t I just make up an ISBN that isn’t already in use?
A: No. Go back to the start and read everything again.
Homework: without Googling the ISBN itself, look at the following photo and tell us everything you can learn from the string of numbers: