What is an ISBN?

January 19, 2022

One thing that I had to learn to navigate when becoming an author was the new terminology. I would like to help you understand what some of the most important terms are and what you should know about them. Today I'm going to talk about ISBN's.

International Standard Book Number

ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number. This is a book identifier.

Once ten digits, they are now thirteen digits and are unique to each book. Let’s break the number down and see what all those digits mean.

The first 3 is a prefix element and currently is only either 978 or 979. It is always only 3 digits and is called Prefix Element.

The next grouping of digits, the Registration Group Element, is from 1 to 5 digits. This identifies a particular country, geographical region, or language area.

Then, the Registration Element is the next section or grouping and can be up to 7 digits in length and identified a particular publisher or imprint.

Next is the Publication Element and identifies a particular edition and format of a specific title. This can be up to 6 digits in length.

Finally is the Check Digit and is a digit that mathematically validates the rest of the number.

If You Write a Book You Need It!

The ISBN, a book identifier, is used by everyone in the publishing world, including bookstores and libraries. They are essential in ordering, listing, and maintaining stock inventory.

One of the major questions I had in the beginning was how many ISBN numbers did I need. I initially thought that each book title had an ISBN, but then soon found out that each format of that title needed its own.

Each Title Needs and ISBN for Each Format

So, for my novel The Blood, since it has 4 different formats, hardcopy, soft cover, ebook, and audio, I needed 4 separate ISBN numbers for that one title.

If you do not intend to ever sell your book, you do not need and ISBN. But, because you never know, maybe down the road you will decide you want to offer it at even a nominal fee, you should get an ISBN.

Your Publisher Owns the ISBN

If you are published through a publisher other than yourself, they will do this for you. Their identifiers will point back to them as the publisher.

When you publish your own books, you can and should purchase them yourself. You may choose to publish through a second party where they offer to provide you with a free ISBN. Once I learned that it will point directly back to that entity, I decided I wanted to buy my own ISBN numbers.

This was also about the time I created my own publishing company, so now my ISBN numbers all point back to my publishing company Wild Ideas Press.


The only place you can purchase an ISBN number is through Bowker. Let me encourage you to buy them in bulk. They are cheaper, they don’t expire, and you will use them.

Another thing tied to the ISBN number, but not to be confused with the number, is the barcode. If your book is in print you will need a barcode generated from the ISBN number.

An ISBN is Not a Barcode

In Bowker, you can buy your block of numbers and then with a simple click, generate a barcode for that number. You will provide that graphic to your graphic artist and they will place it on the book on the back according to the dictates of the printer.

Barcodes allow the book to be scanned by not only booksellers, but also the publisher, and printer to keep track of inventory and sales.

Fill Out All The Data About Your Book

Once you buy your block of ISBN numbers you can go into your own little database on the Bowker website and fill out the pertinent information regarding each book. Let me encourage you to fill it out completely. This is metadata that will be picked up by search engines and aid in threading data about your book out into the internet.

What is an ISBN?

This article was meant for a brief clarification on ISBN numbers and barcodes. Let me encourage you to go directly to the Bowker site where there is much more information as well as a thorough Q&A.

It is an interesting site to visit as it provide much more information and services other than the sale of ISBN’s and barcodes.

Here is their website: https://www.myidentifiers.com

 I want to encourage you to leave me any comments below. They are so encouraging and motivating to me. 


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