Claim your FREE Hot Contacts Sheet with contact info on book reviewers and talk-show hosts, and sign up for our Publishing Game / Expertizing Newsletter.

(Privacy policy: We will not distribute your email address to anyone. Ever.)

See a sample newsletter

(Journalists, webmasters, & e-zine editors: Feel free to run these articles on book marketing, finding a literary agent, and self-publishing in your publications as long as you include the resource box/byline. A new article is posted each month.)

Also read our other articles on these writing and publishing topics:

The Skinny on ISBNs

The Skinny on ISBNs
by Fern Reiss, CEO,

All books sold in bookstores must have ISBNs. But if you don’t play your cards right, you might make a big mistake with this most basic of publishing labelers. Here’s what you need to know about ISBNs:

An ISBN—otherwise known as an International Standard Book Number—is a unique identifying number for your book. Every book in the world has its own ISBN, and the ISBN helps to ensure that the books are identified, ordered, and shipped correctly. In the U.S. you can only purchase ISBNs from R.R. Bowker company; in Canada you can only get them from the National Library of Canada. The barcode on a book’s cover includes both the ISBN and scanning information. ISBNs can be purchased directly from Bowker at

Whoever owns the ISBN is the publisher.
For some reason, there’s a lot of confusion over this issue. Whoever owns the ISBN—whoever purchased it—is the publisher of record. So, if you pay to have your book published through one of the many POD companies—then they, not you, are the publisher of the book. If you want to self-publish, you must buy your own ISBNs. Similarly, do not sell someone else one of your ISBNs. If you are the purchaser of the ISBN, then you are the legal publisher of the book.

Each version of the book needs its own ISBN.
You’ll need a separate ISBN for the hardcover, softcover, audio, video, and e-book versions of your book. Even if the content is the same, each unique version requires a unique ISBN—so that when bookstores and libraries order by ISBN, they automatically get the version they want.

Buy as many ISBNs as you can afford.
You can’t order just one ISBN from Bowker; you must order a block of 10, 100, 1000, 10,000, etc. Bowker charges $225 for ten ISBNs (plus a $14.95 registration fee), $800 for 100 ISBNs (plus a $39.95 registration fee) and $1,200 for 1000 ISBNs (plus a $119.95 processing fee.) Since you only need one ISBN, many first-time publishers want to purchase the smallest block possible.

However, everyone in the publishing industry, including booksellers, librarians, and reviewers, can tell how many ISBNs you have purchased by examining your ISBN. Purchasing only ten ISBNs marks you as a one-book publisher. Not everyone in the book world will care—but some of them will. If you want to present yourself as a serious independent publisher, as opposed to a one-book self-published author, you’ll need to go for one of the larger, more expensive blocks of ISBNs, despite the increased cost.

Start from the middle.
Don’t start assigning ISBNs with the first number in the ISBN logbook that Bowker sends you. (The first number ends in a ‘0,’ a dead give-away to everyone that you are publishing your first book.) Instead, pick a random number from the middle of your logbook. Consider saving consecutive ISBNs for different versions (hardcover, softcover, audio, e-book) of the same product.

Think carefully about price.
Keep in mind that whenever you reprint your title—regardless of a price change—you must maintain the original ISBN, according to Bowker. So don’t plan to just put in any old price here with the idea of changing your price down the road. Be sure you spend the time to figure out the ideal price for your book—you’ll be living with it for a long time.

ISBNs are getting longer.
Because of worldwide standardization issues, Bowker is in the process of changing all ISBNs from a ten-digit number to a 13-digit number. But because most publishers surveyed by Bowker have enough leftover numbers for the immediate future, Bowker probably won’t be selling 13-digit numbers in the near future. If you want to be ahead of the game, or if you’re planning to print so many books (never a great idea!) that you will still have stock when the new digit requirements become mandatory, you can convert the 10-digit number that Bowker assigns you to a 13-digit ISBN. (Information on how to do this is included in Day Number 8 in The Publishing Game: Publish a Book in 30 Days, or use the easy ISBN calculator on the website.)

And remember that although buying a larger block of numbers may sound expensive (in fact, it may make the purchase of ISBNs your third or fourth largest publishing expense) you’ll be living with the results for a long time. If you’re going to publish, you might as well do it right.


Fern Reiss is CEO of ( and ( and the author of the books, The Publishing Game: Find an Agent in 30 Days, The Publishing Game: Bestseller in 30 Days, and The Publishing Game: Publish a Book in 30 Days as well as several other award-winning books.  She is also the Director of the International Association of Writers ( providing publicity vehicles to writers worldwide. She also runs The Expertizing® Publicity Forum where you can pitch your book or business directly to journalists; more information at  Sign up for her complimentary newsletter at

Copyright © 2011 Fern Reiss


Copyright © 2010 Peanut Butter and Jelly Press LLC, PO Box 590239, Newton, MA 02459
(617) 630-0945 •
(Send website comments to:  Last modified: January 23, 2005 .)