From time to time I get questions from self-publishing authors about books and ISBNs, so I thought I might address it here in my blog.

The ISBN ( International Standard Book Number) was created so that books could be easily identified through computer systems worldwide. Originally made with a 10-digit number, it was later changed to 13 to better accommodate the growing numbers of books being printed around the globe.

The first digit gives the nation the book is published in, the next group belongs to the publisher, and then the unique number for the book. The last digit is a check-sum number (or in some cases a letter) that determines whether or not mistakes were made in entering the previous digits. Often a second bar code will appear with the ISBN; this secondary code will contain the retail price and currency for the book.

In theory a separate ISBN is needed for each edition or format of a book. Thus the same title should have a different ISBN for its ebook edition, hard cover, and soft cover. In practice, some publishers use one ISBN for all three — and undoubtedly cause no little confusion for book sellers. For this reason it’s best to have a different ISBN for each version of the book. Also, a new edition of a title should have a new ISBN (and a new ISBN for each format as well).

Many nations offer ISBNs for free, though there are corporations that may purchase these and resell them, so often a novice will need to dig a little to find the free government sources. In the US our government seems to have turned our ISBNs to a private corporation with ISBNs now being sold for a hefty price (if anyone knows a way to circumvent what appears to me to be a government-granted monopoly, I would appreciate hearing from you).

Some companies working with self-publishers will also offer free ISBNs through there printing services. The only possible catch here is that because ISBNs can’t be transferred from a publisher to another entity, technically the book is published by the company rather than the author, and that press will be listed as the publisher rather than the author in book catalogs and so forth.

For most self publishers this makes little difference. But if you dream of starting your own little press and hope to expand it into a publishing empire over the years, then you need to start with your own block of ISBNs rather than using the number of another press.

You can obtain one ISBN at a time, but getting them in blocks can save time (and, in the US, money). The only catch is that once you have a block it must be associated with only a single publisher. That means if you have 100 ISBNs you can’t give three to an author friend, four to another self-publisher, and so forth (unless they’re willing to publish under the name the ISBN was originally issued to).

It is possible to change the name of the company the ISBNs were issued to, but they must all remain in one block, associated with that entity.

When the POD (print on demand) CreateSpace operation was purchased by, the company decided to circumvent the trouble and expense of obtaining ISBNs for each of its self-publishing authors and came up with the ASIN ( Standard Identification Number).

The ASIN currently works only within the CreateSpace/ empire. But since is a huge market in and of itself, an ASIN might be sufficient for many self-publishers. And there has been talk that other book computer systems might one day accommodate the ASIN, and that would seem a strong possibility given the clout has gained in the marketplace. But it hasn’t happened yet and might never.

That means if you plan on marketing your book to Barnes & Noble or any other book seller outside the arena, an ASIN is pretty much worthless. You’ll need an ISBN in order to be entered into other book seller’s computerized systems.

Another plus of having your own ISBN is that you can print your title with LightningSource or other POD in addition to CreateSpace. You can’t do that if you have a CreateSpace number which will basically “stay” within the CreateSpace system.

The ISBN number needs a bar code for the back cover of your book. While there are companies and software that will do this for you — for a price — you can also generate these for free. Three online pages that will handle this for you are:,, and

While it’s possible to use a high-quality bit-map for your bar code (at least 300 dots per inch), having a vector bar code is a much better option because the bar codes created will be as sharp as possible and thus easier for scanners to read.

The ISBN and its bar code normally go on the back cover of a book, and are generally places on the lower right. However you may see these in about any position these days, with the lower center also becoming more common. (I personally prefer the tradition placement on the lower right with the name and address of the publisher on the lower left of the back cover.)

Duncan Long often helps self publishers create their book covers. Long has created book cover designs and cover illustrations for HarperCollins, PS Publishing, Pocket Books, Solomon Press, Fort Ross, and many other publishers and self-publishing authors. See samples of his book cover design work at: