Thursday, October 8, 2009

Self-Publishing 101: Obtaining ISBN# and Bar Codes

When self-publishing a book that you will sell through book stores or online, you'll need to make sure you have two things on the back of your cover: a 13-digit ISBN number and a bar code. In this article I'll explain what these are and how to get them.

An ISBN is the International Standard Book Number that electronically differentiates your book from other products selling at retail stores and online. The 13-digit number identifies the book internationally which allows your book to be sold in the global market. Look on the back of any book, and you'll see this number. It's also embedded in the bar code. The bar code, which you order separate from the ISBN, is also necessary. The ISBN is also printed inside the book on the page that lists the publisher's info and copyright.

How do you obtain and ISBN and bar code?

Each country has an agency that sells the ISBN and bar code. Authors and publishers in the U.S. can order them through R.R. Bowker. Here's the price list.

ISBN numbers are sold in blocks of 10 or more. When I originally self-published my novel SHADOWS IN THE MIST, I bought one block of 10 ISBN's for $275. That's enough to publish 10 book titles, but I only needed one, since my publishing company was only putting out one title that year. Bar codes run about $25 each. Any one who has a book can order them. In fact, once you have a block of ISBN's, you can officially call yourself a publisher.

Here is R.R. Bowker's home page:

For more questions about ISBN#'s, here is the F.A.Q. link:

An author friend of mine asked: If I sell my self-published book to a publisher (like you did) does a new publisher just pick up that ISBN?

My answer: Chances are a publisher will treat their version of the book as an entirely different version with new cover and ISBN. The only real benefit of them using your existing ISBN is if they paid you for it and you got your money back. Otherwise, that book and ISBN discontinues and they launch a new version. They might even change the size of the book. Or it might change from soft cover to hard cover. Once you sell your self-pub book it typically gets a complete makeover.


  1. Thank you Brian. This information is very helpful. Your site update is great!

  2. What about a serial novel being published digitally? Do I need and ISBN for each chapter/section? Or can I use the same one for the whole thing?