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        What Is an ISBN & How to Get One: The Complete Guide

        • calenderDec 16, 2022
        • calender 6 min read

        Have you ever seen the back of a book and wondered what the numbers on its barcode are? Those numbers are a code that forms the book’s International Standard Book Number or ISBN. Every book has an ISBN from which you can identify its registrant and the specific title, edition, and format. 

        Getting an ISBN is a crucial step in every published writer’s journey—regardless of whether they’re opting for self-publishing or going through a traditional publishing house. In this article, we deconstruct what an ISBN is, why you should get one for your book, and at what point of the publishing process you need to do this. 

        What is an ISBN? 

        The International Standard Book Number (ISBN) is a uniquely generated number assigned to a published book that acts as a unique identifying number for it.

        The ISBN is often used by entities that manage, publish, and distribute books for listing and other logistical purposes. It enables booksellers, publishers, and even readers to find a book with ease. 

        Here are the component parts of an ISBN:

        What is an ISBN and how to read it: different parts and their meaning.

        How to read an ISBN 

        An ISBN has 13 digits (since 2007) and has five distinct parts that reveal a key piece of information about the published piece. Every code begins with the letters “ISBN”.

        1. Prefix: The code begins with either the numbers 978 or 979, indicating that the published piece you’re looking at is a book. 
        2. Group identifier: A group or country identifier tells you which country or geographical region of the world the book has been published in. 
        3. Publisher identifier: This section identifies the publisher of the book based on the geographical location and language of the book.
        4. Title identifier: This is a unique code given to identify the title, format, and edition of a book.
        5. Check digit: The final digit is a single number that validates the entire ISBN. 

        So cutting a long story short, the first three parts of the ISBN depend on where you are, who is publishing the book, and what language it is in. What truly makes the ISBN unique is the title identifier. Now, keep that in mind, because we’ll come back to this again soon. 

        ISBN: 10 digits or 13?

        The ISBN code is a 10-digit code developed by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and was used for the first time in 1970. Since 2007, ISBN codes have had 13 digits. 

        Right below is the break-up of a 10-digit and a 13-digit ISBN code. 

        From 1970 to 2007:

        • Group identifier: Up to five digits long, the group identifier demarcates the geographical location in which the book was published.
        • Publisher identifier: The publisher identifier identifies the publisher of the book based on the geographical location and language of the book. Up to seven digits long.
        • Title identifier: The title identifier identifies the book and its edition. Up to six digits long.
        • Check digit: The final digit of the ISBN code is a calculation of the previous nine digits. The check digit is the last step in providing the book with a unique identification code.  

        Since 2007:

        • Registration group: Identifies the particular country, geographic region or language area in the ISBN; 1-5 digits.
        • Registrant element: Identifies the particular publisher or imprint; up to 7 digits.
        • Publication element: Denotes the particular edition and format of a specific title; up to 6 digits.
        • Check digit: The final digit that validates the rest of the number.

        Every new edition of a book is issued a new ISBN. (Note that reprints of an edition have the same code as the first print.) Translations of a book are also issued new ISBN codes. 

        ISBN example

        JK Rowling’s book Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was first published in 1997. It was published in the US as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. These two books, despite being essentially the same, do not share the same ISBN code. 

        The 10-digit code of The Philosopher’s Stone is 0-7475-3269-9, whereas the 13-digit code of The Sorcerer’s Stone is 059035342X.

        How to get an ISBN for your book 

        As for how you can get an ISBN, there are a few options you can consider. The options differ across countries, since, as you’ve already noticed, the number is specific to the territory. 

        • Local governments have agencies that issue ISBNs. Countries like Canada and Belgium have specific public entities responsible for distributing them. (These are generally free of charge!) The official ISBN International website has a database that tells you whether your country has such an agency. 
        • In some countries, private entities distribute ISBNs, usually for a cost. We can do this for you at PaperTrue
        • You can also get an ISBN from your publisher or your chosen publishing platform. Folks like Amazon KDP and IngramSparks, if you have cut a deal with them, can get you an ISBN at a discounted rate or even free of charge! 

        Should you get an ISBN for your book? 

        The first question, before you say when, is to determine whether you want an ISBN for your book at all. The obvious answer is yes since ISBNs help you track the sales of your book, and even boost it. But like any other step of the publishing process, there are many factors to be considered. If your budget allows you to get an ISBN, and you envision your book dominating best-selling lists, we say go for it! 

        Once you’ve decided that you do, think about which editions and formats you need to get an ISBN for. Remember when we said earlier that each format has a different number? Now is the time to take that into consideration, because a print edition and audiobook version of the same book will have different ISBNs. The same goes for translations and editions of books as well.

        Frequently Asked Questions

        Found this article helpful?


        Chetna Linkedin

        Chetna is a child of the internet. A writer and aspiring educator, she loves exploring digital media to create resources that are informative and engaging. Away from the writing desk, she enjoys cinema, coffee, and old books.

        One comment on “What Is an ISBN & How to Get One: The Complete Guide

        1. Isabel says:

          Good and useful article about ISBNs

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