Understanding When and Why Your Book Needs an ISBN

What is an ISBN and why do I need one?

When it comes to publishing, my favorite quote is, “You don’t know what you don’t know.” And sure, that might seem like a hopeless conundrum to enter into, but oftentimes writers are so singularly focused on creating something fantastic that questions like “Who is my target audience?” or “What is an ISBN?” don’t come up until they’re ready to cross the proverbial finish line, sending them right back to the starting blocks.

I hope to help you avoid this quandary by equipping you with information that you may not know, but need to understand to successfully publish your book: what is an ISBN, and when do you need one?

What is an ISBN?

An International Standard Book Number (ISBN) is a string of numbers that identifies pertinent information (called metadata) about your book, such as: title, author, type of book, physical properties, and location of publisher. An ISBN is a unique identifier for every single published version of a book, meaning that if you choose to publish in multiple formats (paperback, hardcover, ebook, etc.) each version would need a separate ISBN. It’s kind of like your book’s fingerprint, unique and specific to that edition. 

ISBN parts

Publishers, booksellers, libraries and  internet retailers use ISBNs for ordering, listing, sales records and stock control purposes. Your project’s ISBN essentially provides all of the details retailers need to appropriately stock and sell your book.

Do you need an ISBN for your book?

ISBNs play a critical role in book distribution, but there are opportunities for you to sell your work without assigning an ISBN. How do you know if an ISBN is right for your project? There are a few things to ask yourself before deciding. 

  • Do you want to sell your book through retail distribution channels such as Amazon and Barnes and Noble? 
  • Would you like your book to be available to libraries? 

If these things are important to you, then yes, an ISBN is necessary. Retailers and libraries will not accept a book that does not have an ISBN assigned, so Lulu makes it a requirement for you to assign an ISBN to any project you wish to enroll in Global Distribution. For many authors, retail distribution is a gold standard and will necessitate assigning an ISBN to the project. 

There are situations, however, that using an ISBN to sell your book is unnecessary. If your end goal is to sell your book through Lulu’s Bookstore, you do not need an ISBN to do so. Likewise, if you are interested in selling your books directly, either by hand or through your own website, you do not need to assign an ISBN to the title. For nonfiction authors, or authors who have already established their audience, selling your books without an ISBN makes sense.

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Your Book, Your Way

Sell books on your website with Lulu Direct.

Another way to think about this is if you are interested in publishing multiple titles or accessing retail distribution, ISBNs are for you! If you are publishing in a unique format (such as saddle stitch or coil bound) and already have an established connection with your audience, an ISBN may not be necessary. 

To decide if you need an ISBN for your project, review your goals for the book. If hitting an Amazon bestseller list or seeing your book on the shelves of your local bookstore are goals of yours, then ISBNs will be an essential part of your publishing journey.

Where to Get an ISBN

If you find yourself in need of an ISBN, there are a few different places you can acquire one. If you are publishing your work on Lulu, we offer free ISBNs, as well as the option for you to supply your own. For many of our authors, using a free ISBN from Lulu is perfect for their needs and allows them to access retail channels and distributors worldwide using our Global Distribution service. If you decide to use a free ISBN from Lulu, be aware that Lulu.com will be listed as the publisher in your book’s metadata.

If you are interested in using Lulu as a white-label service or starting your own publishing imprint, purchasing a batch of ISBNs to assign to your projects might be a better option for you. In the US, ISBNs can only be purchased from Bowker. Some countries provide ISBNs for free, so if you are outside the US and unsure how to acquire ISBNs, ISBN International can help.

Buying Your Own ISBNs

Purchasing your own ISBNs has a few distinct advantages. The first is you can create your own publishing imprint. Doing so will keep your brand front and center and help you maintain brand continuity if you plan to publish multiple titles. If someone comes across your book and Googles the ISBN, your publishing imprint will be listed as the publisher. 

Secondly, if you own your ISBNs, you can move them with the book. For example, if you use a free ISBN from Lulu, you cannot take that ISBN to another platform if you choose to publish elsewhere. However, if you purchase your own ISBNs, you can assign them to your Lulu project and move them to a different platform if need be. Another benefit of purchasing your own ISBNs is that they will never expire, so any unused ISBNs you own can be assigned to future projects. If you have any old ISBNs lying around that do not fit the current format, you can convert them here: https://www.isbn.org/ISBN_converter

Now there is one less thing you don’t know about publishing! To ISBN or not to ISBN is a question worth considering for every project you publish, and this information can help lead you to the write answer.

Public Service Announcement

ISBN is an abbreviation for International Standard Book Number. In recent years, a strange phenomenon has taken hold among authors and publishers online—calling it an ‘ISBN number’. Please help us all make the world a little more clear by using the correct abbreviation or, if you really like the word ‘number’, spelling out the entire abbreviation.

Chelsea B - Public Relations Manager

Chelsea Bennett is the Brand Engagement Manager for Lulu.com and is constantly researching and developing new resources for independently published authors. Her areas of expertise include self-publishing, Print-on-Demand technology, building an author brand, direct sales and marketing for authors and entrepreneurs. When not thinking about publishing, Chelsea can be found playing disc golf with her husband or having in-depth conversations about the universe with her cat, Batman.

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I have been researching publishing information for quite some time. I have helped friends get published independently, via imprint deal with Simon & Schuster, and Amazon POD. Lessons learned. Finally ready tonpublish my books. I have to say this was the most informative, straightfoward, ariculate and easy to read breakdown of the process that I have come across!! Thank you!!! ~ Reece Carroll

Hi Reece,
Thank you so much! I’m glad you found it helpful and I wish you all the success in your publishing journey.

I would like to sell my book through retail distribution channels such as Amazon and Barnes and Noble, as well as via LULU. What kind of ISBN do I need, and where do I purchase it? Also, where do I place it? Inside jacket? Back cover?

Hi Michael,
You’ll want to get an ISBN from whichever service operates in your country. In the USA that’s https://www.isbn.org/. Purchasing an ISBN allows you to apply your own imprint, but if you want a free one simply select that option while publishing on Lulu (on the Copyright Step). Either way, you’ll enter the ISBN and we’ll generate a barcode for your back cover.

If you design your own cover, you’ll need to add that barcode to the design. If you use our Cover Creator, we’ll place it on the back cover for you. It’s also smart to include the ISBN information on the copyright page inside your book.

I am in the process of setting up my book with a lulu free ISBN. The generated file with the bar code does not include the typed out line above it that shows in the example in this article – i.e ISBN 978-3-16-148410-4. Should I add that information, type it in, above the barcode file? (Meaning add my ISBN number that came with the downloaded file, not the one shown in the example.)

Last edited 4 months ago by Jan

Hi Jan,
I see what you mean about the numbers not appearing above the barcode. I’ve noted this for our developers to see if they can amend the file.

You can absolutely use online tools to generate a barcode with the numbers. https://barcodeqrcode.com/isbn-barcode-generator/ is a simple one that I’ve used in the past.

In the Bowker website they offer ISBNs with a barcode for more money. What advantage does that give over the regular ISBN?

Hi Jeremy,
When you purchase an ISBN from Bowker, you’ll assign all the information to the ISBN. This includes your imprint name. When you use a free ISBN from Lulu, we’ve already purchased them and as such the imprint will be listed as ‘Lulu’. There’s no particular disadvantage to using a free ISBN, but many authors prefer to include their own imprint or business name with their book.

I have the same issue as Anne Rothwell has with the ISBN. We have published several books (over 10) through Lulu and only once has the ISBN actually been included in the barcode that we downloaded.

Hi Karl,
You should probably contact our support team for a more detailed answer. If you’re using a free Lulu ISBN and the file you download from the Copyright step is not including the barcode information, they’ll be able to help resolve that issue.

Should I not get an ISBN until my book is thoroughly and completely edited, formatted and ready to print?
This question goes astray but here it is: During the process of editing and formating, etc., should I protect the material, the content with a copyright?

Hi Steve,
If you’re purchasing your own ISBNs, you can buy them whenever you’d like and have them ready when you’re publishing the book. If you want to use a free Lulu ISBN, you won’t be able to assign it until you start the publishing process (though be sure to add the digits to your copyright page in the interior file!).
For your question about copyright, it’s important to note that anything you create is yours (and protected by copyright law) as soon as you create it. You’ll only be able to register a book with the US Copyright Office (for the added security that offers) once you’ve completed and published the book.

I purchased a block of 20 ISBN’s a few years back. Is it possible to give two ISBN’s to a friend who is publishing a book?

Hi Tony,
I believe you can, though the catch would be that the imprint you assigned when you purchase the block would still be attached to the ISBNs you give away. For most, that’s probably not an issue, but important to be aware of.
I hope that helps!

Help! I have just published a book through Lulu with the ISBN on the back, but the top line, starting ISBN is missing. What can I do?

Hi Anne,
I’m sorry to hear that! It sounds like the barcode might not have been placed exactly right on the cover file. Or it’s possible this was a printer error. I suggest contacting our support team and sending them a picture of back cover. I’m sure they’ll be able to help you sort it out.

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