Understanding ISBNs and What They Mean for Your Book

Publish date:

Q: What is an ISBN, and what’s its purpose? Can I apply for one without being a company/publisher? —Kathryn N.

A: An International Standard Book Number (ISBN) is a 13-digit number that identifies a book for purposes of commerce and supply chains (before 2007 it was a 10-digit number, in case you see it that way in older books). It’s a mandatory sales tool, as it’s the number that bookstores, wholesalers and distributors use to keep track of books.

The number is composed of five parts: the 978 code, group/country identifier, publisher identifier, the title identifier and check digit. The 978 code is used to help calculate the check digit (explained below). The following two sets of numbers identify a national or geographic grouping of publishers, so you know the country where the book was published and the publisher of the book within that area.

Next is the title identifier, which is the number assigned to the specific title. At the end of the long number is the check digit, which is used to detect transcription errors and to validate the ISBN. Sometimes this last “digit” is an “x.” In layman's terms, a check digit is defined as "something writers don't have to worry about."

The numbers are assigned by ISBN group agencies to publishers, e-book publishers, audio cassette and video producers, software producers, and museums and associations with publishing programs. And, while you technically need to be one of these to get an ISBN, if you’re self-publishing a book, you qualify as a publisher.

To get an ISBN in the United States, go to www.isbn.org. There you can request the necessary forms. The cost for one is roughly $125, though you can typically buy them in bulk and at a cheaper rate.

If you’re publishing in Canada, contact the National Library of Canada (www.nlc-bnc.ca) for more information.

Want more?

Image placeholder title
  • Pick up your copy of the Beginning Writer's Answer Book. For more details about the book, click here.
  • Follow the WD Editors on Twitter: @writersdigest@BrianKlems@JaneFriedman @robertleebrewer @JessicaStrawser @ChuckSambuchino
  • Become a fan at our Facebook page
Poetry Prompt

Wednesday Poetry Prompts: 554

Every Wednesday, Robert Lee Brewer shares a prompt and an example poem to get things started on the Poetic Asides blog. This week, write a future poem.


New Agent Alert: Tasneem Motala of The Rights Factory

New literary agent alerts (with this spotlight featuring Tasneem Motala of The Rights Factory) are golden opportunities for new writers because each one is a literary agent who is likely building his or her client list.


Timothy Miller: The Alluring Puzzle of Fact and Fiction

Screenwriter and novelist Timothy Miller explains how he came to write historical fiction and how research can help him drive his plot.


Dr. Munish Batra and Keith R.A. DeCandido: Entertainment and Outrage

Authors Dr. Munish Batra and Keith R.A. DeCandido explain how they came to co-write their novel and why it's important to them that the readers experience outrage while reading.


Incite vs. Insight (Grammar Rules)

Learn when to use incite vs. insight with Grammar Rules from the Writer's Digest editors, including a few examples of correct usages.


Jane K. Cleland: On Writing the Successful Long-Running Series

Award-winning mystery author Jane K. Cleland describes what it's like to write a long-running book series and offers expert advice for the genre writer.

writer's digest wd presents

WD Presents: #StartWrite, Virtual Conference, and New Courses

This week, we’re excited to announce free resources to start your writing year off well, our Novel Writing Virtual Conference, and more!


20 Most Popular Writing Posts of 2020

We share a lot of writing-related posts throughout the year on the Writer's Digest website. In this post, we've collected the 20 most popular writing posts of 2020.