You’ve written your book: tick. You’ve proofread and formatted it for publication: tick. Now, what about an International Standard Book Number (ISDN)? Writing your book may have been the fun part, but registering your content might feel like an expensive waste of time.

Sure, if you’ve written your text solely for your friends and family, there’s no need to obtain an ISBN. But if you want to take your publishing career to the next level, there’s no question about whether you need one.

This article is all about how to register your book for an ISBN. We’ll cover the costs and explore how to get an ISBN for free!

Ready? Let’s go!

What is an ISBN?

An ISBN is a thirteen-digit code that identifies not just the book title but the specific edition, the publisher, the country, and details about the author — all unique to that particular publication.

ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number. And this universally-used database catalogs every published book worldwide, making it easier to find specific editions of each and every available book.

Publishers and self-publishers obtain an ISBN to officiate a release, making each title searchable and, therefore, internationally available.

What is the history of the ISBN?

The commercial system for cataloging books was developed by British bookseller WHSmith, eventually releasing the Standard Book Number (SBN) catalog in 1967.

Initially using nine-digit codes, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) soon saw the benefit of the coding system and developed the concept for international use — releasing the ISBN system in 1970 in a ten-digit format.

The format remained ten digits until 2007, at which stage, the form was extended to thirteen numbers. Each country has a region-specific method of assigning ISBNs.

For the purpose of this article, we’ll examine the ISBN system in the USA.

Does an ISBN protect my book?

If you obtain an ISBN for your book, the system makes it unique to the marketplace. But it doesn’t imply or officiate your copyright.

When you sell your book through a standard publisher or as a self-publisher, your customer buys your intellectual property (IP) (the story, setting, and characters).

That doesn’t mean they own the rights to distribute, share, or copy the work, but it’s essential to copyright your work to maintain control of your property nonetheless.

How to copyright a book?

Every writer wants to get their work out into the world, but you must maintain control over your work. IP laws make copyrighting relatively simple, stating that you own your copyright as soon as you commit words to the page.

But that doesn’t necessarily offer you guaranteed legal protection if you’re either accused of IP theft or someone steals your IP.

The “poor man’s copyright” process of snail-mailing yourself a printed copy of your work is nice in theory but doesn’t stand up in court.

Indeed, the only legally-binding way to protect your work is to pay to register your work with the official Copyright website and follow the online process. It should cost around $45.

What happens if a book doesn’t have an ISBN?

There are no legal requirements to have an ISBN. However, you can’t sell a printed book in a bookstore in the USA without an ISBN.

Think about it: the method that physical bookstores use to order copies, arrange stock on their shelves, and manage their stock control is through the ISBN. It’s how they track sales, recognize if they have a copy in-store, or order a copy from the publisher if they’ve sold out.

And no matter how independent a bookstore may be, they’re unlikely to hold stock that is difficult to trace.

Can a book be sold without an ISBN?

eBooks don’t need an ISBN — the top online retailers don’t use them. And while nothing stops you from selling physical copies of your book on your website, a bookstore won’t stock it without ISBN registration.

How much does it cost to get an ISBN number for a book?

Aha! The million-dollar question. Well, luckily, it’s not a million dollars!

As a self-publisher, you’ll obtain your ISBN the exact same way that all publishers do — either from:

  • Your regional-recognized source, such as Bowker for the USA, or
  • Your self-publishing platform (if it could even be free, depending on the platform you’re using).

Bowker is the only official ISBN supplier in the United States.

You’ll need an ISBN for each different format and edition of your book, i.e., hardback/paperback/ePub, etc). But bear in mind it’s usually unnecessary to obtain an ISBN for eBooks.

An individual ISBN costs $125. If you have multiple titles or formats to register, it’s $295.

So, it’s not free to obtain an ISBN down this particular route.


It is free to obtain an ISBN for books published through some online publishing platforms, such as Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP).

Does my book need to be published to apply for an ISBN?

No. You can apply for an ISBN even if your book isn’t published yet. You simply follow the usual application process through Bowker.

How to get an ISBN for free!

This is a tricky one because it depends on in which country you’re based. Canadian ISBNs are free to eligible publications and publishers — find out more on the Library Archives Canada website.

ISBNs throughout the US and Europe are subject to a fee, as discussed.

However, getting a free ISBN through some self-publishing platforms, such as Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), is possible.

Bear in mind that an ISBN issued through KDP is only valid within the Amazon network — this means that bookstores that Amazon doesn’t supply won’t recognize a KDP ISBN.

Nonetheless, a wide range of online resellers distributes and sells self-published KDP eBooks, paperbacks, and hardbacks. Hence, the Amazon network provides a wide-reaching list of outlets that can supply your book.

Do I need a new ISBN if I publish a second edition?

Yes. Each new edition of your book requires a separate ISBN. This is so people looking for your book can choose either the first edition or any subsequent editions you publish.

If you suspect you’ll update your title regularly, buy a 10-pack bundle — you don’t have to register them all at the same time.

In the long run, it works out cheaper to buy in bulk.

Do I really need an ISBN?

If you’re considering distributing your work, chances are you’ll need an ISBN to ensure your book is accessible by international bookstores.

But before you dive in and invest in an ISBN, here are some questions to consider:

  • Are you publishing a physical book? If yes, you’ll need an ISBN to distribute it as widely as possible. If you’re only publishing electronically, you won’t need an ISBN.
  • Where are you going to sell your book? Find out before you make the investment. Not all sellers require an ISBN, especially for eBooks.
  • Do you want your publishing company (or yourself) listed as the publisher of your work? If yes, buy an ISBN and ensure you register appropriately. If not, you don’t need an ISBN.


Harry Wallett is the Founder and Managing Director of Relay Publishing. Combining his entrepreneurial background with a love of great stories, Harry founded Relay in 2013 as a fresh way to create books and for writers to earn a living from their work. Since then, Relay has sold 3+ million copies and worked with 100s of writers on bestselling titles such as Defending InnocenceThe Alveria Dragon Akademy Series and Rancher’s Family Christmas. Harry oversees the creative direction of the company, and works to develop a supportive collaborative environment for the Relay team to thrive within in order to fulfill our mission to create unputdownable books.

Ready to get published?

If you’re ready to take the step toward formalizing the print version of your book, we’d love to read it before you publish.

Relay Publishing is always on the lookout for creative writers with the talent to tell a great story. We publish hundreds of bestsellers yearly and want to hear from you if you have what it takes to be an excellent ghostwriter, editor, or designer.

Get in touch, and tell us why you should be the next big thing for Relay Publishing.

We can’t wait to hear from you!