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One of the areas that I get the most questions about is the use of the ISBN, the unique numeric identifier that’s used around the world to identify books. New self-publishers are especially concerned with making sure their books are registered properly, that everything is done so that their book can be sold without any problems or confusion.

Because this area is specific to the book business, there’s a lot of confusion and misinformation about ISBN and how it works. I strongly recommend you use the resources provided by Bowker, the company responsible for ISBNs in the United States, on the ISBN website and at Bowker’s website.

But even faster, without any further delay, here are 20 answers to the most commonly-asked questions about ISBN.

Questions and Answers about ISBN

What is an ISBN?

ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number. It is a 13-digit number that’s used as a unique identifier for books. ISBN is used internationally.

What do all the numbers mean?

See my earlier article on decoding the ISBN.

Why do we need ISBNs?

We need them to identify each book that is published, and each edition of the same book. ISBN also identifies the publisher of the book. It is the standard ID number used to identify books by booksellers, libraries, book wholesalers and distributors.

Should I get an ISBN?

If you plan to sell your book in bookstores, to libraries, or through online retailers like, you will need an ISBN.

Does a book have to be published to have an ISBN?

ISBNs are issued to publishers, who then assign them to individual books. This can be done at any time, even before the book is written.

Is the ISBN the bar code I see on the back of books?

The bar code is a representation of the ISBN in a form that can be identified by scanners. The bar code might also have other information embedded in it, like the price of the book and the currency in which it is priced.

Okay, do I need to have a bar code too?

Only if you plan to sell your book in bookstores. If you only plan to sell online, or privately like at speaking engagements, you don’t need a bar code. Many publishers put them on their books anyway.

If I get an ISBN, does that mean my book is copyrighted?

No, ISBN is administered by a private company for the use of the international book trade. Copyright is administered by the Library of Congress and is an extension of intellectual property law.

If I have an ISBN, does that mean my book will be in Books in Print?

Once you have an ISBN you can go to BowkerLink to fill out the forms necessary for your book to be listed in Books in Print.

Can self-publishers get an ISBN?

A self-publisher is still a publisher, so yes, you just apply for an ISBN like anyone else.

How do I get an ISBN?

Go to, the ISBN website run by Bowker, which is the only company authorized to administer the ISBN program in the United States. Click on “ISBN Identifiers” and you’ll be taken to a page where you can buy 1, 10, 100 or 1000 ISBNs.

How many ISBNs should I buy?

The least economical choice is to buy 1 ISBN. If you ever publish another edition of your book, or another book entirely, you will need more than one ISBN. I suggest you buy the 10 pack.

What do ISBNs cost?

A single ISBN today costs $125, while 10 ISBNs cost $250, 100 cost $575 and 1000 cost $1000. Note that the price per ISBN drops from $125 to $25 to $5.75 to $1.

Isn’t it just a number? Why does a number cost $125?

Many people are pondering this question, so far without an answer. Obviously, it’s not because of the cost of the product. Could there be another reason?

Well, can I re-use my ISBN?

No, sorry, once assigned to a book, an ISBN can never be reused.

Where do I put the ISBN?

You’ll print it on the copyright page, and it’s included in the Cataloging-in-Publication data block, if you use one. Otherwise, just print it on the copyright page and, of course, on the back cover as part of the bar code.
I’m doing a print book and an ebook. Do I need two ISBNs, or can I use the same one?
This is a matter of some discussion at the moment, since there are more and more electronic formats. The policy of assigning a separate ISBN to each and every edition is under review. Check back for more info.
How about a hardcover and a softcover of the same book?
You need a separate ISBN for each edition, to identify them for everyone who might want to find them in directories, catalogs and databases.

If I revise my book, do I need to give it a new ISBN?

If you only correct typographical errors, and don’t make any substantial changes to the text, you don’t need a new ISBN because it’s considered a reprint. A new edition would contain substantially new material, a major revision, or the addition of completely new elements. Anything that makes it a new book is likely to create a new edition and, therefore, need a new ISBN.

How about if I just change the cover?

You can continue to use the same ISBN, since the text has not changed.
Well, there you have it. In 20 questions and about 5 minutes, you’ve overcome the confusion about ISBN. Have a question you didn’t see answered here? Ask in the comments and we’ll run down the answer.

Takeaway: Getting the ISBN for your new publishing company is a necessary step to becoming a publisher and getting your book into print correctly. It’s not difficult once you understand how to do it.

and here is 10 things need to be avoid:

Top 10 Worst Self-Publishing Mistakes—Explained!

“10. You thought you could re-use that ISBN you paid so much for since the novel you put it on last year isn’t selling anyway.”

Explained: You never want to re-use an ISBN, or even use it for another edition of the same book. The ISBN is known as a unique identifier. It’s intended to be assigned to one edition of one book. Your book’s information has been entered in book databases everywhere, and you will only create tremendous confusion between the two works, hurting sales for both, if you attempt to re-use an ISBN. Just don’t do it.

“9. Everybody knows the words to the song, so it’s okay to quote lyrics from it throughout your novel, right?”

Explained: Check out this blog post about using bits of songs in your writing. The author here found, after using only snippets of 60s songs in a party scene, that he had a liability of over $6,000. Just like paintings, poems, or any creative expression, people’s lyrics and music are protected by copyright law, and violations of this law can be expensive and very damaging. If you want to use it, get permission first.

“8. The photos looked fine on your screen, and that means they will look fine when they’re printed, it just makes sense.”

Explained: Graphics on screens are all displayed at a resolution of 72 dots per inch (dpi) in Reg-Green-Blue (RGB) colorspace. That’s just the way computers display graphics. However, when you go to print your book, your color photos will need to be 300 dpi in the Cyan-Magenta-Yellow-Black (CMYK) colorspace. So no, the image you see on your screen, no matter how gorgeous, may not have enough resolution to print well.

“7. I picked Arial for my book because the name reminded me of my middle school girlfriend.”

Explained: Many people don’t notice typefaces, typography, design, serifs, ligatures, and the other elements book designers take for granted, and why should they? But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter what typeface you use. The classic book typefaces, when used correctly, will produce a book that’s beautiful, readable, and reader-friendly. That’s why they’re classics.

“6. I know they’re charging me $6,000 to publish my book, but I get 10 copies, absolutely free!”

Explained: Well, $6,000 divided by 10 is . . . The point here is that if you want to publish your own book you may be better off using a plain author services company like CreateSpace or Lulu than a subsidy publisher. Why? The subsidy publisher makes its money from sales to authors–that’s you. If you use a service like CreateSpace you are the publisher and you use them as a printer. You pay only for the services you decide you need, and then you make your money from book sales.

“5. I thought it would sound more impressive if I wrote my memoir in the third person. All my sports heroes talk that way.”

Explained: By far the best way for most authors to present their information in nonfiction books is with a clear, active, straightforward style. Attempts to create unusual styles, strange viewpoints, exotic points of view almost always fail since they are incredibly difficult to carry off well. Both you and your readers will be well served by a natural conversational style that follows a normal and expected narrative. This will make your valuable information stand out, not an eccentric way of saying it.

“4. I really got the unit price down, but I had to print 10,000 copies. You have any room in your garage?”

Explained: Having a plan on how you intend to market, publicize and sell your book before entering into book production is highly recommended. The unit cost of your book is meaningless if you never sell any. Many self-publishers are using digital printing through print-on-demand distribution to minimize this type of risk. However, you have to plan your book, its retail price, and your method of distribution before going to press.

“3. Sure, I included an invoice with all the books I sent to book reviewers. Hey, they don’t care, it’s just a big company paying the bill.”

Explained: Although reviewers do usually work for larger companies, sending an invoice with a review copy will ensure that while you won’t get paid for the book, you won’t get a review either. The convention is that you are asking for valuable editorial time and space in a publication, and certainly the least you can expect is to provide a book to anyone gracious enough to go to the trouble of reviewing your book.

“2. It was cheaper to print my novel as an 8-1/2″ x 11″ book because I got so many words on each page.”

Explained: Although it’s true that you can save money in digital printing by creating a book with fewer pages, a novel printed full page on letter-size paper with small margins and tight lines to “get so many words” on a page is likely to be read by no one. Making your book difficult to read is a quick way to eliminate many readers. There is no economy in printing books that no one wants to read.

“1. What do you mean, I need a cover designer? Don’t books come with covers?”

Explained: Most author-services companies are only too happy to put a cover on your book for a fee, or to turn you loose on their cover creation programs. But it’s pretty easy to tell most of the books that have been “designed” this way, and it isn’t a pretty picture. If your book is worth publishing, and you want people to buy it, and you understand the cover is the primary way that people will identify the book wherever it appears, don’t you think it might be worthwhile to get a cover designer you can afford to create a cover for you?

Well, there you have it. If there was any doubt, you now know some good things to avoid when it comes time to publish a book.

Here is another 10 things need to be considered:

In twenty-five years I’ve written twelve books. The first ten were traditionally published. However, when the publisher of my book called Enchantment couldn’t fulfill an order for 500 ebook copies, I decided to self-publish my next book, What the Plus!

This experience taught me that self-publishing is a complex, idiosyncratic, and challenging endeavor—as Steve Jobs said, “There must be a better way. ” I wrote my latest book, APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur—How to Publish a Book, to simplify and optimize the self-publishing process for others.

Along this journey, I’ve compiled a list of the top ten mistakes that writers, myself included, make when self-publishing a book. Here they are so that you can at least make new mistakes— if not avoid mistakes altogether.

1. Writing for the wrong reason. The most common wrong reason to write a book is to make a lot of money. Statistically, you’re heading for disappointment. Instead, you should write a book for good reasons such as you have something valuable to say, you have a cause you want to further, or you want to meet the intellectual challenge of writing a book.

2. Not hiring a professional copyeditor. When I turned in the final copy of APE, I thought there were no mistakes in it. The copyeditor found 1,400—that’s right: one thousand four hundred. Writing and copyediting are two different skills—just like the best salesman doesn’t make the best sales manager nor the best player make the best coach.

3. Designing your own cover. The cover is one of the most important marketing pieces for your book, so hiring a great graphics designer is money well spent. The beauty pageant that is Amazon web pages displays fifteen to twenty covers at a time. With a graphic the size of a postage stamp, you need to entice people to click.

4. Not building your marketing platform in advance. Self-publishing is not a serial process where you can write a book and then worry about marketing it later. You need to start building a marketing platform as soon as you start writing because the process takes a year. You should already have thousands of followers on social media on the day that you ship.

5. Using a word processor other than Microsoft Word. Admittedly, Word is a beast, and you will need to wrestle it to the ground. There are cheaper and more elegant word processors, but nothing has the paragraph styles capability of Word nor the universal acceptance from the reviewers, testers, editors, designers, and resellers that you’ll use downstream.

6. Inadequately testing your ebook. Do not assume that if your ebook looks right on one platform that it will look right on all the others. You can’t even assume that if your book looks good on a Kindle tablet that it will look good on a Kindle app. The only way to truly know is to examine your book on each platform.

7. Selling only an ebook version. The ebook format is kicking butt in adult fiction. If you write for any other genre, you should still produce a paper version. The paper version of Enchantment, a non-fiction business book, outsells the ebook version by a factor of three to one.

8. Depending solely on social media and word of mouth. Google+, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, and LinkedIn are powerful and inexpensive marketing methods, but old-fashioned PR is still necessary. There is no doubt in my mind that spending $10,000-15,000 on a PR campaign is a good investment.

9. Not tapping the crowd. The crowd is a beautiful thing—there are always people out there who know more than you do and who are willing to help for the intrinsic value of helping a fellow human being. I tap the crowd for feedback at three stages: outline, first draft, and final draft. The crowd has pointed out thousands of mistakes and suggested hundreds of improvements to APE.

10. Having only one plan. There are at least three plans to getting your book published: Plan A is to find a traditional publisher; Plan B is to self-publish; and Plan C is to implement Plan B in order to attract a traditional publisher and reinstate Plan A. There is no right and wrong; there is only what works for you and what doesn’t, so be flexible.


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