ISBNs, Barcodes, and All That Other Stuff

Today’s post is going to cover the technicalities of ISBNs for self-published authors, including when to get them, where to get them from, if you need to buy barcodes, and all the other sooper secret stuff that companies try to hide to make you spend more money.

This post will be focused on the United States (since that’s what I know), but I’ve included a section at the bottom with resources for other countries. If you’re in Canada, let me just say…super jealous of your free ISBNs.

Okay, let’s get into it!


In the United States, the only authorized, legal dealer of ISBNs is Bowker. There are other places that may sell them, but if you want your book to say your name as the publisher and not whatever company you bought them from, you have to go through Bowker.

I want to be clear here before we get started. This is for the UNITED STATES. If you’re outside the US, this information will likely be incorrect.


In the US, you need an ISBN for your print books (they’re not necessary for ebooks), and you need one* for each format you want to sell in (paperback, hardback, large print, audiobook).

*Depending on if you plan to publish print through Barnes & Noble Press, this may be incorrect. We’ll talk about that later.

Meaning, if you are planning to sell a paperback AND a hardback, you need 2 ISBNs. These are unique identifier numbers used by stores and retailers that contain your title information, format, meta data, price, and all that jazz, which are different for each format you publish in.

I personally use 4 ISBNs for each book:

  1. eBook (used for Amazon, Kobo, Google Play, B&N, and Draft2Digital)
  2. Paperback (used for Ingram)
  3. Hardback (used for Ingram)
  4. Audiobook (used for ACX, Kobo, Findaway Voices)

You technically don’t need to use an ISBN for eBooks, as all retailers will assign you one for free on their system, but I’m just…I like the numbers all being the same. It makes it easier for people to search your book by ISBN. It also just makes my brain happy and my spreadsheet neater. But you do you.


Bowker sells ISBNs in singles, or in bulk packs. The more you buy, the cheaper they are per unit. I usually buy 10 at a time (because come on, not made of money), but if you’re able to splurge, buying 100 at a time will really bring the cost down and you’ll be set for a while!

I recommend at least buying the 10 pack. Buying the single one is an astronomical waste of money if you plan on offering in more than one format or publishing more than one book ever in your life.


No. End of discussion. No.

Okay fine, I was told that I have to at least elaborate some on this.

Do not pay for a barcode. If you publish with IngramSpark, their cover template generator will make a barcode for you for FREE. If you publish with KDP, check the box that says “I don’t have a barcode embedded in my cover” and guess what? They’ll put one on for FREE too! Same story for D2D Print or B&N Press Print too.

Buying one from Bowker is a scam and I hate that they even offer it. They’re taking advantage of people who don’t know better. Don’t buy barcodes. Even if you’re only planning to ever sell books yourself, you can still use a free barcode generator, like this one from Shopify. You don’t ever need to pay for one.


NO. The only thing you ever need to purchase from Bowker is ISBNs. Everything else they sell is either unnecessary because you can get it for free (barcodes and QR codes) or is just absolutely useless garbage (ScoreIt, and whatever other stupid advertising shit they’re peddling).

I know it will be tempting. Trust me. I bought some of it. And then when I got it, I realized exactly how much money I just wasted. Do not give Bowker anymore of your money beyond what ISBNs you purchase.

If you see something on their site and you’re like “but Jess, this seems really helpful, are you sure?” Yes. I’m sure. But email me or comment below and ask, and I can provide more specifics on exactly why it’s a waste.

Alright, off my soapbox now!


Time for the nitty gritty. Here’s a step by step guide from the setup of your account through registering your title.

1. Create a Bowker account and set it up with your information. Your “company name” is what will appear in your Publisher Imprint, so make sure this is what you want the public to see on your listings.

2. Buy the ISBN bundle you want. They are cheaper the more you buy.

3. Log into your account and go to “My Identifiers”. Select an unassigned ISBN and click “Assign Title”.

3. Fill out the requested forms, and upload your cover if you have it. If you don’t have your cover yet, leave it blank. Do not upload a placeholder cover.

The “describe your book” is the blurb on your back cover.

Once you’ve filled out the title and author information, continue to the Sales & Pricing section. (Your imprint will automatically be your “company name” you selected during your Bowker account set up.) Continue on and fill out your pricing information.

You can now hit submit! Your ISBN will show as “pending” as it processes, which usually takes anywhere from 20 minutes to 4 hours in my experience. Even if it is still pending, you can still go ahead and use that ISBN to set up your book listings on retail sites now.


You can go back and make any changes to this page up until your publication date. After your publication date, you can still technically make changes, but it’s a little more risky as some platforms won’t accept these changes to metadata from Bowker.

I highly encourage getting everything set up correctly before publication. But I know stuff happens, so don’t stress too much.

TIP: Take note of how your title and author name are written in Bowker, because they have to match exactly the same in IngramSpark or it will throw errors. This is especially important if you have a middle initial in your author name.


If you’re planning to use the same ISBN on multiple platforms (i.e. you’re going to publish your paperback on Amazon through KDP and also through IngramSpark), you’re going to want to work very quickly so that you can set it up before either platform reports back to Bowker that the ISBN is now in use. Refer to my post about that here.

For the love of god, do not publish your print through B&N Press without planning for a special ISBN just for that. Read this post for more details on it, but B&N is stingy and will not share your ISBN. If you want to publish print through B&N Press (you shouldn’t, but that’s in the post too), just make sure you set aside its own ISBN and plan for that so you don’t get upset and heartbroken and feel robbed.

If you choose to publish your print through B&N press, and you’re going by my “how many ISBNs I use for each book” list above, this is what that would (most likely) look like:

  1. eBook (Amazon, Kobo, Google Play, B&N, D2D)
  2. Paperback (Ingram)
  3. Paperback (B&N Press)
  4. Hardback (Ingram)
  5. Audiobook (ACX, Kobo, Findaway Voices)

Remember: AMAZON KDP DOES NOT ALLOW PRINT PREORDERS (yet). If you’re going to upload your print to KDP, you better be ready for it go live. If you want to do preorders on your print book, you have to go through IngramSpark or another print distributor. I’ll do a post on preorders here soon.


I know ISBNs seem like a ripoff to pay for. They are, I agree. But it’s the game for now if you’re in the US. If you take nothing else from this post, take this: Don’t buy ISBNs from anywhere but Bowker (generally, there are some exceptions but if they applied to you, you’d know who you are), and don’t buy anything but ISBNs from Bowker.


If you are outside of the US, you need to check with the official ISBN dealer for your country. In the UK, that’s Nielsen’s. In Canada, that’s registering with the government and you get them for free (lucky). In Australia, that’s the National Library of Australia. Do your research.

1 comment

  • Anna Wirt

    I just chatted with a Kindle rep who “sells” an international ISBN and barcode for $299 and tells me that with those 2 things, my book is automatically copyrighted. Yet, you say that it makes no sense that publishers are trying to sell barcodes. How should I respond to KDP?

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