ISBN 101 For Self-Publishers
“One of the parts of book publishing that seems to confound newcomers to the field is the purpose and use of the International Standard Book Number (ISBN). Usually the ISBN appears to be the same thing as the ubiquitous Bookland EAN scannable barcode that graces the back covers of almost all books printed today.
Not only that, but since the rise of companies that perform publishing services for authors, there has been even more confusion about whether you need to own your own ISBN, whether free ISBNs from these companies are “just as good” as getting your own ISBN, and if it’s a good idea to buy ISBNs from re-sellers who offer lower prices for a single number.
Let’s review the basics of this unique identifier and explain what is so important about it, how it benefits self-publishers, and when you can safely forget about it.
Created to Solve Real-World Problems
ISBN was created as a stock-keeping identifier. Originating in the United Kingdom, the concept of a unique identifier for each version of a published book became an international standard in the 1970s.
It was created to solve a real-world problem, and it worked well. The problem was that in the pre-internet age, it was often very difficult to identify a particular book, and more so when a searcher did not have the full title, author and edition information at hand. That’s usually the case when I go searching for a book.
How would you know whether the book you are looking for is the right one? Book titles are not exclusive or protected by copyright, and it’s not unusual for several different books to have the same title. And similar titles will quickly expand the number of possibilities. Add to this the necessity of knowing which edition you are looking for—hardcover, paperback, second edition—and it’s easy to see how identification mistakes are easy to make.
With the use of the unique identifier, one that is attached to each physical format of a book, this problem is basically solved. Every title, and every different edition or format has its own unique number for tracking and search purposes.
Coincidentally the ISBN came into use at the same time that computers were becoming common, and the two were meant for each other. It’s now possible to simply enter an ISBN into a Google search bar to get all the information you need on a particular title.”