Do I need an ISBN for eBooks?

Do you need an ISBN for eBooks? That’s the big debate. For some publishing and distribution platform for ebook authors, the answer is No. For others, the answer is Yes.

I know…kind of a flaky answers, but it’s true.

You don’t really need a separate ISBN number if you’re just selling from your own webpage, and not really for Kindle or the Nook either; but for distribution to Sony and Apple, you’ll need one. These companies need the ISBN number to keep track of the novels, and there’s a difference between eBooks and Paperbacks, just like comparing buying a banana to a cucumber. Each fruit needs it’s own “barcode”.

So, for a wide range of distribution, your ONE novel will need TWO ISBN numbers: one (1) for paperback and one (1) for eBook. Buying a Block of ten (10) from Bowker would help if you have multiple books. It’s a lot more expensive to buy a single one for each book.

I bought a block of ten (10) in 2008 and put a side note to use seven (7) of them. Then, I had to buy another block of ten (10) in 2011 for the eBooks because I wanted to get in Apple and Sony. There was a pull-down menu with a listing of what type that the ISBN number will be assigned to. I simply selected “multiple format.” Don’t select “Kindle” because Smashwords won’t accept an ISBN number assigned for Kindle. And I didn’t select “ePub” either because I wanted the digital copy to have all formats. So “multeple format” is what I picked to cover all my basis. Keeping track of 20 ISBN numbers kinda sucks…but hey….gottah do it.

After I got the ISBN for my eBooks, I then went back to Amazon KDP and placed it there as well as updated my information for Smashword to have it as well (On your Dashboard, look to the left side and you’ll see ISBN Manager).

Below I’ve copied/pasted what Amazon and Smashword has to say when I filled out the forms to upload my eBooks.

For Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) for example, they state for the ISBN field:

If your product has an ISBN (International Standard Book Number), enter it here. If not, you can skip this field. Note that this field should not be used to enter the ISBN of the print edition of this book.



Do I need an ISBN to publish on Smashwords?
No, you don’t need an ISBN, although your book will be more successful if you have one. Why? If your book is in the Premium Catalog, it must have an ISBN if you want your book distributed to Sony and Apple. An ISBN number also increases the discoverability of your book, and yields additional marketing benefits such as getting your book listed in more online catalogs and databases.

What is an ISBN number?
An ISBN is a unique number that identifies your book. Many ebook retailers require an ISBN number in order for them to stock your ebook on their digital shelves. It’s how they keep track of orders of your book so they can report these orders back to Smashwords so you can be paid. It’s also how they keep track of the book inside their own systems. For example, there could be two different books with the same title, like “How to Grow to Tomatoes,” but if they have different ISBNs the retailer will know they’re really different books, associated with different authors. The number is registered with the the international ISBN agency and it helps customers and sales outlets (retailers, libraries, distributors) discover your book and differentiate it from other books. If you want to learn more about ISBN, Bowker, the US ISBN agency, has great information at the Bowker FAQ.

Do all Smashwords Retailers Require an ISBN?
No. Other Smashwords retailers, including Barnes & Noble and Kobo don’t require ISBNs, though they appreciate ISBNs because ISBNs are the world standard for tracking, discovering and cataloging books. It can also makes it easier for retailers to properly associate your ebooks with your print books.

After I add my ISBN, do I need to add it to the copyright page and re-upload my book?
It’s not necessary since you’ll attach your ISBN on our ISBN Manager page. However, if you do list your ISBN in your book, note that your one source file will be converted into multiple ebook formats, and you are technically required by the International ISBN agency to acquire a different ISBN for each ebook format (so, a different ISBN each for EPUB, MOBI, PDF, etc.). The ISBNs issued by Smashwords are currently for the EPUB version of your book only. Therefore, if you list the ISBN inside your book, you should designate it as the ISBN for the EPUB format.

I already have an ISBN for my print book. Can I use it with Smashwords?
No. The International ISBN agency is very clear that you should not use a print ISBN on an ebook. Your Smashwords ebook ISBN should be unique to that book.

There you go. Also Smaswords will give you a FREE ISBN (did I saw the “F” word again?). But please note that you can not use their ISBN just anywhere and keep it for yourself. They own it and letting you use it for the companies that need ISBN numbers (like Sony and Apple) that they work with. For me, it is better to just own my own so there will be no conflicts.

Hope this helps out with a major question on eBooks and ISBNs!

Until Next Time 🙂

6 Responses to “Do I need an ISBN for eBooks?”

  1. Ellie Crowe says:

    Thanks for the informative article. However, at the very end you then state that you think its better to own your own ISBN. Why? And wouldn’t you need abt 4 ISBNs for each ebook?From what you write, you need one for each format (mobi, pubit, epub etc)

    Do you mean you will pay $125+ for each of those ISBNs? And use abt 4 for each book?

    I bought 10 ISBNs for $1,000 from Bowker. From what you write in the beginning of the article, I would be better off not using them as each of the formats requires their own ISBN. And Smashwords, amazon, B and N Pubit all supply for free.

    Is there a catch if you let them supply their own?
    I would appreciate your clarification. Are you actually going to use 4 or 5 ISBNs to get your ebook versions out?

  2. deana72 says:

    Hi there! Oh, yeah that’s confusing. Smashword only requires one (1) ISBN number and they put it towards several different formats. They just want to make sure the own ISBN number that your actually own isn’t specifically assigned to a particular format (like kindle) because it’s for that format only (and THAT publisher) only. When I choose the “format” for the Bower, I simply choose eBook for a general format/multiple format option so that it can be used for any and all formats. So, I’m gonna only use two (2) ISBN numbers: 1) for the print and 2) for eBook (i.e. digital format).

    If you paid $1,000 from Bowker, you bought more than 10 ISBNs, you bout 1,000 ISBN numbers. 10 ISBN numbers is about $250.00.

    The “catch” of not having your own ISBN number? Well, if you use Smashwords ISBN number, then you can’t use it elsewhere. I for one, am NOT going to buy an ISBN number for every type of digital novel because that’s the same as requiring the same style T-shirt but a different SKU number for each color.

    Take at look here:

    She describe more detail with the T-shirt idea, but she’s not correct about Kindle “requiring” an ISBN number (maybe she means for publishing houses). You’re not required to put one in.

  3. Peggy Blair says:

    Hi Deanna,
    Yes, I’ve updated the blog since I first wrote it to reflect that you don’t need an ISBN with Kindle. Amazon supplies an identifier number (but it’s actually an ISBN that they’ve purchased!). Cheers, Peggy

  4. Deana Zhollis says:

    Thanks for the update Peggy. I do like the T-shirt explanation idea. It really helps explains things.

  5. The ISBN rules actually do say that you need a separate ISBN for each file format (EPUB, MOBI, PDF, etc). If Smashwords is assigning one ISBN to every format, they’re doing it wrong!

    Unfortunately, buying 3-4 ISBNs from Bowker for every book you publish would cost a fortune.

    However, there’s a trick you can use to get around that problem and save hundreds of dollars per book. I’ve written about it here:

    In a nutshell, up here in Canada, the government issues ISBNs for FREE (there’s that word again!), but only to Canadian individuals and companies. So how can a non-Canadian get in on the action?

    Just get a Canadian publisher to apply for the ISBN on your behalf! They’ll be listed as your “publisher” in the Canadian ISBN registry, but this doesn’t affect your copyrights, ownership, or anything else. You can then take that ISBN and use it on all the online stores that require it.

    We’re an e-publishing services company ( and we register up to 3 ISBNs for just a $20 administrative fee. I’m sure there are other Canadian companies doing this as well.

    I personally am baffled by Bowker’s high fees. Yes, there is SOME amount of work involved in properly registering an ISBN with the correct meta-data for your book. (That’s why we charge $20 for the three-pack.) But $125? A gouge, in my opinion.

  6. The ISBN states what and how they are supposed to be used here:

    But I think most self publishers won’t be using ISBN’s so much so in the future. The system looks to be changing, and Amazon mostly uses their Amazon Standard Identification Number (ASIN) to identify their products, and Barnes and Noble has a BN ID, and those are the places self-publishers are mostly focusing to have their books distributed.

    Help during the transition to whatever the new future or system will be, does help.

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