The Lowdown on ISBN

The next time you pick up a book to admire the cover design, take a peek at the back, you will find a set of numbers and/or a barcode known as ISBN (International Standard Book Number).

An ISBN is a unique 13-digit number identifier for books that keeps track of every edition (hard cover, paperback), format (ePUB, mobi) and title you publish.

ISBNs are a key component to making your books discoverable online by readers—remember book titles are not exclusive, book buyers may need more than just the author’s name and book title to identify the specific format or edition they’re searching for. The ISBN barcodes (usually reserved for printed books) are scannable and may have other information embedded in it like the price/currency of the book.

Let’s look at a practical example: A friend of mine lived in Thailand for a while, when the time came to pack up and return to South Africa, she was concerned about her books being stolen or lost in transit. I’m talking about over 10 huge boxes of books. She discovered that by using the Goodreads app, she could simply scan the ISBN barcodes on her phone and then link them to a shelf on her profile e.g. Bangkok-to-RSA. ISBNs made stocktaking less soul draining for this particular bibliophile.

Another perk of the ISBN is that it gains you entry to the world’s largest catalogue of books called Books In Print.

This catalogue is licensed to all the major search engines, several libraries and bookstores. It’s a simple process, once you have your ISBN, check out BowerLink and fill out the required forms.

When I first heard about ISBNs, a few thoughts popped into my mind:

  • Shit on toast, is this gonna break bank? It depends on the country.
  • Can self-publishers get an ISBN? Hells yeah!
  • Can I get away without an ISBN? If you plan to sell your book then you need an ISBN. If it’s for private use then you’re in the clear son!
  • Barnacles, I hope it doesn’t expire before my book comes out! ISBNs do not expire

I won’t lie, I was befuddled—I saw adverts for American ISBNs that ranged from $99 to $1000 and then I saw that some ISBNs were free. Some folks recommended buying ISBNs in bulk (e.g. blocks of 10) because it worked out cheaper and others blogs advised that new writers should get one ISBN, publish and then move on to buying blocks.

I figured narrowing my search to local hits would be best and was directed to the National Library of South Africa.

I was stoked to find out that the registration of an ISBN was a free service rendered to South African publishers.

For mahala boss!

I simply emailed the contact provided on the website, I received an application form within the day, it required the following info:

  • Title of book
  • Book format
  • Name of author
  • Name of publisher (if not author)
  • Contact details of author

I was advised that:

  • Every eBook format (PDF,ePUB, audiobook, etc) requires a different ISBN.
  • A new ISBN number is not required for reprints (books printed again with no changes or only minor corrections).
  • A new ISBN is required for a revised edition of a book.

I had received my ISBNs within 72 hours—I take my hat off to Ms. Magret Kibido for efficient and friendly service, the process was painless much to my surprise.

Happy days were here! Me first ISBN aarrgh!

My bank account had survived the exercise unscathed and like a diamond on the ring finger, my writing went from “it’s complicated” to official.


Hmm, why are you frowning, dear reader? 

Not a South African? Click on this link to read about ISBNs in other countries.

You got 99 problems and ISBN is one of them? I got your back bruh. Here are answers to 20 Frequently Asked Questions About ISBNs.

Best of luck, new writer!



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