Why get an ISBN and barcode for your self-published book?

Why get an ISBN, or a barcode, for your self-published book?

What is an ISBN?

‘ISBN’ stands for ‘ International Standard Book Number’. It is used to identify published (including self-published) books.

It is a unique number: there can only ever be one ISBN, per published book. For example, if you publish or self-publish your book not only as a hardcopy book but also as an ebook, you’ll need a separate ISBN number for each of those publications, or editions, of your book.

An ISBN identifies the registrant, title, edition and format of a book. The ISBN number of a book is important to publishers, bookstores or libraries, whenever they need to order books, or compile sales reports or inventories.

Similarly, the larger book wholesalers and book shops, as well as libraries, need a printed book to have a barcode, for that book to be listed in their inventory.

When purchasing an ISBN, you need to fill in the metadata about your book, with information such as the author/s’ names, topics covered, other major contributors, designers, number of pages and other details about the book.

An ISBN makes it easier for someone to find you. For example, if your book is about how to knit beanies, and someone is researching books about knitting beanies or knitting in general, then they might do a search in the national cataloguing register and see your beanie-knitting book listed there, with all its details, including how to contact you to ask for a copy of your book.

In Australia, when you self-publish your book with an ISBN, you are legally bound to send one copy of your book to the National Cataloguing Library, where it kept in perpetuity. You also need to send one copy to your state’s reference library.

I really like the idea of every book – even books intended only for family or very limited audiences – having an ISBN because that way you can be sure that your book and, of course, the metadata about that book, will be preserved forever.

Note: the holder of the ISBN number is not necessarily the copyright owner of the book, who may have delegated the ISBN ownership/maintenance to someone else. For example, upon the request of one of my very elderly clients, I attached one of my ISBNs to her self-published book. I own that ISBN and am responsible for the metadata for her book. But she still owns the copyright of the book and is the main point of contact for queries about the book.

What is a barcode?

According to Thorpe-Bowker (Australia), a barcode is a ‘graphical representation of your printed book’s ISBN’.

A barcode makes it easier for a business or company to keep track of and report on sales and inventory. The larger book wholesalers and retailers, as well as libraries, require books to have both a bar code and an ISBN.

Buying an ISBN and barcode

If you want your book to potentially end up in a library or book shop, I recommend you purchase not only an ISBN but also a barcode.

My go-to for purchasing ISBNs is: Thorpe-Bowker. I use their services because they have been around for a very long time and know their stuff, and I know they are legitimate. According to Thorpe-Bowker’s website, they are ‘the official ISBN Agency for publishers physically located in Australia. If an ISBN is obtained from a source other than the official ISBN Agency, it might not identify the publisher of the title accurately. This can have implications for doing business in the publishing industry supply chain.’

I purchased a batch of ISBN numbers in bulk from Thorpe-Bowker a long time ago (before barcodes were a thing), so I don’t expect to have to purchase an ISBN for myself for a long time. That said, each time I use one of those ISBNs for a book, I purchase a barcode to go with it.


As part of my ‘self-publishing services provider’ role, I often assist my clients to purchase ISBNs and barcodes for their self-published books.

Purchasing an ISBN for just one printed book (regardless of the number of copies printed) from Thorpe-Bowker costs about $60 (in 2022). Or, if buying a larger number of ISBNs in one go, it costs less per ISBN. When you’re ready to purchase, check the current prices.

Barcodes can be purchased from Thorpe-Bowker as well, or they can be obtained from other providers at no cost. One such provider is the Online barcode generator.

Contact us for help to purchase an ISBN or barcode

If you would like more information about purchasing an ISBN number, filling out the ISBN metadata or purchasing a barcode, you are welcome to ask me for assistance or guidance, at Contact us.

Image: Copyright SW Kane

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