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The term ISBN is a common one within the book industry, but what is an ISBN, why is it important for your book, and most importantly how to you get one for your book? ISBNs are on books all around the world, but there are specific companies that supply these to their own regions, and they’re not the only acronym important to the publishing world.

1. What are the basics of an ISBN?

An International Standard Book Number (ISBN) is a 10- or 13-digit number unique to every book published in the market. You can find the ISBN of a book on the book’s artwork (often on the back cover) accompanied by a barcode and often the genre. ISBNs are an integral part of a book as they make the book searchable within a catalogue and allows libraries and bookstores access to the important metadata of a book.

This metadata includes but is not limited to:

    • Title
    • Subtitle
    • Author name
    • Other contributors (e.g. editor, illustrator, photographer, etc.)
    • Publisher
    • Format
    • Cover image
    • Genre
    • Subgenre
    • date of publication
    • Status of the book (whether it is available or not for bookstores to stock, etc.)
    • The RRP (recommended retail price)

If a book has more than one edition or variation, a new ISBN is assigned to each. This is because, as we’ve said, the ISBN holds information. Because new editions and variations of a book can include changes in a book’s information (new date of publication, cover image, contributors, etc.), they require a new ISBN to be distinguishable in a catalogue.

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ISBN example

​2. Does my book need an ISBN?

ISBNs are required for all books intended for the market, whether you intend to sell your book globally or locally. Without an ISBN, your book will not be searchable on databases and will not be accepted by wholesalers, distributors, and retailers, meaning that they will not be able to find or stock your book. Some retailers even require your book to have an ISBN, meaning they will not stock your book without one.

You will need to purchase a new ISBN for every book you publish, regardless of how similar they are or if they are or if you’ve published the same book in two different editions (updated content, new cover, etc.). If you have one book that is published in multiple formats, such as paperback, hardcover, eBook, and audiobook, you still need to have a new ISBN for each format.

ISBNs also help to differentiate books with similar or the same titles, which does happen quite a bit in publishing. They can work to elevate the credibility and authority of your book, too, giving potential readers more confidence in your book.

2.1 Printing your book with a SKU instead of an ISBN

A SKU is a ‘Stock Keeping Unit’ unique to each product within a company. They’re used to track inventory, sales and restocking. In book printing, you can get a SKU from your printing company by simply requesting one. SKUs are useful mainly for authors who don’t want to distribute their book and therefore don’t need the benefits of an ISBN.

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​3. How do I get an ISBN in Australia?

The process for getting an ISBN assigned to your book can vary from country to country. In Australia, there is one main company that handles the distribution of ISBNs, and that is Thorpe-Bowker.

You can apply for an ISBN through their website, and you can either get individual ISBNs or you could bulk-purchase. The benefit of bulk-purchasing ISBNs is similar to any bulk-purchasing endeavour: you get more for less. This is only beneficial, however, for authors or publishers who know they are going to use them all. If you only want to publish one or two books, you’re better off just purchasing a singular ISBN when you require one.

If you’re publishing through self-publishing platforms such as Amazon KDP or IngramSpark, you can purchase your ISBN through them as well. (Amazon KDP allows their authors to get ISBNs for free, but you are of course limited to distribution through Amazon exclusively.)

Thorpe-Bowker Homepage

​3.1 Getting a barcode for your ISBN

Barcodes are also essential for the distribution and sale of books. For books, they are a graphical representation of the ISBN. You will need to purchase your barcode for your book after you’ve assigned your book an ISBN, both of which can be done through Thorpe-Bowker.

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EAN Barcode for an ISBN example

4. The lesser-known publication numbers

4.1 ISSN

An ISSN stands for ‘International Standard Serial Number’. It is an 8-digit code (ISSN 0387-8772, for example) and is used as a categorisation system exclusively for publication-types including:

    • Course textbooks
    • Newspapers
    • Annual publications (such as directories, reports, lists, etc.)
    • Magazines
    • Journals
    • Collections

4.1.1 Why do periodical publications not use ISBNs?

Having separate numbering systems for different types of publication help to maintain control, flexibility, and overall clarity for those who use them to catalogue and find particular titles. Having a different numbering system is useful when considering the following:

    • Keep track of and differentiate editions and issues of periodicals.
    • Help maintain and track subscriptions to the publications.

4.1.2 Who needs an ISSN and why?

Any author of a periodical publication needs an ISSN in order to be recognised globally as a legitimate publication. They also protect your intellectual property rights by assigning the publication to your or your business through the use of metadata.

4.2. ISMN

An ISMN is a 12-digit International Standard Music Number. It serves as an identifier for notated music publications much like an International Standard Book Number (ISBN) does for general books. ISMNs are assigned to both printed and digitally accessible editions music publications that are available for purchase, rental, or distribution worldwide. ISMNs are widely recognised by music industry professionals, including the following:

    • Composers: ISMNs help composers keep track of royalty payments and music ownership.
    • Music Publishers: ISMNs help manage the supply chain and tracking of products. They also help with automated workflows, data management, visibility, enhanced communication, and streamlining payable accounts.
    • Rights Organisations: ISMNs are useful to simplify the title registration process, tracking music usage, transparency with any copyright issues, and streamlining royalty payments.
    • Music Traders: An ISMN helps to create a smooth and efficient ordering system, a transparent and accessible selling process, and an online information exchange.
    • Libraries: An ISMN simplifies the legal deposit process and the inclusion of music publications in library catalogues.

4.2.1 Why do music publications not use ISBNs?

Although it’s technically possible to use an ISBN for music publications, there are a number of reasons why this is limiting:

    • ISMNs make it easier to filter and identify music publications among thousands of other publications.
    • The music industry’s organisational structure is different to the book sector, with unique supply and distribution channels.
    • Some ISBN agencies lack expertise with music publications and in this case may not list them.
    • Hiring music is not applicable to book distributors.

4.2.2 Who needs an ISMN and why?

An ISMN is necessary for anyone who intends to publish any kind of music. This is inclusive of those wishing to publish any of the following (please note: this is not a comprehensive list):

    • Scores (full, short, miniature, vocal, etc.).
    • Sets of parts or individual.
    • Song books and anthologies.
    • Recordings of parts.
    • Braille music publication.
    • Electronic publications of music.
    • Any other item integral to the published work (lyrics, etc.).

The ISMN serves as an efficient organisational tool for the production distribution, sale, and lending of music publication, adding value to the music industry chain. For Australian music publishers, there are several advantages of having an ISNM, as they:

    • increase internet exposure of your publications;
    • remove uncertainty about different versions of publications;
    • can list your contact details on the International Music Publishers Directory; and
    • keep track of stock and record barcode numbering.

4.2.3 How can I get an ISMN?

The national agency in your country can supply a ISMN number for your publication. The cost varies via agency. In Australia the ISMN service Is managed by the National Library of Australia on behalf of the International ISMN Agency which is located in Berlin. This operates as a free service in the music publishing industry. In Australia obtaining an ISMN is free.

To obtain an ISMN you need to register with the Australian ISMN Agency, from there a list of ISMNs will be sent to you. From there you can assign the numbers from the list to your publications

4.2.4 Other codes used in conjunction of the ISMN

    • International Standard Name Identifier (ISNI): identifies a person, the creator. Run by
    • International Standard Musical Work Code (ISWC): identifies a musical work. Run by ISWC Network.
    • International Standard Recording Code (ISRC): identifies sound recordings. Run by the International ISRC Agency.
    • International Standard Audiovisual Number (ISAN): identifies an audio-visual work. Run by Transitory Registration Agency.

4.3 Do ISMNs, ISSNs, and ISBNs have the same function?

ISMNs, ISSNs and ISBNs are each numbering systems for publications in their own right, but they do have some differences. ISBNs are International Book Standard Numbers identifying all general text-based publications, while ISMNs are International Music Numbers that identify notated music publications specifically, and ISSNs are International Standard Serial Numbers for periodical publications like coursebooks and newspapers. Furthermore, ISNMs, ISSNs, and ISBNs have different supply and distribution chains, global markets, directories, and ordering processes.

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