Publishing 101

  1. Traditional and Self-Publishing
  2. Publishing vs. Printing
  3. Text and Formatting
  4. Fonts and Styling
  5. Editing and Proofreading
  6. Photos and Illustrations
  7. Color vs. B&W/Grayscale
  8. Paper Options
  9. Trim Sizes
  10. Covers and Bindings
  11. ISBN
  12. LCCN
  13. Copyright
  14. Publishing Costs
  15. Pricing Your Book
  16. Sales and Marketing
  17. Legal and Tax Requirements


ISBN is an acronym for International Standard Book Number. As the name implies, ISBNs are international, meaning they are recognized in all countries regardless of where the corresponding books are published. ISBNs are assigned locally, however; each country has one designated ISBN agency to assign ISBNs for publishers and self-publishers in that country. For the United States and its territories, that agency is Bowker.

If you wish to sell your book in brick-and-mortar stores or online; to place your book with a wholesaler; and/or to place your book in libraries, your book will need an ISBN assigned to it. An ISBN is also necessary if you wish to list your book in Bowker's Books in Print, the main source used by booksellers and libraries to search for and order books. The listing in Books in Print contains information about the book itself, as well as ordering and correspondence information. The ISBN is printed on the copyright page of your book and on the back cover (either by itself or as part of a barcode).

If you wish to release different versions of your book (e.g., softcover, hardcover, e-book), each version must have its own ISBN. This is also true for future editions of your book or if you reprint your book with a different publisher in the future. A reprint of your book that is the same as the original printing or contains only minor typographical corrections can use the ISBN originally assigned.

ISBNs are typically purchased by the self-publisher or publisher and they are not transferable. Some publishers, especially self-publishers, will allow authors to purchase their own ISBNs to be used on their books. Such authors will likely wish to buy just a single ISBN, which is more expensive because the per-ISBN price decreases when the numbers are purchased in bulk. The ISBN is NOT related to the copyright. Unless specified otherwise by the book's publisher, the author of the book owns the copyright regardless of who purchases the ISBN.

Some publishing companies, especially online self-publishers, claim to be Bowker agents authorized to purchase single ISBNs in an author's name at a lower price than that listed at the Bowker ISBN website. Be very wary of any publisher making such claims. Bowker does have a "Channel Partner" program, but that program has been suspended due to the abundance of publishers falsely claiming they are Bowker agents, as discussed above. Existing Channel Partners were allowed to remain as such, but Bowker is not accepting new applications. If you are considering a publisher claiming to be a Bowker agent, make absolutely certain the publisher is truly part of the Bowker Channel Partner program. Otherwise, you may pay for an ISBN that is either invalid or turns out not to be in your name. If in doubt and you really want one or more ISBNs in your name, make the purchase yourself directly from Bowker's site. In addition, make sure the publisher agrees to use your ISBN in (and on) your book.