Do I Need An ISBN For An Audiobook?

There have been a lot of talk surrounding ISBNs in the publisher’s circle recently. Rightfully so, as the world revolves around metadata. As an independent author, you need to understand the basics of ISBNs, regardless of the format - including the differences within it (hardcover, paperback; audiobook, or physical CD). 

Today, we will explore the correct answer to the question: Do I need an ISBN for an audiobook, so that you can be in the know when publishing your audio.

Do I Need An Isbn For An Audiobook?

So, Do I Need An ISBN For An Audiobook?

All formats of your book will require a separate ISBN. The good news, however, is that you won’t need to necessarily purchase one for your digital audiobooks. Most distributors will assign you a complementary ISBN for your audiobooks. This is true for Audible, Findaway Voices, iTunes, and more. It is also mandatory to have an ISBN for physical CDs.

But not everything free is the best option. To better understand why this is so, let’s take a deeper look into what is an ISBN, the pros and cons of using a free ISBN, and when it would be good to purchase your own.

What is an ISBN?

What Is An Isbn?

According to the International ISBN Agency, a book's International Standard Book Number (ISBN), is a distinct number assigned to each edition of a book. An ISBN comprises five parts:

  1. Prefix element - used mostly to make ISBNs future-proof
  2. Registration Group - identifies the origin country. For the USA it’s 1.
  3. Registrant - identifies the publisher at the country of origin and links to the registered publisher
  4. Publication - distinct for every edition of a book
  5. Checksum - used to verify the accuracy of a number using a mathematical calculation

An ISBN is required if you plan to sell your book anywhere other than your website or to a captive audience. Now the question is, will you buy one or use a free one?

What Needs an ISBN?

What Needs An Isbn?

An ISBN is required for ebooks and audiobooks if you are publishing through a third-party, such as a distributor, aggregator, or trade publisher. This is because ISBNs are used to track payments. In the case of an ebook that will only be distributed through your website, an ISBN is not needed.

What Does Not Require an ISBN?

When you publish your ebooks directly through Amazon's KDP (or through other retailers like Barnes and Noble, Kobo Books, and iBooks), you do not need an ISBN. Payments are not tracked through third-party distributors or publishing houses. Each retailer can generate its own tracking number for ebooks, and offer you a free ISBN for paperbacks. 

A Kindle eBook on will have an ASIN (Amazon Standard Identification Number), which is unique to it. If you're publishing through Kobo, iBooks, and B&N, you'll also have their own identifiers, so an ISBN is not necessary. 

You will need an ISBN to report the sales of your book to industry agencies, as well as to appear on national and international charts. There is no reporting without an ISBN. However, if you opt to accept the free ISBNs, that may not be a problem for you.

What Are The Upsides of Opting To Use a Free ISBN?

What Are The Upsides Of Opting To Use A Free Isbn?

Bowker Identifier Services is the only company in the US that sells ISBNs. ISBNs are currently $125 each, but you can also buy 10-packs for $295. You might not be able to spend this amount on publishing your book, so the first major pro is that a free ISBN is, well, free! 

That being said, every country has its own regulations regarding ISBNs (like Canada which offers them free to their creatives in exchange for a donation of your book to their library system). So, be sure to do your research before making your decision.

However, in the case of only writing one or two books, you don't care about the 'publisher' listed on the number, and using a free service will save you money. You can make use of KDP or Blurb in this case to publish your book without paying extra.

Second, using a free ISBN saves you time when it comes to creating an account and setting up a publisher. You are not just purchasing a number and having it mailed to you when you buy an ISBN. You might recall that ISBNs are tied to publishers. 

In other words, you need to set up an account with Bowker, which will give you your very own publishing number ID that is on a global file and conforms to international standards. Creating an account isn't difficult, but you won't need it if you are only planning on writing a limited number of books.

Therefore, if you're looking to pinch every penny or only plan on writing a few books, a free ISBN may be just the thing for you.

What Are The Downsides of Using A Free ISBN?

What Are The Downsides Of Using A Free Isbn?

Despite its benefits, the free ISBN is not without problems.

A generic KDP ISBN may not be the best choice if you want to portray yourself as a sophisticated author. Technically, when someone searches for an ISBN, it will come up as published by Amazon or Blurb, or whatever other service gave you the number. It does not matter whether you are the publisher or not (depending on your distribution strategy, this may not be a con).

If you plan to sell your book in a bookstore, Amazon has some nasty consequences as a publisher. As a result, the free KDP ISBN will not have the EIN-5 barcode, which is the price tag. This book must be sold in most stores. 

The second reason is that most stores won't sell your book because stocking your book enriches their competitor. As a result, providing a free ISBN will limit your ability to sell your books locally.

Additionally, a free ISBN may not be able to be used for other purposes aside from technical issues with the EIN-5 or commercial problems with supporting a competitor. IngramSpark's multi-listing service does not accept KDP ISBNs. Decide where to source your ISBN after figuring out your distribution strategy.

When Is It More Beneficial To Use Your Own ISBN?

It is always best to use your own ISBNs when you have registered your own imprint or publishing house. Each ISBN is associated with your imprint. Therefore, if you set yourself up using a free ISBN from Amazon or a Vanity Press, the imprint assigned to the number will be theirs and not yours. Therefore, their name will appear as the publisher. 


ISBN Options for the Self-Publisher

What is an ISBN? | International ISBN Agency (