The conventional wisdom in the publishing industry is to recommend that every book needs an ISBN (International Standard Book Number). When self-publishers come to us at Acutrack for book printing and fulfillment, it’s one of the questions we are asked most frequently – and the answer is it depends.

Coaches, Influencers, or Trainers Who Only Sell Books and Journals Direct to Consumer

Through Their eCommerce May Have Little Need for an ISBN.


If you want your book to be sold by retailers other than yourself, either online or in a physical store, or want libraries to purchase your book, it’s advisable to follow the pack and get an ISBN. Book retailers and libraries refer to ISBNs for a variety of purposes. But as self-publishing and bookselling continue to grow outside those traditional channels, there are an increasing number of books in circulation for which ISBNs serve no significant purpose. 

What is an ISBN, and How are They Different from Barcodes?

For those asking what is an ISBN, this illustration breaks down the different parts of an ISBN.

ISBNs are a globally coordinated system created to establish and identify each book’s title and publisher. The system for assigning them varies by country, and in the United States, it is a paid system managed by a single company. As mentioned, ISBNs are important to book wholesalers, retailers (including Amazon self-publishing/print-on-demand), and libraries. But if you are the only one selling your book directly to your consumers, getting an ISBN can be an unnecessary expense and a waste of time.

Barcodes, formally known as UPC scan codes, are a different story for self-published and are needed in most cases. They’re used by book fulfillment services like ours at Acutrack and by anyone else selling your book or shipping it for you. UPC scan codes work for inventory management systems and pricing for retailers – we’re all familiar with products being scanned at checkout counters. But the barcode is separate from the ISBN and serves an entirely different purpose. 

What Are Amazon’s Requirements for ISBNs?

Amazon has two options for selling your books, Amazon KDP and Amazon seller central; one requires an ISBN, and the other one does not.

Amazon KDP is an on-demand printing model allowing self-publishers to sell books with a royalty to Amazon in exchange for book printing and order fulfillment. Books printed and sold in KDP need an ISBN, which is available as part of the royalty package with Amazon listed as the publisher – or you can arrange the ISBN and have yourself listed as the publisher. The other option is to produce your books with a printing company like Acutrack, sell them on Amazon Seller Central, and let us fulfill your orders. Then, no ISBN is required.

If you’re among the many self-publishers planning to sell books on Amazon, we advise you to make your decision based on many factors, not just the chance to have a free ISBN. If you go with KDP/print on demand, Amazon arbitrarily decides its royalty and affects your profitability, is listed as your book’s publisher on the ISBN and becomes the retail face to your customers. You may enjoy convenience, but it comes at a high price, including the loss of your customer data that Amazon keeps.    

When Is an ISBN A Must-Have?

If your ultimate goal is to sell your book at retail with Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and local bookstores or have it purchased by libraries and schools, you need an ISBN. Many in the industry agree it’s wisest for you to arrange the ISBN and have yourself listed as the publisher, even if there is a cost to do it when you are U.S. based. While many countries provide free ISBNs, the U.S. agency is operated by Bowker and carries a fee.

When you arrange your ISBN directly, you can log into Bowker with your own credentials to create and update the data disseminated about your book. Also, remember you need to register a unique number for every book format. For example, eBooks, soft-cover editions, and hardcover case-bound books each require a unique number.

What’s the Prognosis for Self-Published Books Without ISBNs?

Example of an ISBN barcode printed on booksIf you’re a coach, influencer, or trainer selling a self-published book on your own eCommerce or Amazon Marketplace, the prognosis is excellent without an ISBN. You will likely need a bar code (UPC scan code) for inventory management or to scan to price if a retailer carries your book, but none of this means you need an ISBN. When you’re a self-publisher printing and selling your book independently or on the Amazon marketplace, you’re operating outside the publishing industry system where the numbers are needed. It’s why articles proclaiming a one-size-fits-all approach aren’t giving you the best advice.

Undoubtedly, ISBNs are important for books operating without the traditional system. But if your business model takes you outside of it, you may be able to save yourself time and expense. If you have questions about how to print your book and fulfill orders taken on your eCommerce on Amazon Marketplace, we hope you’ll contact us for information. We’d be happy to explain how Acutrack can help, and give you transparent, no-surprises pricing for our service.

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