If I make a change to my book do I have to change the ISBN? This is a questions that, as a publisher, I hear every day – often asked by someone who wants to save a few dollars by not purchasing a new ISBN.
First, a little background: ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number. It originated in the United Kingdom in the 1970s as a way to solve the problem of finding and identifying books in the pre-internet age. This old school solution has become even more important to authors and publishers in the age of metadata. Bowker is the company that issues all ISBNs in the United States.
Your books ISBN is “owned by,” and designates, the publisher of the book. If you purchase your ISBN from a reseller, who offers it for less than the $125 charged by Bowker, you will find that the reseller is listed as the publisher of your book. Make sure your book is correctly labeled. If you are the publisher, you, or your company, should be listed as the publisher – not Smashwords, CreateSpace or IUniverse. Just listing your company as the publisher on the title page of the book will not change how it is listed in Amazon, Ingram Book Wholesalers, etc.
Your ISBN carries metadata: the title of the book, the author, the price and searchable keywords to helps readers discover your book. An ISBN is designed to designate a specific edition of a specific book by a specific author. This is also why an ISBN cannot be reused. Once a book is published using a particular ISBN you cannot take that book out of print and reuse the number for a second book.
That’s why if you make a substantial change to your book you must change your ISBN. If you do not, you will make it difficult for readers to find your book. Each version of a book, print or digital, requires its own ISBN. In other words, you should have a separate ISBN for the print edition and the audio edition.
So when do you need a new ISBN?
- If you make substantial changes to your book. In other words, if you just fix a few typos, you don’t need a new ISBN. But if you add something new to the book, such as a foreword, an appendix, or a new chapter, you will need that new ISBN. If you create a second edition with new material to “freshen” the book and give it new marketing life, it must have a new ISBN.
- If you change the title of the book you must have a new ISBN. Remember that your ISBN identifies a specific work. If you change the title, your book will no longer be easily searchable with the original number.
- If a book is sold both individually and as a set, a new ISBN is need for the set. In other words, Book A has one ISBN, Book B has a second ISBN, and Books A&B together should have a third ISBN.
- If the price of the book changes you do NOT need a new ISBN. You WILL NEED to change your metadata.
- Changing the cover of your book may, or may not, require a new ISBN. According to Bowker if, “the idea is to give a marketing boost to the product, then no, a new ISBN should not be assigned. However, if the change in cover substantially changes the product (i.e., would lead to customer complaints), then a new ISBN should be used.”
- If an author gets a new publisher, or takes back the rights to a book and self-publishes, he must get a new ISBN.
While I could continue for several pages on the intricacies of the ISBN, the bottom line is that if you are making substantial changes to a book you must change the ISBN. Most changes are made to make a book more marketable. Trying to save a few dollars by keeping an old ISBN that is associated with outdated material defeats that purpose.