When it comes to publishing, there are many technical and legal elements that, as an author, you won’t necessarily think of. For example, it may not cross your mind, but having an ISBN is the only way your book can be sold in stores.

An ISBN is a 10-digit number that uniquely identifies a book or book-like product. The acronym stands for International Standard Book Number. As the title suggests, the ISBN system is used worldwide. The numbers help to differentiate one book from another – making it easier to process through bookstores, libraries, universities, wholesalers and distributors. In fact, a book MUST have an ISBN in order to be sold or placed in a library.

If you are publishing through a publishing company, most of the ISBN work is already done for you. Publishing houses purchase the numbers in bulk and distribute them to their authors when they publish a book. If you’re self-publishing, however, you will need to purchase a number yourself. The only place you can do that is through the U.S. ISBN Agency (or the agency that corresponds to the region or country of publishing).

The agency sells ISBNs through Bowker Identifier services at www.myidentifiers.com. The price of a number drops drastically the more you buy. If you purchase a single number, the cost is $125; but if you buy 10 you will pay $250. Once you start buying numbers by the thousands, they drop to $1 apiece (hence why publishing companies buy them in bulk).

Although the buying process happens online, it is not instantaneous – so plan ahead! The standard waiting time for a number is 15 business days from when the application is received by the agency. Faster processing is available for an extra fee, but the shortest wait period is 24 hours.

When you’re focused on perfecting your book’s content, it can be easy to forget about the paperwork that publishing entails. But staying on top of details like ISBNs will save you a ton of stress and allow you to give your full attention to the book itself. When you know what to expect during the publishing process, you will avoid being blindsided at the last minute.

About the author

Rachel Rachel Brownlow is founder and CEO of Your Written Word LLC, a ghostwriting company that helps successful and aspiring business leaders take their ideas from conception to publication. She has written, edited, proofread, consulted and/or created publishing proposals for more than a dozen nonfiction books. She also contributes to a variety of magazines and publications, including the Austin Business Journal, Austin Monthly, NSIDE Magazine and Georgetown View Magazine. You can find more of her work at rachelbrownlow.com/portfolio.