If you’ve had anything to do with books or publishing, you most likely have heard the abbreviation ISBN before. For those not yet in the know (which was all of us at one point), this blog post serves to enlighten you on all things ISBN: what they are, why you need them and where South African authors can get them. 

What is an ISBN?

ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number and is a 13-digit product identifier used by publishers, booksellers, libraries and internet retailers for ordering, listing, sales records and stock control purposes. In this way, an ISBN can be seen as your book baby’s birth certificate. Any monographic publication, whether it be in printed, non-printed or mixed media, requires an ISBN.

Basically: if you’re wanting to see your book in bookstores, you need an ISBN.

Why do I need an ISBN?

Since each different format or edition of your publication, such paperback, hardcover, eBook or audiobook, needs an ISBN, going through the correct processes to obtain unique ISBNs helps retailers and distributors identify these different formats and editions correctly and effectively, thus ensuring that the information they report back to you is correct – including royalty payments.

Almost all stock holding and reporting systems used by book retailers and libraries use ISBNs, so having one at the ready for your book makes getting into both physical and online bookstores much easier. It also shows buyers and bookstore managers that you know what you are talking about and are to be takes seriously as an author.

How do I get an ISBN?

South African authors can apply for ISBNs through the National Library of South Africa (NLSA). Authors will need to provide the team of friendly librarians with your book details and valid South African contact details and a local address. You can apply for more than one format for the same book in a single application.

Because we love helping authors, we have created a handy ISBN application form that is about as quick and simple to complete as it gets. Just follow the link below, complete the requested details and congratulate yourself on taking the first step in your publishing journey:

Some housekeeping rules: should you decide to make use of our awesome ISBN service, please double-check that your email address is 100% correct so that we can share your ISBN with you once it is returned. It would be a shame not being able to get in touch with you to share the happy news! Duplicate applications make things tricky, so for sake of ease, either apply through us or the National Library, never both. Your future self will thank you for keeping things simple.

Does my manuscript need to be finished before I apply for an ISBN?

Luckily, no! Whether you have just started writing or have a complete manuscript that is almost ready to be published, you can apply for your ISBN at any point in the publishing process.

If you are having hard copies of your book printed or are going the print-on-demand route, I would suggest applying as early as possible to allow your designer time to add the ISBN to the copyright page and the barcode to the back over of your book.

What is Legal Deposit?

After receiving your ISBN and having it added to the back cover and copyright page of your book, be sure to courier copies of your printed book to the NLSA for legal deposit. This is a requirement for all authors in South Africa who apply for ISBNs for physical book formats (paperback and hardcover), regardless of whether you are planning to have one or 1000 copies printed.

Your nearest place of legal deposit can be found at the link below. You’re welcome.

Digital book formats, such as eBooks or audiobooks, can be emailed to the NLSA for legal deposit.

The most common reason that the National Library might reject your application is that you had an application for a previous title where copies of that book were not shared with the required legal deposits, so be sure to avoid being placed on the NLSA “naughty list” and courier those copies!

Where do authors outside South Africa get an ISBN?

The International ISBN Authority has a very helpful list to point you in the right direction for the correct ISBN authority in all areas of the globe:

Does my ISBN come with a barcode for the back cover?

Unfortunately not, but we love this helpful online tool that will generate a free ISBN barcode for you: (You can even download the barcode in multiple picture formats!)

My book has an ISBN, so I am covered for copyright, right?

It’s a common misconception that ISBNs provide copyright protection for written works, which is regretfully not the case. While an ISBN does not provide any additional copyright protection for your book, the good news is that, in South Africa, copyright arises automatically as one expresses one’s original ideas on the page and there is thus no need for you to register for further copyright. (Read more on the Berne Convention here.)

Copyright is however a very complicated topic beyond the scope of this blog post, and one I would highly suggest you do further research on.

A big thanks to Sunè Raspel for the word-magic 🙏