I’ve recently had a number of queries about publishing in South Africa, and abroad, mostly through Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing.

I’m going to try and answer most of the queries in various blog posts, but this first one will deal with the most common question:

Do I need an ISBN and where do I get one?

The short answer is: yes, if you want to sell your book in retail stores you need an ISBN. It’s an International Standard Book Number, which allows your book to be found among billions of other books. You can apply for one through the National Library of South Africa. (At the time of writing this post, their website appears to be down, but you can also contact them by phone on: 012 401 9700.)

They will need the following details from you to issue the ISBN:

  1. The title of the publication
  2. Name and address of publisher or self publisher
  3. Contact details: name of contact person, physical and/or postal address, tel. number, cellphone number, fax number, email address
  4. Is the publication available in one physical format (eg printed book)

How much does an ISBN cost?

Nothing. ISBNs in South Africa are issued free of charge when you submit your form to the NLSA. Anyone offering to sell you an ISBN locally is an “agent” looking to make a quick buck. If you are going through assisted self-publishing and they charge a fee for issuing an ISBN, it should be minimal to cover the time cost of completing the application form and emailing it to the NLSA.

Other countries may charge a small fee, but if you contact the national libraries in the area you wish to publish, they’ll give you a breakdown of costs that may be cheaper than going through an agent.

I want to have different formats of my book such as print and digital ebooks. Do I need separate ISBNs?

Yes. Every format of your book requires a unique ISBN, and if you ever reprint your book with a different cover or edit the interior, you need a new ISBN for your reprints. When you apply for ISBNs, you’ll need to specify whether your book will be in PDF, Mobi, E-Pub or Print formats. A number will be issued for each format you use. The same applies for translations of your book into other languages. Each translation will need its own ISBN.

I want to publish through Amazon Kindle. Do I need an ISBN?

No, you don’t need an ISBN to publish directly to Amazon Kindle. They supply you with an ISBN number for Kindle e-books, and if you want to use their print-on-demand option, they will issue a free ISBN to your book. However, if you’ve also published your book locally, you will have different ISBN numbers for the same print run of your books. It’s best to apply for ISBNs from our National Library, and use them when publishing to Amazon Kindle.

Do I need an ISBN if I want to sell my book in retail stores?

Definitely! Your ISBN number is what will generate the barcode used by stores to identify your book. However, if you are self-publishing, you will need to approach book distribution companies in order to try and get your book into bigger retail stores. Smaller, independent book stores may be willing to accept your book if you can negotiate directly with the owners or managers, but you will need an ISBN regardless.

Jozi Flash 2017 barcode generated from ISBN.
Jozi Flash 2017 barcode generated from ISBN.

Are ISBNs the same as Barcodes?

Yes, and no. An ISBN is just an identifying number. The only information it holds is the publishing details of your book. A barcode is a digital pattern generated from your ISBN number, which includes additional details such as the retail price.

Do I need to pay for a barcode?

No. In today’s digital age, it’s easy enough to find a free barcode generator online. TEC IT has a simple, easy to use generator, but it’s for non-commercial use.  There are other options for generating barcodes so it’s not necessary to pay for them, but make sure they they are free for commercial use. Online Labels has an option available which can be used for commercial purposes. You’ll need to select the EAN-13 label to use your South African ISBN number to generate the barcode. If you’re publishing through KDP’s print-on-demand option, they’ll generate a barcode for you.

I’ve got my ISBN… Now what?

Congratulations! You’ve got one of the major steps towards self-publishing out of the way! Now, just remember to send copies of your book to the NLSA depositories (you’ll be given all the details when you apply for your ISBN).

*Next time, we’re going to explore printing presses, book distributors and independent book stores based in South Africa. Do you have any questions about publishing in South Africa? Let me know in the comments and I’ll do my best to address them!*