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How to apply for an ISBN in South Africa - Everything a self-publishing author needs to know

How to apply for an ISBN in South Africa - Everything a self-publishing author needs to know


Are you an author who is in the process of self-publishing a book? Here is how to save time and money by applying for your own ISBN number.


ISBNs: The Nitty Gritty Facts

Many self-publishing authors have asked whether they need ISBNs or how to apply for them so it was decided that a post answering all your ISBN-related questions and explaining what an ISBN is and how to apply one was called for.  

What does ISBN stand for?

ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number. Up until the 31 December 2006, ISBNs used to be 10 digits in length but since 1 January 2007, they have 13 digits. ISBNs are calculated using a specific mathematical formula and include a check digit to validate the number.


ISBN Explained


What is the purpose of an ISBN?

The reason our books need an ISBN number is to identify one title or edition of a title from one specific publisher from another. This allows for easier marketing efforts as well as the ability to keep track of book sales through bookshops, libraries, universities, wholesalers and distributors.

Do I need an ISBN to publish my book?

Yes and no.

Physical book formats such as paperback must have a unique ISBN number (where you intended to sell them through any bookshop or warehouse.) This will include books sold through online print on demand companies such as Createspace and Ingram Sparks.

Digital eBooks will need an ISBN for the ePUB format should you intend for example to publish through the eBook distributor Smashwords, Apple iBookstore or Barnes and Noble. The MOBI version of your eBook sold exclusively on Amazon does not require an ISBN although there is a place to capture the ISBN should you have one.

A general rule would be an ISBN is needed where you intend to profit from book sales. So you only ever wanted to print limited copies of your paperback for close friends and family, an ISBN would be of no benefit to you.

A tip to save you time, If you only ever intend to sell your eBook on Amazon, I would not bother getting an ISBN.

Can I use the same ISBN for all versions of my book?

Unfortunately not, as each ISBN uniquely identifies a format of your book. The different book formats all requiring unique ISBNs, are:

  • eBooks (ePUB only. As mentioned not vital for MOBI version)

  • Hardbacks;

  • Paperbacks;

  • Audiobooks.


When do I need a new ISBN?

If your book is revised and changes by at least 20% or more you will be required to apply for a new ISBN. An ISBN can never be reused or reassigned.

Where do I find the ISBN number on existing books?

You will find an ISBN is printed on the lower portion of the back cover of a printed book together with a barcode. It will also be found on the copyright page of print and eBooks.


Copyright Page  

ISBN Backcover


Do I need to apply for different ISBNs if a book appears in different languages?

Yes, each language version is a different product.

Where do I apply for my ISBN if I am an international author?

Are you a writer living outside South Africa and not sure where to apply for your ISBN?

Self-publishing authors from Kenya, or any other African country including other authors in other countries around the world can find their relevant local authority by visiting the following page on ISBN Agencies.

How do I apply for my ISBN in South Africa?

Brave authors following the self-publishing route from South African shores can apply directly from The National Library of South Africa .

Email your personal and manuscript details directly to Ms Kholofelo Mojela. ( You can also call the NLSA offices in Pretoria directly on this number 012 401 9700 if need be.

Need a hand when applying for your ISBN? Feel free to use our ISBN application form. This form will prompt you for all the relevant info that the NLSA needs.

The final step, posting copies

After apply for and receiving your ISBN numbers from the NLSA, these are then inserted into your book. Obviously where they are located depends on the format of your book. Your book, together with it’s freshly inserted ISBN then needs to be shared with the South African National Library, here is how:

  • eBooks: Email your completed eBook files to Obviously only email the versions of the eBook where an ISBN was inserted.

  • Print books: If you are printing less than 100 copies, just post a single copy to the National Library in Pretoria. Find the address at the end of the post. If you plan on printing more than 100 copies, a single copy of your book should be posted to each of the five legal deposit locations listed at the end of the post. This excludes the film and video archives.

    • Yes, authors using Createspace to print their paperback will also need to post a single copy to the NLSA in Pretoria :)

  • Audio books: A single copy should be posted to the NLSA in Pretoria whilst a second should make it’s way to the NFA, also in Pretoria.

What will it cost me to apply for an ISBN?

Authors from South Africa

If you apply through The National Library of South Africa, it is completely free. Other agencies worldwide might charge a fee.

Authors from the USA

Visit the Bowker website, a single ISBN will cost $125 while 10 ISBNs cost $250.

Want your specific countries’ ISBN fees listed here – Let us know by commenting.

Free ISBNs

I know dealing with your local ISBN-issuing authority might be a pain. This is especially true where you are an author residing in an African country. The great news is that in some cases when working specifically through online eBook or PoD platforms, you might be able to get an ISBN for free within seconds.

So if you are an author for example who wants to distribute their ePUB eBook into multiple online eBook stores using the Smashwords platform – They can issue you with a free ISBN number.

This also applies when publishing a paperback using the Createspace print on demand platform.

A note on these free ISBNs – The platform issuing you the free ISBN will be listed as the publisher, not you. Sometimes this is a perfect solution for an author tired of red tape.

A note on paperback barcoded ISBN numbers

ISBN numbers listed on the back cover of your paperback need a barcoded version of the ISBN number. This is in many cases is a service that publishers charge you an extra fee for.

To save money and avoid this fee, pass this free barcode generator resource to your graphic designer responsible for you print cover.


Download these ISBN application steps as a PDF form.

Step-by-step instructions for applying for an ISBN in South Africa

Step 1: Confirm you really need an ISBN number. For example, if you were only publishing a Kindle eBook on Amazon then it is not essential.

Step 2: Download and complete our handy MS Word ISBN application form. (For SA authors only)

Step 3: Email your application to Kholofelo at the NLSA. (This applies for any ISBN applications, print/ eBook/ Audiobook.)

Step 4: Receive your ISBN numbers back from the NLSA, inserting the ISBN number into the right places. For example, in eBooks just add the number/s on the copyright page. For print books don’t forget to include the ISBN on the back cover together with an ISBN barcode.

Step 5: Create the book, with the new ISBN numbers included. This could mean converting to eBook format or having copies of your paperback shipped to you from your local printer or even finalising your audiobook.

Step 6: Give a copy of your book to the National Library.

  • For eBook: Email a copy of your ePUB/ MOBI eBook to
  • For print: Ship a single physical copy of the book to the National Library in Pretoria. Where you print more than 100 copies you would need to ship a copy to all five legal deposits listed below (excluding the NFA.) This applies to authors using print on demand services such as Createspace.

  • For audiobooks physical copies would need to be sent to the NLSA Pretoria as well as National Film, Video and Sound Archives (NFA)

Step 7: Nothing, you are done.


I hope this article has answered all your questions on ISBNs and you are now feeling equipped to apply for your relevant ISBNS :)

Until next time, get excited, be inspired and keep writing!



South African Legal Deposits

National Library of South Africa – Pretoria Campus (NLSA-Pta),
PO Box 397, Pretoria 0001; or
228 Johannes Ramokhoase Street,
Pretoria 0002;  
Contact Person Auriah Mabelane.
Tel: (012) 401 9719;
Fax (012) 325 5984;

*The National Librarian,
National Library of South Africa – Cape Town Campus (NLSA-CT),
PO Box 496,
Cape Town 8000; or
5 Queen Victoria Street, 8001;
Contact Person David Slamet.
Tel: (021) 424 6331
Fax: (021) 424 4848;

The Manager, Legal Deposit Section,
Mangaung Library Services (MLS),
PO Box 1029, Bloemfontein 9300;
or c/o Charles- and West Burger Street, 9301;
Contact Person Doret du Toit.
Tel: (051) 405 8244;
Fax: (051) 405 8604;

The Manager,
Msunduzi Municipal Library (MML),
PO Box 415,
Pietermaritzburg 3200; or
260 Churchill Square,
Church Street, 3201;
Contact Person Eshara Singh.  
Tel: (033) 392 2683 / (033) 392 2639;
Fax: (033) 394 0095;

The Chief Librarian, Legal Deposit Section,
Library of Parliament (LP),
PO Box 18, Cape Town 8000; or
Parliament Building,
Parliament Street, 8001;
Contact Person Sarah Jonas.
Tel: (021) 403 2140 x2863;
Fax: (021) 403 2756;

The Head, Legal Deposit Section,
National Film, Video and Sound Archives (NFA),
Private Bag X236,
Pretoria 0001; or
Craigilea Building,
698 Church Street East 0002;
Contact Person Trevor Moses.
Tel: (012)441 3166;
Fax (012) 344 5143;




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