Monday, May 31, 2010

Getting your free ISBN in Canada.

UPDATE (March, 2014): According to several small publishers and independent writers, the people working at the ISBN office in Canada are more friendly and helpful than the person who I spoke to years ago. If this is true, and I hope it is, I applaud them for turning the office around and helping Canadians who are working in the difficult field of publishing.

UPDATE: I have removed instructions regarding the Library and Archives Canada because I was told by two representatives there that 1) it is likely that any electronic documents submitted may be made available to the public for free. They further explained that the publisher or writer will not have control over this. 2) They also told me, in no uncertain terms, that publishers and writers do not have to submit their work to Library and Archives Canada in order to obtain an ISBN. I invite anyone who uses this guide to do their own research, but I won't be submitting anything to this agency. Both of my conversations with people there gave me the impression that they did not care about my copyright  or whether or not decisions they made would damage my livelihood, which is earned through the sale of eBooks.

Now, back to the Guide!

ISBN’s are free in Canada, greatly reducing the costs for independents and small presses who are operating in this country. We're lucky here, because in several other countries the process of getting an ISBN and the maintenance of databases has been privatized. That has led to the cost of a single ISBN being as high as $150 USD or more depending on the process you use. There's more good news for Canadians, in that we can get free ISBN's for anything, including a CD, DVD, paperback book or any other object that can benefit from an ISBN.

eBooks are a very new thing to the Canadian ISBN system, however, so there are a couple extra hoops to jump through and I’ll cover that.

I’m walking you through the whole process so you don’t have to speak to the impatient, irritable lady in charge of the whole ISBN support department in Canada. Yes, according to her she’s the only one answering emails, taking phone calls and answering questions. She doesn’t like answering questions and it seems that I was causing her incredible grief just by being on the phone with her. Maybe she’s under a lot of strain, being the only woman in charge. There’s a WARNING at the end of this article that you may want to read before taking the steps below.

Back to the heart of the matter, getting your own ISBN!

Step 1: Head on over to
Step 2: Click “Join CISS” (CISS stands for Canadian ISBN Service System)
Step 3: Click Yes – I Accept (Unless you disagree with the conditions on that page)
Step 4: Fill in the publisher registration information. If you’re an independent in Canada, you’re still considered a publisher, so you’re in the right place.
Step 5: Click SUBMIT and follow the instructions on the following page. There’s nothing complicated there. You’ll eventually be asked to wait for an email from the administration.
Step 6: You should receive that approval email on a workday (Mon-Fri). If you get an email telling you that your account wasn’t approved, read it carefully for a reason and either re-apply (if you chose a publisher name that was already in the system, or filled in the form incorrectly, for example), or give the number in the Email a call if there is a more complicated problem. [The current number is 1-866-578-7777 (Select 1+7+3), and God help you.]
Step 7: After you receive the Email with your ISBN prefix and publisher name (keep that Email forever!!) head on back to and login using your new username and password.
Step 8: Edit your profile if there’s anything you need to alter.
Step 9: Click on MANAGE LOGBOOK (Left hand panel)
Step 10: You will have to request a block of ISBN's. To do that, you click on the pull down menu in the middle of the Logbook page. In the future, this is the page you will see your previously assigned ISBNs. As of the second writing of this guide (2014), the minimum amount of ISBN's you can order is 10. It can take several business days for them to approve your request. This is an antique method of assignment no one in the US has to put up with, but it's how they do it, so there's nothing we can do.
Step 11: Once your block of ISBN's has been approved, return to your Logbook Page and click ASSIGN NEW ISBN
Step 12: Fill in the form according to the particulars of your product.

There are special instructions for eBook publishers, I verified these with the Government rep on the phone, step by step, even though she was impatient and rude during the entire process.

Step 1: For eBooks the Product Form is [Electronic Book Text]. The term EBOOK is not in this site’s vocabulary yet, but I was told via Email and on the phone that “Electronic Book Text means eBook”)
Step 2: You skip [Product Form Details] entirely, don’t change it.
Step 4: Enter in the [Title] [Subtitle] [Subject] [Publisher Name] normally.
Step 5: For [Projected Publication Date] enter the date you expect your work to be published OR the date it was published.
Step 6: I was told I didn’t have to fill in [Publication Date] but I did anyway because the website insists. I suggest you fill that field in, otherwise the site will probably reject the form.
Step 7: Set [Publication Status] to [Active]
Step 8: Leave [Number of Pages] at 0, since eBook pages are different from one reader device to the next. (The rep on the phone told me 0 is the correct setting for eBooks as well).
Step 9: Leave the Replacement ISBN Information section empty if this is the only ISBN you’ll be using for the eBook. If you’re using this ISBN to replace another, please email the administration through the form at the top of the page. I’m not going to make any assumptions regarding that option.
Step 10: Fill the [Contributor Information] in normally. If you’re the author, select [By (author)] and fill in your name. Skip the rest of that contributor form unless you have to add other contributors by clicking the [ADD] button.
Step 11: Select the language the book is written in under [Language Information].
Step 12: Under [Rights Information] leave it set to FOR SALE WITH EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS IN SPECIFIED COUNTRIES and select [Canada]. According to the representative, only the Publisher sees this setting, and it has no impact on international use of your ISBN. I asked more than once, which she found really irritating.
Step 13: Skip the entire section called [Supplier Information]. (The rep was insistent that I didn’t change or enter anything into that section).
Step 14: You should get a message telling you that you’ve successfully created an ISBN for your eBook. Click on [Manage Logbook] to see it listed on your account.

You're finished!

A special note to the Canadian Government regarding the ISBN and Library Archives Canada

Dear Canadian Government officials and administrators,
The form used to submit this information, and the publisher information form is outdated. Here are a few minor and major issues that exist in your system.
- The term "Logbook" is an outdated artefact. Update this so it is easier for people to understand.
- Requesting blocks of ISBNs is an outdated and inefficient system, and is completely out of step with the times. In the very near future, as soon as next year, most requests of ISBN will come from individuals who only need one. The minimum block size is 10, so 9 will be wasted.
- The need for your agency to manually approve blocks of ISBN's is a slow and antique notion. If there is a person who is doing this on a case by case basis, it's an unnessiary labor because ISBNs will be used however a publisher likes after going through this process regardless of whatever process of approval this person has. If the automated system takes 1-3 business days, you need an upgrade.
- I am very happy to see that the ISBN office seems to have more people working there, and that some improvements have been made, but from what I'm seeing, there is still room for a lot of modernisation.



Danielle Leonard said...

Thanks for the info. I needed to get a second isbn for my book to create a digital form and, of course, the instructions on the gov't web site is abysmal. So glad I found this. Got my second isbn, no problem. However, I did not know I had to submit my books to the Archives. Where does it say that in the web site? I don't mind doing it, but how would I ever know if it's not articulated?

Randolph Lalonde said...

Glad I could help!

The only place where it states that you have to submit your work to the archives is on the archival page itself. When I first wrote this guide it was written in the ISBN literature as well, but it was since removed.

Recently I had an incident where one of their archival workers wanted to download and list a book that was published under two titles using different ISBN's and group them together. He didn't understand that, by archiving them together and grouping the ISBN's together in the archive, he could cause difficulty in the future with both listings, so I told him that he expressly did _not_ have my permission to proactively download my books from a third party and then list them in whatever way he thought was appropriate.

The punch line here, is that we have the right to opt out of the archival system, and at this point I actually recommend you do, since they've made it very clear to me that they don't completely understand what they're doing yet, or how it can affect the long term listings for our work.

Anyway, I'm glad you found this little guide helpful! I hope they get their act together on the Archival side, and maybe update the ISBN system, but at least it's free.

Unknown said...

Adding my thanks fo this really useful tutorial. Do you have any insight into getting the EAN (barcode) symbol? I am only aware of US companies that can produce eps files; since they are international symbols will it matter if I get it south of the border?
All the best, Leslie

Jennifer said...

Out of curiosity, how long did it take you to get any response after submitting your initial account application? I submitted one about a week and a half ago, but I think that makes it business day 7 right now because of Canada Day.

Randolph Lalonde said...

Check your junk mail folder. If you don't find anything, send them an email during EST business hours. It's a small office from what I can tell, and they're probably getting busier these days with the self publishing boom.


Luc said...

Thanks for the info, I was struggling to fill in the form. I still wonder how to classify a children's book used for speech therapy - is it "juvenile fiction/general", "education", or "medical"?

Randolph Lalonde said...

ISBN listings are part of your marketing now. They used to be treated differently, but things have changed.

I suggest you choose the category that best fits your target audience.

James Piper said...

Great post. Thanks.
Wish I knew earlier.

Jeanne said...

Thank you very much for writing this. It gave me information when I found that each time I tried our government site, their server was down!

Anonymous said...

You're a lot more helpful than that crummy Help section was! Thx!

Carey Jane Clark said...

Thanks for this. Very clear and helpful!

Charles Pedley III said...

Thanks for the great help. You should consider asking the government for a consulting contract. :-) They obviously need help in the CISS department. AND outsourcing costs less for we taxpayers.

Thanks again.

Anonymous said...


Barbara Ivan said...

Hello Randolph
Thank you Thank you Thank you
I have been going crazy trying to make some sense of this entire Canadian process for ISBNs vs the US process. What a difference! The US site, although private was an easy click and pay process. The Canadian govt site is far from user friendly and was really no help to a novice. Someone really does need to revamp those pages and bring everything into this century. It is set up to be as simple as an Income Tax form! Yikes! I love your post, both for the entertainment value and for the useful information I was seeking. Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

You are my hero! Thank you so much for posting this information. I am constantly searching for the FREE ways in nearly every facet of life, so my eBook was no exception. At first, acquiring an ISBN proved to be a painstaking task that I continued to put off, and put off, until I could no longer. But it certainly helps to Google: Where can I get a free ISBN in Canada, because I found you! Thanks so very, very much for this information. I have it bookmarked and will follow it step-by-step.

Unknown said...

You are my hero! Thank you so much for posting this information. I am constantly searching for the FREE ways in nearly every facet of life, so my eBook was no exception. At first, acquiring an ISBN proved to be a painstaking task that I continued to put off, and put off, until I could no longer. But it certainly helps to Google: Where can I get a free ISBN in Canada, because I found you! Thanks so very, very much for this information. I have it bookmarked and will follow it step-by-step.

Anonymous said...

Your post was very welcome when I applied for my ISBN's - it went smoothly and processed in minutes. I just hope the fields for dimensions and price have to be rigidly adhered to because those were a best guess.

Jenny said...

Hello!! So I have a question and I have no idea if anyone will be able to answer it. I'm from Ireland (not lived there in over 10 years), live in South Korea but just obtained Permanent Residency in Canada and plan to move there in 6 weeks...after which I'll be publishing an ebook. Am I classed as a 'Canadian' for the purposes of getting an ISBN, or no? It's so confusing and their site is no help at all. Thanks so much, :)

Randolph Lalonde said...

I'm not an immigration lawyer, so keep that in mind, but from the reading I've done and the processes I've seen, I can say for certain that Canadian citizens can use this service without any issues.

If you have permanent resident status, then you're most likely eligible for social services in this country, like basic health care, employment insurance, etc...

On that basis, I'd say create an account and use the system.

Oh, and welcome to Canada!


Jenny said...

Awesome!! I figure I'll give it a shot and if they say no, well then they say no. :) Thanks so much for the super quick reply! :)

Anna said...

Thanks, Randolph. Just great.

Adriaan Brae said...

Thank you very much Randolph for making this resource available. It was immensely helpful in easing my navigation through the CISS ISBN and Archive sites!

@Jenny: You may want to make sure you update your website to indicate you are now living in Canada - I ran in to trouble with this. We've recently moved back to Canada from the UK, and my initial registration request to CISS was denied because I had not yet updated the Author Bio section of my website.

Jenny said...

Hello!! Tis all good! I got approved and I no have my ISBN account! YAY! Thanks for all the help and advice. :)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the information. incredibly helpful.

Mark — eBook DesignWorks said...

Thanks for posting this.

I'd like to confirm that you do need to be a resident of Canada to get the free ISBN. We lived in Vancouver for nine years and even became citizens, but because we're currently living in Mexico, our ISBN request was denied.

Adriaan Brae makes a good point above. If you are new to Canada, be sure to update your blogs and public information before applying.

Good luck with your books, everyone!

Unknown said...

Thanks for suffering through the process and still choosing to share the best way to get it done.
Much appreciated - I'm looking forward to my ebook being available in a library near you soon!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the blog/instructions.

Just to provide a bit of an update, the person who you warned about isn't there anymore. I just got off the phone with someone who was extremely personable, polite, and helpful.

She might not want to be deluged with phone calls, but for those who genuinely need to phone, they need not hesitate.

Cheers, R

Anonymous said...

Hi Randolph,

Thank you for the guide. I'm currently preparing to apply for ISBN for my ebook. It's written in Russian, and the title is Russian, too. I presume I should enter the title as-is, without translating it to English?

Thank you!


Sarah Tork said...

Dude, you're the best!

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this! You just helped me navigate through their very heavy, complicated site. I appreciate it! Looking forward to publishing my second book with a little less cost than the first. Learning more with each creative endeavour right? I've printed off your step by step process and will wait to hear back from the CISS process. Thanks again!


Unknown said...

Thanks for this informative post. I'd been wondering about this for some time. Your article was the most authoritative on the subject of Canadian ISBN's. Thanks again.

Unknown said...

Your authoritative blog was very helpful. Don't know what I would have done without it.

Anonymous said...

A million thank yous. Never would have made it through without your guidelines. Even now, as I went back to get another ISBN, I thought I'd be able to do it on my own, but I ended up coming back here to figure out what I'd missed.
Thanks again

Jamie Maltman said...

Another thanks! Just went through the last part of the process and have my first eBook ISBN. Much appreciated!

Anonymous said...

Hi Randolph (great name, btw, though I can't help but associate it with Mortimer),

Thank you for the useful information. If only the LAC had a functioning website and forms to fill out right now, I'd gladly submit a copy of my book! Ha ha. Ah well, they'll have to wait, I guess.

Cheers! Johnny Eaton

Unknown said...

Wow! Great stuff! Thanks for the time savings advice.

Unknown said...

Wow! Great stuff! Thanks for the time savings advice.

Sarah Tun said...

Hi, Thanks for your helpful blog post. My question is: how many isbn numbers do you use per book? Is there one for Print on Amazon, One for Ebook on Amazon, Another for Ebook on Smashwords, another for.... and so on.

AmazingSusan said...

Thanks so much. I'm following your instructions with fingers crossed :)

Anonymous said...

I especially love the part of the form used to assign a new ISBN where you are required to enter measurement information for an ebook. What the heck do they want, the size of an electron?

Colleen said...

Thanks very much. I wouldn't have figured this out on my own. (And your commentary made my day.)

silly lady said...

Hi Randolph,

I am a new self publisher and was wondering if you could clarify something for me (I feel silly asking, but I have no one else to help me!)

If I register an ISBN for my book, how do I get the barcode for the ISBN? As in printed on a sticker to put on each of my books. Is this all related? oh boy, you must think I am silly. :)

Randolph Lalonde said...

Silly Lady said... " do I get the barcode for the ISBN?"

The barcode and ISBN are separate systems. You can obtain a barcode to describe your product from many different companies. Normally, I obtain a barcode from the company that prints my books for me, Createspace (a company owned by Amazon). The barcode is free, and I've never had a problem with them.


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