I is for ISBN

by Steve Laube





No, these are not the plays being called by a quarterback during a football game. They are the ISBN numbers on the back of three different books by three different clients. Kudos to the first person to identify the three titles in the comments below.

Back in the mid-60s a major British bookstore chain (W.H. Smith) decided to move toward a computerized inventory system and needed a standardized numbering system to identify which books were which because different books might share the same title. Over time they implemented the BSN or Book Standard Number system.
Other retailers in other countries saw the benefit of this and joined together to created an International group that would administrate this effort. Hence the “I” for International Standard Book Number (ISBN).

Originally it was a 10 digit number. But in the early 2000s there was concern that they might eventually run out of numbers with the proliferation of books being published. So in 2005 they changed to a 13 digit number beginning with a 978 prefix. Once that inventory is exhausted we will start seeing ISBNs beginning with 979.

Please remember that the number is not the bar code. The bar code is generated by the number and is embedded in the funny lines. You can have an ISBN without a bar code but not a bar code without some sort of number.

In the mid-90s I was part of a meeting in New York with the Book Industry Study Group (BISG) that discussed this transition from 10 digits to 13 digits and the retail implications. The challenge was that many bookstore computer systems were programmed with a field only 10 numbers long and could not accommodate the 13 digits. It was a programming problem that took some time to implement across every retailer.

For example, did you ever notice that the old Borders bookstore chain put price stickers on the back of their books that covered the bar code and the ISBN? They used their own in-house proprietary numbering system to avoid all the confusion as the industry was going through multiple changes. Plus they sold more than books which created another problem.

Note that the “B” in ISBN is for Books. Non-book items like music, clothing, etc have a different set of numbers called the UPC (Universal Product Code). And it is a 12 digit number!

Confused yet?
For a long time some non-book retailers would not carry a book unless it had a UPC code on the back or on the inside front cover. This is no longer a problem, but 15 years ago, if a publisher wanted to sell books in Wal-mart they had to print a UPC bar code and a ISBN bar code on a book. Some mass market paperbacks have a bar code on the inside cover for that purpose.

You may vaguely remember noticing the clerk opening the cover of the book and scanning the inside bar code at the register and not the code on the back of the book. Now you know why.

Anatomy of an ISBN
What do the numbers mean? Or are they random numbers sequentially generated?

Look at this ISBN … 978-1-61626-639-4
There are five parts to the number (note the dashes in the above number?)

The first three numbers mean “This is a book.” In the international rules the prefix is supposed to identify the country of origin. But since all books are supposed start with 978, and eventually 979, the committee named this country “Bookland.” Believe it or not.

The next digit refers to the country, geographical area, or language area of the book. Usually either a 0 or a 1.

The next five numbers refer to the publisher or imprint. When I was the national buyer for a bookstore chain I got so used to dealing with ISBN numbers that I could identify a publisher by its ISBN without seeing the book. 031032 was Zondervan. 080285 was Eerdmans. 155661 was Bethany House. (But those never appeared on a Trivial Pursuit card, so the information was useless outside of work. Unfortunately I still remember them.)

The next three numbers identify which title this is.

The last number is a check digit. Why? My guess is to avoid issuing sequential numbers which would create numerous data entry errors. If you are a math whiz go to this link for the check digit calculation formula. Beware. Looking at the formula too long may be hazardous to your health.

Do You Need an ISBN if Self-Publishing?
To further confuse the issue, if you self publish and plan to only use Amazon’s Kindle format, you don’t need an ISBN because Amazon will issue you an ASIN (Amazon Standard Identification Number) for your product. But realize it keeps you inside the Amazon economic system. The number cannot be used anywhere else.

If you want to sell your book elsewhere, like a bookstore or to a library, you must have an ISBN. Plus you will need one for your paperback edition and a different one for your ebook edition. (The jury is still out if you need separate ISBNs for your Kindle-mobi edition and your ePub edition. Many are choosing to only have one for all ebook formats.)

ISBNs can be obtained from Bowker in the US and from CCIS in Canada.

Be the Life of Your Next Party
The next time you are at a party and want to amaze your friends, take a book from the shelf, turn it over, and take your audience on a thrill ride through that little 13 digit number. You’ll be glad you did.

Publishing A-Z series:
A is for Agent
A is for Advance
B is for Buy Back
C is for non-Compete
D is for Dispute Resolution
E is for Editor
F is for Foreign Rights
G is for Great
H is for Hybrid
I is for Indemnification
I is for ISBN
J is for Just-in-Time
L is for Libel

7 Responses to I is for ISBN

  1. Chris Malkemes April 7, 2014 at 5:21 am #

    Thank you, Steve, for clearing up in my mind what an ISBN meant. We need control and control will work if we understand it. again, thank you.

  2. Amy Drown April 7, 2014 at 6:04 am #

    Looks like “Christian Apologetics” by Chad Meister, “Beowulf” by Ronie Koendig, and a book I know VERY well (having helped edit it!), “Five Days in Skye” by my friend Carla Laureano! 🙂

    • Steve Laube April 7, 2014 at 2:52 pm #

      You are right!
      See how the number led you to the correct title? That is the whole point of the exercise. It “guarantees” that the correct book is accounted for in inventory, whether sold or warehoused.


  3. Amy Drown April 7, 2014 at 6:14 am #

    Love the nerdiness of this post, by the way. But what about publishers whose ISBN prefix changed? Bethany House is no longer 155661, for example. Is that because of the Baker buyout? And why do some ISBNs end in X? 🙂

    • Steve Laube April 7, 2014 at 2:57 pm #

      Oh great. Now I’m a nerd. Ha!

      The prefix can change when a new set of ISBNs are assigned. At some point the publisher will run out of their allotment for their prefix. So they get issued a new prefix.

      As for the ones ending in X? That is a function of the check digit formula. If the formula’s answer is any number between 1 and 9 that number becomes the last one in the ISBN. But if the formula’s answer is 10, which is possible, then they use an X instead.

      At one point in my life I contemplated being a math major. I also took accounting and statistics classes. In addition I took a lot of interest in computers in the mid-70s. So it is possible that the nerdiness label is somewhat appropriate.

      I’d prefer a James Bond label (secret agent-man), but that ship sailed a long time ago.

  4. Lori Stanley Roeleveld April 7, 2014 at 1:39 pm #

    ISBN # mystery answer:

    Christian Apologetics: An Anthology of Primary Sources

    Five Days in Skye

    Beowulf: Explosives Detection Dog (A Breed Apart) Paperback
    by Ronie Kendig

  5. Roe McCauley April 23, 2014 at 3:35 pm #

    “Verrrry interesting,” as the guy on Laugh-In used to say!

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