Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Terms to Know: ISBN

This term probably isn't as dire to your success as authors as some others I've gone over, bros and she-bros, but I figure a little knowledge isn't a dangerous thing.

The ISBN, or International Standard Book Number, is a 13-digit (formerly 10-digit) number that is unique to every book published in the world. The breakdown for said number is as follows:

• The first three digits denote the type of publishing. (They're either "978" or "979"; "978" is book publishing.)

• Here it gets tricky, but for American books (and UK, too, I believe), the next digit is a group identifier and indicates in which language the book is published. (The group identifier for English is either "0" or "1.")

• The next three or four digits are assigned by the national ISBN agency (in the United States, that's R.R. Bowker) and are specific to the publisher. Many large publishers have several sets of publisher codes for their various divisions and imprints.

• The next four or five digits are the item number for the individual book and are selected by the publisher.

• The final digit is a check digit, which is the result of a mathematical formula being applied to the previous twelve digits. This is an error detection and prevention measure employed to prevent the ISBN data from being corrupted, mis-copied, &c.

The big, fancy book of publisher codes will set you back nearly $1,000, and there's really no free way of looking up publisher codes on the Internet, but a partial catalog of the group-0 and group-1 publisher codes (read: English language books) can be found here and here, respectively. This is only for those of you with way too much time on your hands.

Questions? Comments? Invective? To the comments with you!


  1. Completely unnecessary but fascinating info!! Seriously thanks. I love random stuff like this. I had no idea there was even a system behind ISBNs!

  2. I've always wondered how those numbers were generated, but never had the inclination to read up on the matter.

    So thank you for "forcing" me to find out.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Sorry about that. Misread your paragraph as a question. Please disregard (I have deleted the comment).

    As an interesting addition, not all the characters in an ISBN-10 were actually numbers. I have had numerous ISBNs end in X, though their 13-digit counterpart changed this to a numeral (most often 0).

  5. As a librarian I thank you for the great post. As an author I wonder how the definition of an edition which needs a separate ISBN is being interpreted in the current publishing world.

    If each edition is separate (hardcover, paper, audio) then does each eformat have it's own number, too?

    If not, what will happen when ebooks are ordered like other formats from the same source (bookstores or distributors)?

  6. My publisher puts out both trade paperback and ebook, and each version has its own ISBN.

  7. Erm...incomplete commenting, blech!

    As far as I know, my ebooks have never had more than one ISBN regardless of format (pdf, html, whatever else formating Fictionwise puts them in).

    That said, I image things like enhanced ebooks will have their own ISBN separate from any other formats put out.

  8. I worked in a bookshop for several years, and remember being able to type the start of an ISBN simply by knowing the publisher. It was handy for obscure book searches, but I've forgotten it all now. This was in the UK, by the way, and I do remember that US ISBNs were very different to UK ones. Why? No idea.

  9. ISPN can cause chaos in a non-bookstore retail store. Most retail stores use a barcode called a UPC code. Entire databases are based on the UPC code. This is why many books (all mass market format, aka the small cheap paperback) have two different codes. The UPC code is on the back of the book, while the ISPN is on the inside cover. The ISPN is on the inside cover so it can be scanned when returned to the publisher unsold. Ever wonder about that page in MM books that warn you if you bought this book without a cover it is "stolen" property? To return an unsold MM book the seller tears the cover off and returns only the cover, "destroying" the rest of the book. As a former book buyer for a
    retail store I had to explain this to many a confused employee, but I ended up with a library of "coverless" books to read (but never sell because than would be wrong).

    It was especially fun at Tower Records and Books. Most don't know Tower was originally a bookstore, and still had several bookstore only stores when they closed their doors. This meant my book department had it's own database and used ISPN rather than UPC like everything else we sold.

    ISPN vs UPC, yet another example of how book publishers refuse to play well with others.

  10. Thank you. Now I can impress my friends while at the book store.

  11. Whoa -- I work with ISBNs every single day, and I never knew what all the different parts meant. Thanks!

  12. And also an interesting observation: at least here in Scandinavia you don't have to pay to get an ISBN to your self-published work (unlike in US). The system is admistered by National Libraries and they very much encourage you to get an ISBN for every publication (or ISSN for magazines).

    What is the reason the ISBN costs in US? And if I have not misunderstood, it's not cheap, either. How it is in the UK?

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