Publishing Trendsetter is a production of Market Partners International and Publishing Trends.

A Beginner’s Guide to ISBN, Part 1: An Overview

ISBNs are important to a book’s identity for many reasons, but most importantly because they give ownership to the book’s author. Additionally, ISBN contributes to a book’s identity is by giving it a unique number for distributors and bookstores to keep inventory, to differentiate between similar editions, and to provide data for market analysis. Still not quite sure what an ISBN is? Here’s some background.

As some of you might remember from your grade school’s library classes, ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number and is composed of the thirteen digits above the barcode on most books, unless the book was assigned its ISBN before January 1, 2007. Before 2007, IBSNs were only ten digits. To convert a 10 digit ISBN to a 13 digit one, simply add 978 to the beginning of the existing number. However, it should be noted that the last digit, also known as the check digit, changes when this is done. A book has a different ISBN for each edition: ebook, paperback, and hardcover.

The modern-day ISBN has been around since 1970, although book numbering has been practiced in the UK as a stock-keeping identifier as early as 1965. It was originally put into practice to help people identify that they were buying the correct book, since books can have multiple editions or even the same title as a different book.

ISBNs are divided into registration group identifiers, which are one to five digits long and are the prefixes assigned to publishers and imprints. Most registration group identifiers begin with 978. Each publisher is assigned a series of ISBNs within its registrant element, which it can then assign to each of its books.

A relatively unknown aspect about the digits included in an ISBN is that there are patterns that allow people to detect errors, found using modular arithmetic. Publishers should use these methods to double check the ISBN on their book before going to production. If a publisher produces a book with the wrong ISBN, it can cause identification problems for libraries, booksellers, and readers. It’s incredibly complicated, at least to my non-mathematical brain, but if it interests you then you can read more on the ISBN Wikipedia page.

ISBNs are issued by the ISBN registration agency of the country of publication. Some of these agencies are government-owned, meaning publishers can obtain the ISBNs for free, whereas some are privately owned and charge for the service. The chart below gives some examples of ISBN price by country.

ISBN Costs by CountryWhy should an author in the US, the UK, Ireland, Australia, or Italy spend the money on an ISBN? An author needs to have proof of ownership because that gives them the right to maintain the book’s metadata, while also helping agencies track the book’s sales data. However, ISBNs are not required by law in most countries, although publishers or authors still need to get them if they expect to sell their books in most bookstores and a lot of online retailers.

In the second installment of this two-part series, we’ll explore why self-publishing authors sometimes exercise the option to forego ISBNs and how that has affected the publishing industry in the last few years.

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  1. […] “A Beginner’s Guide to ISBN, Part 1,” we gave an overview of the basics about ISBNs. However, there’s a lot more to the ISBN […]

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