International Standard Book Numbers: ISBNs

01:00 Sun 10th Mar 2002 The AnswerBank

Q. Sounds fascinating - hmmm. Go on then, what are they

A. Have a look on the back cover and/or the imprint page (usually page 4) of any book published in the West - and increasingly elsewhere - in the last 30 years and you'll see 10-digit number along the lines of 0 7206 1119 9. This is an International Standard Book Number, or ISBN, a number which uniquely identifies a book anywhere in the world.

Q. And no doubt you're going to tell us how they work

A. The purpose of the ISBN is to establish and identify one title or edition of a title from one specific publisher and is unique to that edition - so the hardback and paperback editions of one title will have different numbers.

Every ISBN is divided into 4 parts: region or country identifier, which identifies a linguistic or geographic grouping of publishers; publisher identifier; title identifier, which identifies a particular title or edition of a title; and check digit, which is the single digit at the end of the ISBN and which 'validates' the whole sequence. When written down these different parts should be separated by a hyphen or a space.

So, to take the example above: 0 = English-language zone (the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the USA all use 0); 7206 identifies the publisher (Peter Owen); 1119 identifies the book (The Moon and the Bonfire by Cesare Pavese, 2001 paperback reprint edition); 9 validates the rest (any ISBN software will recognise that only a certain sequence of numbers can be validated by a 9 check digit).

Q. Hang on. Why do some ISBNs end in an X

A. An X at the end is a Roman 10 rather than the letter x.

Q. OK. Any more

A. The number of digits in the first three parts varies. The number of digits in the group number and in the publisher prefix is determined by the quantity of titles planned to be produced by the publisher or regional group. Publishers or regions with large title outputs are represented by fewer digits. So, for instance, a very big house such as Penguin has a prefix of 0 14 (English-language area plus 14, the Penguin identifier); a small, specialist press with only a few titles per annum will have a longer prefix (Guildhall Library Publications, for example, uses 0 900422).

Other regional or group prefixes are: 3 for the German-language group; 982 denotes the South Pacific group, while 976 is used in the Caribbean Community zone (these last are obviously geographical rather than language-based examples).

Q. So they really are useful

A. Publishers were resistant at first, but the benefits for efficient sales, marketing and stock control for all organisations concerned are obvious. Not only can publishers track their sales but libraries, shops and wholesalers can order and check their turnover of titles more efficiently. It is also invaluable for the book buyer who can be guaranteed to get the correct edition - or even the correct book if there is more than one with the same title.

Benefits to publishers include free listing of their books in various directories, such as Whitaker's Books in Print and the Bookseller Buyers' Guide

Q. When were they brought in

A. The movement which eventually gave rise to the ISBN system had its origins in the 19th century, when pioneering cataloguing work in both the UK and USA by publishers and libraries was undertaken. Eventually set out in ISO Standard 2108 in the late 1960s, the system began in the UK and soon spread throughout the English-speaking world and elsewhere. At last count 159 countries had adopted the system.

Q. And who administers them

A. In the UK it is administered by J. Whitaker & Sons (who also publish the weekly organ of the book trade The Bookseller). Whitaker's were instrumental in devising the system and have been in charge ever since. In the USA R.R. Bowker is the agent and the whole scheme is coordinated internationally by the International ISBN Agency in Berlin.

Q. And how do you get one

A. Anyone who publishes a book is eligible to apply for an ISBN - and, in these days of electronic ordering and stock-control systems you'd be a fool not to. There is a one-off processing fee for being allocated a publisher code and a list of ISBNs for your exclusive use. However, once you have the list you allocate a number to a given publication yourself and then inform the relevant ISBN agency who will then list it on their forthcoming titles list for free. After publication a record will be kept until the book goes out of print, after which time it will be listed as such. So, once the number is allocated it's out there for ever and must not be reused for a different title or format.

Q. And are they only used on books

A. No. Audiobooks, video cassettes, e-books, laserdiscs and DVDs can all take them.

Q. How is an ISBN different from an SBN

A. An SBN is an ISBN without the 'international'. In the early days of the system, up to about 1970 - so before its adoption internationally - British books would have 9 digits, thus missing off the initial 0 that denotes its language area.

Q. So what's an ISSN

A. ISSNs - International Standard Serial Numbers - are used for series or part works. Thus a series of magazines or books will take an ISSN; however, if one individual title is to be identified within the series, then an ISBN should also be allocated to each part of the series.

Recently a system of ISMNs - International Standard Music Numbers - has been brought in for sheet music.

See, it is interesting.

See also the answerbank articles on how books are made and audiobooks

For more on Arts & Literature click here

By Simon Smith

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