ISBN: A Book’s Fingerprint

ISBN is an acronym: International Standard Book Number. The number and the barcode are like fingerprints. No two alike. Each an individual in this crazy commercial world. Like so much of the publishing industry, it is both straight forward and confusing. I set about to try to understand it this week. Just because. I need to know. I figure the more I know about this business, the better I can negotiate the territory. Here’s what I learned.

ISBN numbers are sold by a company in the US called Bowker.

The number identifies one printing of one book. So if a book is reprinted, goes into several editions, goes paperback, becomes on e-book, it is given another number.

So Many Africas was assigned this number

  • ISBN: 978-1-938769-02-3

Simple enough? No.

The Kindle version was given another number called an ASIN: Amazon Standard Identification Number.

  • ASIN: B00UGA3F2O

The book is also listed sometimes with an ISBN-10

  • ISBN-10: 1938769023

So what’s with all the numbers? 

ISBN-10 is the old standard. As of January 1, 2007 the ISBN-13 became the standard. And of course, Amazon does it’s own numbering system within its own mega-Goliath warehouse systems.

The ISBN is actually a very efficient number. It basically identifies a book so you can find just the book you want, the right edition, the right year. It’s actually astonishing how many books have the same titles, or how many authors have the same name.

Inside the ISBN, there is a lot of hidden information.

Take my number 978-1-938769-02-3

The 5 Part ISBN

978: The Group Identifier Number. All books currently being published have a 978 number. In the future, when 978 numbers are exhausted, the number 979 will be introduced.

1: County/Language Number. Digits which contains the information for what country or language the book is published in. 1 = English. 2= French. 3= German. etc.

938769: The Publisher Number. ISBN numbers are sold (by Bowker) in packs. A publisher estimates how many books it will publish (in the next five years is often used) and they buy a pack of ISBN numbers that will cover their publication numbers. The bigger the house, the more numbers they buy.

  • Houses that buy less than 20 ISBN numbers at one time are assigned a Publisher Number of 6 digits. My book falls here. It has a 6 digit number, so Autumn House Press bought less than 20 ISBN numbers when it purchased them. (of course, it can buy more anytime it wants)
  • 5 digit numbers = a press buying 500 ISBN numbers or less
  • 4 digits = 1,500 ISBN numbers purchased at one time
  • 3 digits = 5,000 numbers
  • 2 digits = 50,000 purchased ISBN numbers
  • 1 digit = 500,000 numbers

I went through some of my books to see how this worked.

My friend, Lisa Ohlen Harris, had her book, The Fifth Season, published at Texas Tech U. Press. Her publishers number is 5 digits. Eats, Shoots & Leaves, Gotham Press, has a 3 digit publishers number. Best Spiritual Writing, Penguin Press, has a 2 digit publishers number. The bigger the press, the shorter the pub number.

02: Individual title number. Along with the publishers number a  book is given a title number.

3: The last number in an ISBN is the check digit. It’s basically a number that is from 0 – 9 and must be such that the sum of all 13 digits, each multiplied by its integer weight, alternating between 1 and 3, is a multiple of 10. In other words, it’s a mathematical calculation number that verifies the validity of the ISBN.

So now, it all makes sense. Sort of. There is another whole set of logrithms used to produce the EAN-13 (European Article Number) which is still called an EAN but now refers to the International Article Number: the binary code that you scan and the machine pops up and says, “$17.95, please.” It’s all much too complicated, but it’s efficient. And that little barcode, is right there, underneath the ISBN-13. They are somehow mysterious compatible.

So you’d think that would be that.

But if you self-publish, there is another whole set of considerations. Should you buy your ISBN from Bowker? Or should you buy it second hand? Yup. Second-hand ISBNs. Because Bowker sells ISBN numbers in packs or bundles, there are companies who buy up packs of them and then resell individual numbers. It’s cheaper. There are pros and cons. The cons are that all those little numbers mean something. They store metadata. If you want your book ‘publisher’ to be someone else or yourself, it matters.

The Book Designer has a great blog on the pros and cons that is worth reading: Know your retailer, Free ISBNs, Metadata, and Reasons to Own Your Own.

Capture GoodreadsAnd just, FYI, one of my favorite new pieces of tech is the GOODREADS barcode scanner! Scan any book, in a blink, and put it on your shelf: want to read or currently reading. It’s fantastic. Sometimes tech is a whole lot of fun.

Next time you pick up a book, just know, those codes mean something. They identify the book you are holding in your hand. No two alike. Unique. Just like that book. It makes me happy. My book has its own ISBN, its own signature, its own fingerprint in this world.



Jill Kandel
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