Do you need an ISBN? What’s its purpose?


This is a guest post by Stella Griffiths, Executive Director of the International ISBN Agency. Stella has worked in publishing and international standards related roles since 1989. She held managerial positions in both books and serials for over 10 years including roles at Wiley-Blackwell and Oxford University Press. Stella is the Convenor of the International Committee that is revising the ISBN Standard and is also Chair of the ISO Sub-committee that is responsible for Identification and Description Standards within the publishing, information and documentation sectors.

You’re close to crafting that final sentence, you want to start thinking about cover designs and marketing and you’re wondering whether you also need to get one of those odd-looking 13-digit numbers and bar codes you’ve seen on the back of books. Is it just some weird code for people in the know? Such a small thing, can it really be so important?

Those 13-digits may look insignificant but think of an International Standard Book Number (ISBN) as being instrumental in helping you to reach the widest possible audience. ISBN is an international standard first published under the auspices of ISO (the International Organization for Standardization) in 1970.

First, let’s get some basics out of the way. ISBNs are assigned by publishers to identify books. Who is a publisher? A good way to think of it is as being the person or organisation that is responsible for taking the financial risk associated with the publishing project. Are you the one paying to get your book printed or turned into various digital formats? Will you only make money if the book sells well? If so, then you are the publisher of the book and should apply for ISBN. It’s not something that your printer or designer or digital producer should do for you.

The essential concept of ISBN is really quite simple—each edition of a book that is produced by a particular publisher can be identified by a unique numerical string. The string remains associated with that specific book for all time, and can be used reliably to order it in any country. On a printed book, such as a paperback, the numbers of the ISBN are usually clearly visible on the bottom right of the back cover, either rendered simply as numbers or converted to bar-code form for easy and quick processing of sales. Such visibility has enabled ISBN to become a widely known and instantly familiar standard.

Thanks to an agreement among ISBN, GS1 (at the time called EAN International), and the Uniform Code Council (UCC) that allowed ISBN to be encoded into an EAN-13 bar code, ISBN has facilitated EPoS (electronic point-of-sale) systems since the 1990s. Thus, books with ISBNs can be quickly checked into stock in bookshops, processed efficiently at the till point and the sales data captured. In practical terms, it would be almost impossible for a bookshop in the UK to handle a book that didn’t have a bar coded ISBN – in fact many shops would probably refuse to stock them since they would have to handle each process manually with the associated risks of error, increased cost and inefficiency.

How did the book trade cope before ISBN? Quite simply, things were much more burdensome and even chaotic—manual, labour-intensive order forms, upon which full details of title, author, publisher, etc. had to be faithfully reproduced, were standard practice. In comparison, ISBN is a short “code” that can be verified and processed easily by machines; it quickly became an essential building block in the automated systems used by retailers, librarians, and publishers.

It would be wrong to think ISBN is an identifier that’s applicable only for printed books. Right from the introduction of the very earliest audiobooks, microforms, and CD-ROMs, through to today’s PDF, EPUB and other digital formats, ISBN has not been a standard only for printed materials, though of course, print will always be important. In essence, ISBNs should be used to identify materials that are text-based, available to the public and in monographic form (i.e. publications that are not serials or periodicals).

Just having a unique, supply chain accepted identifier for your book is important in itself – quoting the ISBN will ensure that exactly the right book is ordered and supplied in the precise format required. More than that though, the ISBN facilitates the compilation and updating of book-trade directories and bibliographic databases, such as books-in-print catalogues and importantly internet bookseller sites. It’s a proven fact that “metadata” can really help your book to be discovered and also, potentially, for it to sell more copies. The metadata are the essential facts about your book such as its title, author, date of publication, price, product form, subject codes, reviews, short and long description, jacket cover image, etc. The ISBN is the identifier “glue” that will associate all the other elements of the metadata record that describe your book and so enable information about it to be found easily. Producing good, accurate metadata is critical to your book’s success – it creates the shop window for your book.

Unique ISBNs aid in discovery and disambiguation; they can also contribute to the marketing process by highlighting specific qualities in a publication, for example differentiating between product form details (e.g., whether a book is in PDF or EPUB formats), or between the accessibility options available for those with reading or print impairment. It’s very much the norm that the same content will be made available in a variety of different versions – different language editions in varying print formats, different digital formats, as well as perhaps audiobook and large print. Each of these is a unique product that must be described with its own distinct metadata and for that a separate ISBN is needed each time. ISBN can support you in the promotion and discovery of your book for each platform and channel that you want to target.

ISBN can also help publishers and others in the supply chain to evaluate the success of books – the accumulation of sales data is done using ISBN. For example, publishers can monitor and analyse the varying successes of different product forms and editions of publications, as well as examining comparisons between different subject areas and even different publishing houses.

ISBN is also important for authors and illustrators. In the UK, the Public Lending Right is based on the ISBN. This scheme enables authors and illustrators to receive payments proportionate to the number of times that their books are lent out by public libraries.

In short ISBN may appear to be just a number, but it’s an identifier that punches above its weight. An ISBN can’t guarantee that you will make sales, but it can help pave the way for your book’s success.


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  1. Getting an ISBN number in India has become a real pain in recent months. Not sure if it’s plain bureaucratic inefficiency or something more than that, but the end result is that it harms publishing activity and makes operations difficulty. Reading from the online world, it becomes clear that the ISBNs are being used as a means of censorship by some (particularly West Asian and probably the Chinese) governments in the world. Ms Griffiths doesn’t seem to think this is the case in India. But, those who have created and administer the system also have a responsibility to avoid its misuse, for whatever reason. In other parts of the globe, private players sell ISBN numbers for as much as $125 for a single one (some discounts if bought in bulk). Everything sounds good in theory. In practise, we are caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, between a rock and a very hard place.
    From the history of the ISBN system, we learn: “The Standard Book Numbering (SBN) code is a 9-digit commercial book identifier system created by Gordon Foster, Emeritus Professor of Statistics at Trinity College, Dublin, for the booksellers and stationers WHSmith and others in 1965. The ISBN configuration of recognition was generated in 1967 in the United Kingdom by David Whitaker (regarded as the “Father of the ISBN”) and in 1968 in the US by Emery Koltay (who later became director of the U.S. ISBN agency R.R. Bowker)….” (Wikipedia)
    It is time that reader, author and (to some extent) publisher rights are factored into the system. Free speech should be given priority. Please do not rebuild a colonial-mimicking system in our planet, where local satraps and rajas are given a place at the high table, while everyone else is kept out in the cold.
    If the system is broke, or is not working for whatever reason, it needs to be looked into!

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