Saturday, April 14, 2012


One of the elements of the modern publishing industry that book dealers frequently come into contact with is the ISBN, which is short for the "International Standard Book Number", a series of either 10 or 13 digits that serves as a unique identifier of a book anywhere in the 160+ countries that use the system (which includes every English-speaking country in the world and even relatively isolated places like North Korea, Kosovo, Iran and Zimbabwe).

The system was first created as the SBN ("Standard Book Number") for W.H. Smith company (the largest book retailer in Britain) in 1967 in order to computerize their warehouses.  The International Organization for Standardization (ISO), an international body that creates trade standards, picked up on the idea and by 1970 it became adopted by the ISO in general.  Traditional ISBNs have 10 digits, but the new "Bookland EAN" 13 digit system was adopted in 2007.  The extra three numbers allow the ISBN system to be integrated into the UPC barcode system.

One can learn a bit about a book by looking at an ISBN, which are usually found both near the barcodes on the backs of recent books and on the page at the beginning of the book which has the publication information.  Sometimes they are found on the dustjackets of older books.  Each ISBN is divided up into 4 (for ISBN-10) or 5 (for ISBN-13) parts:

Example #1 is from a copy of Frantz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth, a good read if you haven't already, and examples #2 and #3 are from a small Buffalo-based literary journal called Living Forge.  Like many recent books, Living Forge v. II (2005) had both ISBN-10 and ISBN-13.  The parts are:
  1. EAN: In an ISBN-13 the first three digits (the EAN) indicates the industry, "978" is the number for books.
  2. Group:  The next two numbers are the 'group,' which signifies the part of the world where the book originates.  If the first number is a "0" or a "1," it comes from an English-speaking area, "2" for French, "3" for German, "4" for Japanese, "5" for Russian, and "7" from China.  The group also informs the reader what country the book is from with the second (or more in some cases) numbers.  Canadian ISBNs are issued with both  English and French codes.
  3. Publisher:  Publishers buy large groupings of ISBNs simultaneously and obtain their own numbers at that time.
  4. Title:  Pretty self explanatory
  5. Check Digit: This is a computerized check built into the system to protect against error through a mathematical calculation (more on this complicated calculation here)
ISBNs are distributed differently in each country.  For instance, the Canadians handle it through Archives and Libraries Canada and give out ISBNs for free to Canadian publishers.  The US and UK, however, have privatized this function.  In the US this is done by a private company called R.R. Bowker which charges as much as $125 for a single number.  In Britain a company called Nielsen distributes them and in Australia Thorpe-Bowker.  I personally admire the Canadian system which evens the playing field and promotes small and individual publishing and it angers me that a private company benefits from what is essentially a public monopoly.  It is possible to publish without an ISBN, but they are required for admission into libraries and sales at large book stores.

Important Points: For the purposes of our book dealing, the possession of an ISBN-10 signifies that our book was published after 1967 (and probably 1970 for American books) and an ISBN-13 means it was published in the 2000s.  This is a quick reference for those seeking to sell textbooks... an ISBN-13 is a good sign that the book is recent enough to warrant further investigation.  Outside of textbooks, ISBNs are handy tools for looking books up in databases, as they encoded not only the name but also publisher and edition and therefore are a more accurate search tool.

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