The International Standard Book Number (ISBN) is an international standard used by publishers and booksellers the world over. Getting an ISBN gives you the ability to maximize the sales potential of your book.

What is ISBN?

Every edition and variation of a book, expect reprints, has its own ISBN. For instance, a paperback, a hardback, and an e-book of the same title will have unique ISBNs. ISBNs assigned prior to 2007 have 10 digits, whereas ISBNs issues after this period have 13 digits.

Different countries follow varied systems of assigning ISBNs. This typically depends on the size of the publishing industry within any country. In instances where books published privately come without ISBNs, the International ISBN Agency may assign them ISBNs on its own.

A 10-digit ISBN comes with four parts, and a 13-digit ISBN comes with five parts.

With 13-digit ISBNs, GS1 has made available a 3-digit prefix element. Until now, only 978 and 979 have been assigned.

  • The group identifier may come with one to five digits, and in indicates an individual country/territory or a language-sharing country group. One country may use more than one group identifier.
  • Publisher codes have two to seven digits.
  • Next is line is the item number.
  • The last digit is a check digit or a checksum character.

Since parts of an ISBN may be of varied lengths, they are typically separated using spaces or hyphens. The irregular length of parts makes it difficult to correctly separate any ISBN.

Organization in Charge of ISBN

The International ISBN Agency has been appointed by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). It functions as the registration authority for ISBN globally. The ISO Technical Committee 46/Subcommittee 9 is responsible for controlling development of the ISBN standard.

Issuance of ISBNs remains country-specific. Different ISBN registration agencies are responsible for issuing ISBNs in different countries. They issue their own ISBNs, the language of publication notwithstanding. While some of these agencies are government funded, others are not.

Listed below are names of organizations/agencies responsible for issuing ISBNs in a few popular countries:

  • Australia – Thorpe-Bowker
  • Canada (French) – Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec
  • The UK and Republic of Ireland – Nielsen Book Services Ltd
  • The U.S.  – R.R. Bowker

History of ISBN

In 1965, the nine-digit Standard Book Numbering (SBN) system to identify commercial books was created by Gordon Foster, a professor at the Trinity College, Dublin. In 1967, David Whitaker, often regarded as the “Father of the ISBN,” generated the ISBN configuration in the UK. In the following year, Emery Koltay replicated Foster’s efforts in the U.S. Koltay then went on to become the director of R.R. Bowker.

In 1970, ISO developed and published the 10-digit ISBN coding system as an international standard ISO 2108. The UK did not make the switch from SBN codes to ISBN codes until 1975.

ISBNs have followed the 13-digit format from January 1, 2007.

Example Codes

Here are a few ISBN-13 codes.

  • 978-0140268867 – The Odyssey, by Homer, Paperback, Deckle Edge, November 1, 1997
  • 978-0399501487 – Lord of the Flies, by William Golding, Mass Market Paperback - Antique Books, December 16, 2003
  • 978-1594631931 – The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini, Paperback, March 5, 2013