Every Book a Number – Every ISBN a Book

Every book published has a unique number assigned to it – an International Standard Book Number (ISBN). ISO 2108, Information and Documentation – International Standard Book Number (ISBN) describes how publications in the supply chain are identified so that they are readily discovered, disambiguated from each other and, ultimately, can achieve higher sales for their publications.

Each ISBN consists of 13 digits and identifies a specific publication, in a specific format by a specific publisher. The ISBN standard was first introduced in 1970 and it brought order where previously there had been chaos. Instead of having to enter lengthy details of a book’s title, author, publisher, and so on, booksellers could save time and money by instead entering a short code that would ensure that they received exactly the books that they were ordering on behalf of their customers. To qualify for ISBN, a publication must be text-based, available to the public, and be monographic (in the context of the ISBN Standard this means that the publication is not ongoing like a serial or periodical).

In late 2017, the latest (fifth) edition of the ISBN standard was published by ISO. A working group of 41 experts from 14 countries representing the various parts of the book supply chain – publishers, booksellers, librarians, authors, metadata aggregator, and bibliographic specialists – had been discussing and fine tuning the draft in the 3 years prior to publication.

ISBN is probably one of the most commonly seen international standards – most people will have seen the ISBN represented on the back of a printed book, perhaps as a bar code. ISBNs can, however, identify books in all formats – audio and digital, as well as printed, for example. When represented as a bar code the ISBN is fully machine readable, which improves speed and accuracy. When a publication is identified by ISBN it levels the playing field in the supply chain – the same product can be sold by multiple retailers. Potentially each retailer can have access to all the metadata about that publication: basic data elements such as the author, title of the book, and publisher, as well as richer details such as awards that the book may have won, a long description, subject classifications, and the jacket image. The ISBN is the first building block to which all the other data elements can be associated. With an ISBN, a book can potentially be sold in any country of the world through any book outlet (including internet retailers). Without it, some elements of the supply chain may not be able to handle the book.

For booksellers and librarians, ISBNs are important in streamlining inventory and ordering processes. For metadata aggregators, ISBN enables bibliographic databases with rich metadata to be compiled and updated. For publishers, an ISBN is often assigned to and associated with a project from the very point of commission or contract signature. All the costs related to bringing the book to market may then be detailed against ISBNs, just as the individual sales histories for an ISBN will later be captured and analyzed. Publishers may want to know – which parts of our list have increasing sales this year? For author A, is it better to release the hardback version first, or go straight to paperback? Should we do an audiobook version? What kinds of covers work best for detective novels sold in Spain? It may require complex data gathering before the information can be analyzed to answer these questions, and it is often the ISBN that provides the unifying link and bridge to all that detail. For researchers, ISBN can help find the latest edition of a specific text, and for readers who are looking for accessible books (e.g. audio books with a synthesized voice), ISBN can assist in highlighting suitable publications.

From a personal perspective, Stella Griffiths, chair of the ISO TC46/SC9 working group responsible for the development of ISBN, has been working in and around the publishing industry for almost 30 years. ISBN was a simple but industry changing idea 50 years ago. Stella believes it has the potential to remain the identifier of choice for the book supply chain for many years to come. However, like any standard, ISBN does have certain rules – such as, each new edition of the same title needs a new ISBN to identify it uniquely. Standards work best when all participants follow best practice – that way everyone knows what to expect and how to react.

ISBN has a long track history of helping to bring order and efficiency to the book trade. However, publishing does not stand still. Continuing developments in digital books mean that it’s important to ensure that ISBN can still offer the right solution in challenging times. ISBN should always be a help and an enabler, and not a barrier or hindrance to publishers and the supply chain. We needed to carry out a thorough review to make sure that ISBN still provided value and benefits in identifying publications and was still meeting business needs.

In many countries the accumulation of sales data is done by ISBN. For physical books, the bar code is read directly into the electronic point of sales system and the results aggregated at the end of each day. Similarly, sales data for digital products can also be recorded and captured using ISBN. This also extends to libraries, where loans are recorded and fed into the national lending right statistics. Authors and illustrators can then receive payments each year proportionate to the number of times their books are on loan.

Many thanks to Stella Griffiths for this article. Stella works for the International ISBN Agency and is the chairperson of ISO/TC 46 Information and documentation, SC9 Identification and documentation.