Monday, February 9, 2009

Number Please: A bit about ISBN's

I've been having some email exchanges with an author recently on ISBN's. This happens from time to time and is perfect because it shows an area that people need to know more about. So I thought I would go over a few things about ISBN's today.

The ISBN is the number that uniquely identifies a particular book. Prior to 1997 they were 10 digits but now the standard format has 13 - so many books actually have two numbers but they both point to the same book. (There are conversion programs that will generate the 13-digit number from a 10 digit ISBN and visa-versa). The ISBN is specific to the publisher and the format of the book. So the same "content" may have several ISBN's. For instance a paper back and hard back book each have their own number. Because the ISBN is tied to a publisher, a book will have multiple ISBN's if it has had more than one publisher. For instance, if you started out self-publishing then it was picked up by a traditional publisher each would have their own ISBN. If you reprint a book, and the content is primarily the same, you don't need to issue a new ISBN. However, if you have significant updates, like new chapters or content that has changed over time then you should use a new ISBN for that revision.

NOTE: If you are printing the book from multiple sources you do not need to change the ISBN. So if for instance you have a book that you are printing at both CreateSpace (for Amazon distribution) and LightningSource (for Ingram distribution) they both have the same ISBN).

An ISBN is made of 4 parts:
  • Group or country identifier which identifies a national or geographic grouping of publishers
  • Publisher identifier which identifies a particular publisher within a group
  • Title identifier which identifies a particular title or edition of a title
  • Check digit is the single digit at the end of the ISBN which validates the ISBN
Sometimes you'll see an ISBN with an X at the end. For instance the ISBN for Michael's Avempartha is: 098000344X. This simply means that the check digit (modulus 11 with the weighting factors 10 to 1) calculated as a 10 and so the roman numeral of X is used.

Many people confuse the ISBN with the Bar Code on the back of the book - the Bar code is just a representation of the ISBN in a particular font (EAN) that can be read by scanners at the store when the book is sold. You actually need BOTH an ISBN and a bar code. Sometimes you can buy the bar code when you purchase the ISBN, there are also bar code services on the Internet (you give them the ISBN they give you a .jpg with the bar code). You can even create your own bar code with the appropriate software. This is what I do and I'll make a separate post on it at a future time.

In most circumstances when a bar code is created a second bar code is added to the right to indicate the list price of the book. The first digit of the price code indicates the currency type (5=US dollars) and the rest is the price. So the bar code to the left is for a book that costs $24.95.
Every book that is sold by anyone other than yourself would need an ISBN or it could not make it through the various distribution and sales systems. If you are going to market through a traditional publisher they will assign it one of their ISBN's. If you are self-publishing you have a number of choices in getting an ISBN.

If you are using a subsidized publisher such as iUniverse, Lulu, or BookSurge they will issue an ISBN for you but...many of these organizations allow you to give them an ISBN and I highly recommend that you take this option. Remember the ISBN indicates the publisher of the book and if you use their number then for instance iUniverse will be the "official publisher". There is a stigma against self-published books and most reviewers won't accept books from these sources and many bookstores will also not carry them. If you have your own ISBN (for instance I own a block of ISBN's assigned to Ridan Publishing) they will not immediately think it a self-published book (even though it is). They would have to do some research (which they will not do) whereas the moment they see iUniverse they will know it is self-published.

The creation of ISBN's is limited to a single entity per region (there are 160 worldwide). In the United States Bowker is the sole source for all ISBN's. In the past they only sold them in groups of 10 (for $275) although I see now that they offer these choices:

  • 1 ISBN for $125
  • 1 ISBN + Bar code for $150
  • 10 ISBN's for $400
  • 100 ISBN's for $1,120.00
  • 1000 ISBN's for $1,875.00

ISBN's are not transferable so a publisher cannot resell, re-assign, transfer, or split its list of ISBNs among other publishers.

Remember ONLY Bowker can issue an ISBN (in the US) if a subsidized publisher tries to tell you you can have your own ISBN through them they are misleading you and you will probably just have one of "their blocks". It is much better to get one yourself then give it to them.

There is one other option and that is that some companies buy blocks of ISBN's then sell them one at a time over the Internet. For instance Aardvark Publishing sells them for $55 each. I can't say whether this is prevalent enough for reviewers to recognize this as a 'self publisher' service and so I'm not sure if it carries the same stigma as say "iUniverse". But one thing to be concerned about is distribution. Distributors don't work directly with authors -- they work only with publishers so if you are not listed as the publisher you won't be able to enter into a distribution contract for your books. This is really not a problem if you use CreateSpace and/or LightningSource for distribution but if you wanted to print up 2000 books and for instance use Atlas Distributing then it would be an issue. When in doubt...get your ISBN directly from Bowker and then there will be no question.

The ISBN is a necessary number that all books designed for purchase will need to have. Among other things it identifies the publisher of the book and has implications for book reviews, distribution, and selling in brick and mortar stores. If you are self-publishing it is important to consider the various options in obtaining the ISBN. If going through a traditional publisher it is not something you have any control over nor anything you need to worry about.


Ophelia Livingston said...

Thanks for explaining how getting an ISBN work. It was somewhat confusing for me, since this in my first publication.


Robin Sullivan said...

Glad it was helpful to you Ophelia