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History of ISBN

The Standard Book Numbering (SBN) code is a 9-digit commercial bookidentifier  system which was created by Gordon Foster, Emeritus Professor of Statistics at Trinity College, Dublin, for the booksellers and stationers,named WHSmith and others in 1965. The ISBN configuration of recognition was generated in 1967 by David Whitaker (regarded as the "Father of the ISBN") and Emery Koltay (who later became the director of the U.S. ISBN agency, Bowker).

The 10-digit ISBN format was developed by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and was published in 1970 as international standard ISO 2108. The United Kingdom continued to use the 9-digit ISBN code until 1974. ISO has appointed the International ISBN Agency as the registration authority for SBN worldwide and the ISBN Standard is developed under the control of ISO Technical Committee 46/Subcommittee 9 TC 46/SC 9. The ISO on-line facility only refers back to 1978.

An SBN may be converted into an ISBN by prefixing the digit "0". For example, the second edition of Mr. J. G. Reeder Returns, published by Hodder in 1965, has "SBN 340 01381 8" - 340 indicating the publisher, 01381 is their serial number, and 8 being the check digit. This can be converted to ISBN 0-340-01381-8; the check digit doesn’t need to be re-calculated.

Since 1 January 2007, ISBNs have been containing 13 digits, a format that is compatible with "Bookland" European Article Number EAN-13s.


What is ISBN ?

 ISBN stands for “ International Standard Book Number “which is a unique numeric commercial book identifier.

An ISBN is alloted to each edition and variation (except reprintings) of a book. For example, an e-book, a paperback and a hardcover edition of the same book would have different ISBN each. The ISBN is a 13-digit long number if assigned on or after 1 January 2007, and 10 digits long if assigned before 2007. The method of allotting an ISBN number is nation-based and varies from country to country, often depending on how vast the publishing industry is within a country.

The initial ISBN number of recognition was generated in 1967, which was based on the 9-digit Standard Book Numbering (SBN) created in 1966. The 10-digit ISBN format as developed by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) was published in 1970 as international standard ISO 2108 (the SBN code can be converted into a ten digit ISBN by prefixing it with a zero).

Occasionally, a book may be found without a printed ISBN if it is printed privately or the author does not follow the usual ISBN norms; however, this can be corrected later.

Another identifier, viz. International Standard Serial Number (ISSN), identifies periodical publications such as magazines; and the International Standard Music Number (ISMN) caters to musical scores.


An ISBN is assigned to each edition and variation (except reprinting) of a book. For example, an ebook, a paperback, and a hardcover edition of the same book would each have a different ISBN. The ISBN is 13 digits long if assigned on or after 1 January 2007, and 10 digits long if assigned before 2007. An International Standard Book Number consists of 4 parts (if it is a 10 digit ISBN) or 5 parts (for a 13 digit ISBN):

The parts of a 10-digit ISBN and the corresponding EAN‑13 and barcode. Note the different check digits in each. The part of the EAN‑13 labeled "EAN" is the Bookland country code.

  1. for a 13-digit ISBN, a prefix element – a GS1 prefix: so far 978 or 979 have been made available by GS1,
  2. the registration group element, (language-sharing country group, individual country or territory)
  3. the registrant element,
  4. the publication element, and
  5. a checksum character or check digit.

A 13-digit ISBN can be separated into various parts viz. prefix element, registration group, registrant, publication and check digit, and when it is done it is mandatory to separate the parts with hyphens or spaces. Finding out how to separate a given ISBN number, correctly, is quite complicated, because most of the parts do not use a fixed number of digits.

How ISBNs are issued

ISBN allotment is country-specific, where ISBNs are issued by the ISBN registration agency which is responsible for the entire country or territory regardless of the language of publication. The range of ISBN assigned to any particular country are based on the publishing profile of that country, and so the ranges vary depending on the number of books and the type, size and number of publishers that are active. In some cases, ISBN registration agencies may be based in the national libraries or within the ministries of culture and thus may receive funding directly from the government to support their services. In other cases, the ISBN registration service is provided by private organisations such as bibliographic data providers that are not government funded. In Canada, ISBNs are issued at no cost with the sole purpose of promoting Canadian culture. In the United Kingdom, United States of America, and some other countries, where the service is provided by non-government-funded organisations, the issuing of ISBNs requires a fee payment.

Australia: ISBNs are issued by the commercial library services agency Thorpe-Bowker, and their prices range from $42 for a single ISBN (plus a $55 as a registration fee for new publishers) to $2,890 for a block of 1,000 ISBNs. Access is immediate whenever requested via their website.

Canada:Library and Archives Canada, which is a government agency, is responsible for issuing ISBNs, and it requires no cost. Works in French are issued an ISBN by the Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec.

India: The Raja Rammohan Roy Library Foundation (RRRLF), which is a part of the Ministry of Culture, is responsible for registration of Indian publishers, authors, universities, institutions, and government departments which are responsible for publishing books.

Italy: The privately held company EDISER srl, which is owned by AssociazioneItaliana Editori (Italian Publishers Association) is responsible for issuing ISBNs. The original national prefix 978-88 is reserved for the publishing companies, starting at €49 for a ten-codes block while a new prefix 979-12 is assigned to self-publishing authors, at a fixed price of €25 for a single code.

New Zealand: The National Library of New Zealandwhich is responsible for ISBN registrations for publishers who are publishing in New Zealand.

Pakistan: The National Library of Pakistan is responsible for ISBN registrations for Pakistani publishers, authors, universities, institutions, and the government departments that are responsible for publishing books.

South Africa: The National Library of South Africa is responsible for ISBN issuance for South African publishing institutions and authors.

United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland: The privately held company Nielsen Book Services Ltd, which is a part of Nielsen Holdings N.V., is responsible for issuing ISBNs in blocks of 10, 100 or 1000.

Prices start from £120 (plus VAT) for the smallest block on a standard turnaround of ten days.

United States: In the United States, the privately held company R.R. Bowker issues ISBNs. The charge varies depending upon the number of ISBNs purchased, with prices starting at $125.00 per number. Access is immediate when requested via their website.

Publishers and authors in other countries obtain ISBNs from their respective national ISBN registration agency. A directory of ISBN agencies is available on the International ISBN Agency website.

FAQs : General Questions

What is an ISBN?
The International Standard Book Number (ISBN) is a 13-digit number that is unique to every and book-like products published internationally.

What is the purpose of an ISBN?
The purpose of the ISBN is to establish, identify and differentiate one title or edition of a title from one specific publisher from another and is unique to that edition, allowing for more efficient marketing of products by booksellers, libraries, universities, wholesalers and distributors.

What is the format of the ISBN?
Every ISBN number consists of thirteen digits and whenever it is printed it is preceded by the letters “ISBN”. The thirteen-digit number is divided into four parts of variable length, each part separated is by a hyphen.

Does the ISBN have any meaning embedded in the numbers?
The four parts of an ISBN are as follows:

  • Group or country identifier which identifies a national or geographic grouping of publishers;
  • Publisher identifier which identifies a particular publisher within a particular group;
  • Title identifier which identifies a particular title or edition of a book;
  • Check digit is the single digit which is present at the end of the ISBN, which validates the ISBN.

Why do some ISBNs end in an "X"?
In the case of the check digit, upper case letter X can appear at he last of the digit.The method of determining the check digit for the ISBN is the modulus 11 with the weighting factors 10 to 1. The Roman numeral X is used in place of 10 where ten would occur as a check digit.

Who can assign ISBNs to a publisher?
There are over 160  authorizedISBN Agencies worldwide, and each ISBN Agency is appointed as the exclusive agent responsible for assigning ISBNs to publishers residing in their country or geographic territory.

Once an ISBN publisher prefix and associated block of numbers has been issued to a publisher by the ISBN Agency, the publisher can assign ISBNs to publications it holds publishing rights to. However, after the ISBN Agency assigns ISBNs to a publisher, that publisher cannot resell, re-assign, transfer, or split its list of ISBNs to other publishers. These guidelines have long been established to ensure the transparency, accuracy and continued utility of the international ISBN standard.

If you are a new publisher, you ought to apply for your own ISBN publisher prefix and plan to identify and circulate your books appropriately in the industry supply chain. You may encounter offers from other sources to purchase single ISBNs at special prices; you should be beware of purchasing from these sources for the reasons noted above. There are unauthorized re-sellers of ISBNs and this activity is a infringement of the ISBN standard and of industry practice. A publisher with one of these re-assigned ISBNs will not be correctly accepted as the publisher of record in Books In Print or any of the industry databases such as Barnes and Noble or Amazon or those of wholesalers such as Ingram. If you have questions, contact the respective ISBN Agency of the country for further advice.

Who is eligible for an ISBN?
The ISBN Agency issues ISBNs at the direct request of the publisher, e-book publisher, audio cassette and video producer, software producer and museum and associations with publishing programs.

How long does it take to get an ISBN?
It usually takes 5 working days for non-priority processing from the time an ISBN application is received at the agency. Priority processing involves 2 business days from the time an application is received at the agency. Express processing takes 24 business hours.

How much does it cost to get an ISBN?
There is a service charge to process all ISBN applications. Information regarding this is contained on the application. Priority and Express processing involve an additional fee.

NOTE: The processing service charge is NON-REFUNDABLE.

What do I do when I receive the ISBN and where is it printed?
An ISBN should be issued to each title or product, including any backlog or forthcoming titles. Each format or binding must have a separate ISBN (i.e. hardcover, paperbound, VHS video, laserdisc, e-book format, etc). A new ISBN is required for a revised r reprinted edition. Once assigned, an ISBN can never be reused. An ISBN is printed on the lower portion of the back cover of a book above the bar code as well as on the copyright page.

How & where do I register my ISBN?
Once ISBNs have been allotted to products, they should be reported to R.R. Bowkerfor the database of record for the ISBN Agency. Companies are eligible for a free listing in various directories such as Books in Print, The Software Encyclopedia, Bowker's Complete Video Directory, etc.

Can a publisher have both an ISBN & an ISSN?
Both the numbering systems are used for books in a series and with annuals or biennials. The ISBN identifies the single book in a series or in a specific year for an annual or biennial. The ISSN identifies the ongoing series, or the ongoing annual or biennial serial. If a publication has both these specifications, each should be printed on the copyright page.

How can I find an assigned ISBN?
The Publications (hard copies) in which the allotted ISBNs appear are- Publishers, Distributors & Wholesalers of the United States, published by R.R. Bowker, and Literary Market Place, published by Information Today.

How are ISBNs used in a Bar Code & how do I obtain one?
The ISBN can be translated into a universally compatible bar code format. Publishers who wish to have their ISBNs translated into universally compatible bar codes can now make their request directly at or . Bar code scanning is a pre-requisite step for many retailers in the sales transaction process for book publications and other related items. We hope that offering this service will save your time and enable you to meet all your transaction partners' requirements.

How do I select the correct amount of ISBNs?
ISBNs are sold in blocks of 10, 100, and 1000. While purchasing ISBNs, we recommend that you estimate arough amount of books you will be publishing within the next five years, and select the block that best suits your requirements. It is always best to select the block that will last you for a few years because this way you will be able to maintain one publisher prefix, and minimize the unit cost per ISBN. Please note, while purchasing a larger block of ISBNs, the unit price per ISBN decreases.

What is the format of the new ISBN-13?
Every ISBN will now consist of thirteen digits w.e.f. from January 1, 2007. The thirteen digit number will be divided into five parts of variable length, where each part is separated by a hyphen.

Does the ISBN-13 have any meaning imbedded in the numbers?
There are five parts of an ISBN which are as follows:

  1. The current ISBN-13 is prefixed by "978"
  2. Group or country identifier which identifies a national or geographic grouping of the publishers;
  3. Publisher identifier which identifies a particular publisher within a particular group;
  4. Title identifier which identifies a particular title or edition of a book;
  5. Check digit is the single digit which is present at the end of the ISBN, validates the ISBN.

Where does an ISBN and bar code get placed on a book?
An ISBN gets placed on the copyright page and, a bar code, on the back cover.

What is the difference between an ISBN and a bar code?
An ISBN is a number. A bar code is a graphic with vertical lines that encode numerical information for scanning purpose. An ISBN and a bar code are entirely different things.

Does the place of printing the book matter?
Books can be printed anywhere. ISBNs are assigned based on the geographical location of the publisher, not the name of the printing company.

If a publisher is selling its book on its own and is not trying to place its books in stores or libraries or with wholesalers, is an ISBN needed in such a case also?
No, an ISBN is not needed.

Are ISBNs assigned to books that are not being sold?
No, there is no such compulsion, but they can be assigned an ISBN.

Are different ISBNs issuedto different language books?
Yes. Every language version is considered asa different product.

Do custom publications get ISBNs?
No, custom publications are not issued ISBNs unless such an assignment is necessary for a publisher’s back office systems, such as finance, since there is only one customer in such arrangements.













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