The Anatomy of an ISBN

“ISBN” stands for International Standard Book Number.  ISBNs were created so that book titles could be more easily identified and marketed.  The numbering system (as defined by ISO 2108 ) was formed in 1970 and became the international standard for the purpose of tracking books.

For many publishers, obtaining a number is a part of doing business and the string might have little meaning.  In fact, each set of numbers in an ISBN serves a specific purpose:

The parts of an ISBN number

Prefix Element

This number allows the ISBN to be integrated into the broader global identification system.  The three digit prefix was created by GS1, a not-for-profit standards organization .  Prefixes consisting of 978 and 979 are relatively new and allowed systems to contain both ISBN-10 and ISBN-13.

As the supply of 10-digit numbers was beginning to run out, the 978 and 979 prefixes were added to the 10-digit numbers, lengthening ISBNs to 13 digits and creating new numbers.

Registration Group Element

This number refers to the geographic location, language area, or country of the publisher.  This element can be up to five digits in length.  It identifies the region in which the publisher is located.  For example a 3 denotes a German language area.  So, 978-3 means a publisher in a German language speaking area in the prefix group 978.

Registrant Element

This number refers to the specific publisher (or imprint of a publisher).  These numbers are assigned by national ISBN Registry Agencies.  The length of the number also varies and can be up to 7 digits.  Registrants (publishers or imprints) register with the group responsible for ISBN management in the country in which they operate.  After that, they can be assigned registrant elements.

Publication Element

The publication element references a specific publication by the publisher or imprint.

Check Digit

The last number in the 13-digit ISBN serves as an error check for systems using the ISBN model.  It is automatically calculated based on the other numbers in the ISBN and is used as a “check” for the systems receiving the number.

Do I need an ISBN for My Book?

The short answer to this question is yes.  If you want to sell your title via a retailer, wholesaler, online or offline, you’ll need an ISBN.  This serves as the unique identifier that tells your book apart from every other book on the market.  It is the element that helps associate all the information about the title with the various computer systems used across the industry for the distribution and sale of books.



This entry was posted in ISBN. Bookmark the permalink.