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ISBN Numbers

ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number and it is a unique number code which is placed on books. It was first created in the UK by booksellers and stationers in 1966 and initially was 9 digits. By 1970 the 10 digit format was developed by the International Organization for Standardization and it then became a standard code used worldwide. However since the 1st of January 2007 published books have been issued with 13 digit codes, because parts of the 10 digit ISBN space are nearly full and to line up with a European barcoding standard. They came about as a means of being able to product code books and today with technology and the use of barcodes it has made it easier for retailers and the like to be able to have a standardised product code that can be scanned.

An ISBN is issued to each edition and variation of a book, but not reprints. It is made up of 5 parts:-

  1. A 3 digit prefix (either 978 or 979)
  2. A group identifier (language sharing country group)
  3. A publisher code
  4. The item number, and
  5. A check digit.

Each of the parts may be different lengths, but they are usually separated by a hyphen or space. The ISBN usually is shown in the form of a barcode on the back of a book, but it should also appear on the reverse of the title page, sometimes called the copyright page or the imprint page.

Generally a book publisher is not required to assign an ISBN, nor for a book to display its number (except in China), however most bookstores will only handle books which have an ISBN. As at 2008 around 170 countries and territories take part in the ISBN system. Part of the number is the publisher code, however this is not actually specific to the publisher so an individual publisher could have a large number of publisher codes.

Publishers usually apply for and receive ISBN's in blocks, the minimum block being 10, with larger blocks being allocated to publishers who are expected to need them.  If a book does not have an ISBN it cannot be listed in the major books lists or bibliographies such as the 'Books in Print' catalogue and 'Publishers International ISBN Directory' which keeps up-to-date with title and publisher identification. The only books which do not usually carry an ISBN are those that have been produced for very small circulation and are effectively private publications.

So why have an ISBN.  There is no legal requirement in the UK or Republic of Ireland for an ISBN and it conveys no form of legal or copyright protection. It is merely a product code. However if you wish to sell your publication through major bookselling chains, or internet booksellers, they will require you to have an ISBN to assist their internal processing and ordering systems.  It also gives access to Bibliographic Databases like 'BookData Online' and two others mentioned above, which are organised using the ISBN as a reference. These databases are used by booksellers and libraries to provide information to customers. The ISBN therefore provides access to additional marketing tools which could help sales of your book. Whether you need an ISBN or not will depend on the type of publication you intend to produce. For example if you are producing books as part of your wedding photography business for your clients and their guests, generally in this form it is not going to be on open sale to members of the public. On the other hand if you have had a great holiday that you want to share with others, both photographs and your experiences on the trip then you may decide to publish it for others to buy and enjoy.

Within the UK 100% of major publishers use them and around 90% of self-publishers, and if you want to compete with them and you intend to produce a book for sale, and you are going to self publish, even if you are only going to use a Print on Demand service, having an ISBN means that your publication can be picked up by bookstores, and included on the publisher lists, and be included in library databases. As an individual as soon as you produce a book which you intend to sell to the public then you are a publisher.

To get an ISBN for a book being published in the UK and Ireland you need to contact the UK and Republic of Ireland ISBN agency who handles the issuing of ISBN's, their website is www.isbn.nielsenbookdata.co.uk.  It is not possible to buy a single ISBN, the minimum number you can have is 10. In the first instance you may think I'm only producing one book, so why do I need 10 numbers when I only want one. But think about it, if you are thinking of having the option of having the book available with a hardcover, paperback cover, in A4 format and A3 format, or smaller or on CD, each of these methods needs a separate ISBN, with these options we have already used 6.

So what does it cost ? ISBN numbers do have a cost, very little is free today, and there maybe two elements to this cost. The first element is in buying the ISBN's and for 10 initially, it will cost a minimum of 103.50, this includes a registration fee, on-going groups of 10 will then cost 57.50 (Dec 2008). This gives you the numbers.

However you may require a barcode version of it for the cover of your book and there may be a cost in producing this. Searching the internet will find many who can supply online barcodes of ISBN's through to full software that you can download on your computer. An example of this is a subscription service offered by DLSoft, an online service at a cost of 20 for a months use, and you can use it as many times as you like during the subscription period. The image produced can be saved as BMP, GIF, JPEG or PNG, or you can request a file to be e-mailed to you in these formats or also as an EPS, TIFF or WMF format. This system also allows you to define the barcode size.

I have also come across Free Barcode Generator websites, an example is at www.terryburton.co.uk which generates the code online and can then be saved as a BMP, JPEG, PNG, or TIFF image, but there is no system for deciding the size of the overall barcode.

If you are intending to produce a photographic book of more than one copy and are intending to sell it to members of the public then it would be wise to invest in an ISBN number. Not only will it get it listed in the various publications, it will also appeal to bookshops, Amazon and other selling outlets as the code can be easily added to their system as it comes with a unique product code identifier. The one downside is that you also then need to supply 6 copies to the Copyright Libraries - see our article on this.


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