ISBN (International Standard Book Number)


Are ISBNs still relevant?

ISBNs came into wide usage in 1970. They are used for most text based products such as books; pamphlets; audio books; maps and mixed media where most of the content is text based.

Who uses them?

  • Publishers;
  • Bookshops;
  • Wholesalers;
  • Distributors;
  • Libraries;
  • Commercial Organisations;
  • Academic Organisations.

What are they used for?

  • To manage all stages of a book’s process.
  • Metadata collation.
  • Cataloguing.
  • Ordering.
  • Listing.
  • Stock Control.
  • Sales analysis.

What do they do?

They identify:

  • Book Publisher.
  • Language or publisher’s place of business (country).
  • Title.
  • Edition.
  • Format: e.g. Hardback; Paperback; E-Book; etc. (Note: Not all formats require an ISBN i.e. Kindle editions. These are distinguished by the equivalent of an ASIN (Amazon Standard Identification Number). However, an author may choose to allocate an ISBN if they wish, either upon initial publication or subsequently.

Why are they popular?

  • They provide a Unique Global Identifier (used in over 200 countries).
  • Identifies the publisher:

(N.B.1: Self-publishing authors need to be aware; if they use a free ISBN offered, for         example, by CreateSpace they give up the right to be identified as the publisher. May be disappointing but for many cost is an issue.)

(N.B.2: If they wish to sell the same edition of the book elsewhere, they will need to         obtain a separate ISBN that they will have to pay for).

  • Assists with stock control.
  • Can be turned into a barcode.
  • Helps sales analysis.

Why have some people started to question the value of ISBNs?

  • Abuse: Because ISBNs are easy to use there has been some abuse. For example, some companies have used them for non-text based products such as T-shirts and toys. In addition, some governments use them as a means of censorship.
  • Digital publishing: ISBNs may be used for digital publications and in fact it would be preferable to do so. Nevertheless, some publishers e.g. Amazon, to name but one, have chosen to use their own identifiers which cannot be used in the general supply chain. Consequently, they are only relevant within the publisher’s own organisation/site; ‘walled garden’. Neither can they be used for sales analysis meaning the e-book market cannot be properly assessed. Of course, an author may have an ISBN allocated to their e-books but this brings up the matter of cost.
  • Serialisation: The breaking down of a tale or book into separate stories or into parts. If the publisher or author wishes these smaller elements to go into the general supply chain (why would they not), an ISBN will have to be allocated to EACH part. With all the different formats now available publishers are concerned what impact allocating an ISBN to each element will have.
  • Sales Analysis: As already mentioned the introduction of individual identifiers by companies like Amazon, means those trying to assess the e-book market are unable to gain accurate statistical information. Analysts could make an educated guess but that would be less than satisfactory as there is no real, supportable, evidence. This is certainly a flaw that should be addressed.


ISBNs are a valuable asset and should be used for all formats and editions of books. Nevertheless, for most authors, especially self-publishing ones, cost is an issue. In some countries an author is able to obtain a block of ten ISBNs free however, most have to purchase them at no mean cost. Consequently, a majority avail themselves of the free ones offered by companies like CreateSpace for their print editions and accept the in-house identifiers for other formats. Both mean the company is identified as the publisher rather than the author.

It would be useful if the cost of an ISBN could be lowered or annulled and legislation passed, in all countries, requiring all text based material have an ISBN allocated. This would facilitate discoverability, ordering, stock control and sales analysis. It would also be useful if the ISBN system where enhanced to enable copyright registration. The current system in most countries tends to be rather hit and miss and if a claim has to be made, the legal costs are way outside the means of most authors. The provision of such a system as suggested above should make it easier for authors to identify where plagiarism has taken place. There are patent registries so why not have one for copyright? For those based in The United States of America there is the Library of Congress system however, it is understood this is still not really full proof.

From whatever point the subject is viewed, it is fairly safe to say the ISBN system is here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future. Hopefully, it will be enhanced to cover all aspects and to provide the necessary, and merited, protection authors deserve.

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