Pretty much everything has a bar code these days—from chocolate to cheese to children’s books. A book’s bar code, however, is special because it’s an international standard book number (ISBN). So what is an ISBN number for?
Natalie Goldberg’s classic Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within will probably be used in creative writing classes for the next hundred years. But after only thirty years, passages like this one from the first edition already inspire a chuckle:
I have not worked very much using a computer, but I can imagine using a Macintosh…the computer automatically returns the carriage. The device is called a “wraparound.”
Yes, technology zips along. Every stage of the book-publishing industry is constantly evolving, from the tools used to put the first words on paper to the devices we use to read them.
But one feature remains constant: every published book has an ISBN.
Although the paragraph above is exactly the same in the thirtieth-anniversary edition of Goldberg’s book (and she still favors pen and pad), the mysterious number above the bar code is a little different from the one that appeared on the first edition of her book. This allows those in the know to easily differentiate the pre- and post-Macintosh versions of her book.
Of course, you probably don’t pay attention to this series of digits—unless you’re a writer, editor, or rare-book aficionado. If you work in books, you need to know how important the ISBN is.
An ISBN is used to identify a specific book or “book-like” product such as an e-book, audiobook, or software. The unique string of numerals facilitates the tracking, ordering, curation, storage, filing, and sale of each and every book in the world. A different ISBN will be assigned to separate editions and versions. For instance, the ISBN for the first paperback edition of Writing Down the Bones is 978-0-87773-375-1; the hardcover ISBN is 978-1-57062-258-8. The e-book and audiocassette versions will also have distinct ISBNs.
Before January 1, 2007, ISBNs had ten digits. Now they have thirteen. Each string of numbers indicates information about the book. Thirteen-digit ISBNs begin with a three-digit code, either 978 or 979. These two three-digit codes have been assigned to the ISBN organization by GS1, a global standards agency.
The next string signifies where the book was published and which language is used. If the language is English, it will be a single digit: “0” if published in the United States and “1” if outside the United States.
The second string identifies the publisher and can extend to seven digits. The third string gives you the title and edition information. The final string gets a little more cryptic—sometimes it’s an X, in fact, for the roman numeral 10. It is a one-digit numeral used to “check” the previous code, using a mathematical calculation to make sure it’s not being misread.
Say you’ve read Goldberg’s book and have learned to free the writer within. You’ve got a novel written, and you want to self-publish. You are entitled to an ISBN for a small fee. The process is relatively quick; you are advised to allow five days from the time the application is received at the ISBN agency to get your unique code in the mail.
And that’s what is so remarkable about ISBNs—they’re unique. Each book and each version of each book has its own identifier. Titles may repeat, books may go out of print, but thanks to the ISBN, no book will ever truly be lost. So what is an ISBN number for? It’s for the love of books.