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Think 13: Here Comes the New ISBN!

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Yes, we got through Y2K, but now it’s time to confront the next problem. By January 1, 2005, publishers’ systems must be able to contain a 13-digit International Standard Book Number (ISBN) instead of the 10-digit ISBN we have all come to know and love. This article describes the reasons for moving to the 13-digit ISBN and what is now known about the transition, along with some questions to be resolved in the future.

Why Move to 13 Digits?

Several concerns are prompting the move to 13 digits for the ISBN. One of the primary ones is the need to accommodate more “editions” of books in the future. Today we have the hardback, trade paperback, mass-market paperback, and audio versions of the same work. We also have the Adobe Acrobat Glassbook edition, the Microsoft e-book reader edition, and the Palm e-book edition, just to mention a few. Pearson Education tells us that they will provide intellectual property marked in XML, SGML, or whatever ML or PDF you want. Print-on-demand editions may or may not need different ISBNs, depending upon whether they are produced by the same publisher in the “same format” as the original or whether the product is now owned by a different rights-holder and/or is printed to look different than the original. All of these editions will proliferate and may/will need ISBNs in the very near future.

OK, you say, so we need more numbers–why choose 13 digits? The primary reason for selecting 13 instead of a larger number of digits (which would provide an even greater number of possible ISBNs for the future) is that all books all over the world already carry the 13-digit Bookland EAN barcode on their covers. Wholesalers, retailers, libraries, and others in the supply chain scan the EAN to identify a book. To insure that the numbers in the EAN are identical to those in everyone’s database, the full 13-digit Bookland EAN is currently recommended for identifying the product on its cover and in all databases.

Like the move to 13 digits for the ISBN, the date of January 1, 2005 was selected to accommodate the requirements of the retail and e-tail community. Today, books appear in databases in a retail and e-tail environment along with non-book materials that carry either the 12-digit UPC (if they come from North America) or the 13-digit EAN (if they are from some other country). Retailers in North America have been given until January 1, 2005 to modify their systems in order to be able to handle the 13-digit EAN or an upgraded 13-digit UPC (the current one plus a leading 0) in their databases. Therefore, that is the date we have selected for this implementation as well.

How Will We Do It?

The agreement signed by the Uniform Code Council (US-based owners of the UPC), EAN International (in Brussels), and the International ISBN Agency Headquarters (in Berlin) provided the prefixes 978 AND 979 to the book community. So far, we have used only 978. (The only legitimate use of 979 is to identify sheet music.)

So we can double (or almost double) the number of possible ISBNs in the future to accommodate those new types of editions described earlier, by assigning the numbers 97910000000000 through 9799999999999 to new editions of books. (All future sheet music will be identified by the range of numbers starting 9790, since that is where the current group exists and all books currently identified with numbers starting 978 will still be identified that way.)

Some Basic Decisions

Still to Be Made

First and foremost, the ISBN is an international standard under the control of the folks at ISO, the International Organization for Standardization. The International ISBN Agency will be submitting changes to ISO in 2001. They include the concept of the numbering indicated above, along with the idea that publishers should send some basic metadata–data about the item numbered–to the registration authority with each new ISBN they assign. Although that is the “practice” of publishers assigning ISBNs worldwide, the standard has never before identified the exact data to be collected.

What we do not know yet is the structure of the new numbers. Today we are used to seeing ISBNs from English-language-speaking countries such as the US and UK starting with the digits 0 or 1. Depending on that first digit, we know where to put the hyphen in the eye-readable version of the ISBN we print on the book, in catalogs, etc.

So there’s still a lot of thinking and work to be accomplished, but the basics are there. No books now in existence must be re-numbered. No later than January 2005, though, you will always have to use the 978 prefix for them. Once you run out of numbers to assign to products within your current publisher prefix and request a new one from the US ISBN agency, there is a good chance that you’ll receive one with the lead digits 979 and a list of all of the 13-digit ISBNs you can assign to your new publications.

For more information on the 13-digit ISBN, consult the BASIC Web site (www.bisg.org/basic.html) or that of the US ISBN Agency (www.bowker.com).

Sandy Paul (skpaul@attglobal.net) spent 11 1/2 years at Random House before establishing SKP Associates, a management consulting firm that specializes in book distribution, electronic publishing, business systems analysis and development, and the application of computer-based techniques.

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