[ModLib] ML and ISBN numbers (this is about ISBN's more generally)

Roger Lathbury lathbury at gmu.edu
Wed Apr 6 04:38:33 EDT 2011

I've been a publisher since 1983. I have always had to have ISBN numbers. In 1983 they were necessary for inclusion in _Books in Print,_ R. R. Bowker's comprehensive catalog that the book marketplace depended on then and depends on even more now, though the big books listing books in print are relics of the pre-computer age. Before ISBN's, the Library of Congress Catalog Number sufficed to identify a book (my Modern Library Giant of Medieval Epics, purchased in 1964, has no ISBN but does have an LC # on the copyright page.) Before LC numbers, the title and author sufficed!

As the book business grew more mechanized, it became more crucial that ISBN's appear on dust jackets. Now one must also have a bar code that incorporates the ISBN.

Back to ISBN's (International Standard Book Numbers). The R. R. Bowker Company sells ISBN's. The people at Bowker used to give these numbers away to encourage publishers to use the Bowker system; now ISBN's are so essential Bowker can sell the numbers. (There is a study here in public and private enterprise.) Bowker sells by the single number, usually for people who are self-publishing, in groups of 10's for small presses, in 100's for medium sized places like my press, Orchises, and in lots of 1000 or higher for bigger places like Random.

ISBN's and bar codes can be "decoded." The 978 that now prefaces most bar codes means "BOOK." That tells a scanner that what it is reading is a bound book. Then follows the ISBN, which is a set of numbers that identifies the purchaser of the number--most usually, the publisher. My two prefixes, for example--since I'm on my second hundred--are 0914061 and 1932535. Following the 978 and the prefixes is a three digit code. In my case, it is 0-99 for the hundred numbers I have bought followed by an algorhythmically determined final digit. (I can explain how this last digit is determined, but it is boring and probably not of interest to this group.)

If you buy 1000 or 10000 numbers, you will have 0-999 or 0-9999 plus algorhythmically determined final digits or digit. These numbers are translatable into bar codes. These bar codes are now printed on the jacket, so the ISBN can be read without opening the book.

Sometimes bar codes are followed by the price, also bar coded. The price is a four digit number for dollars and cents prefixed by a "5." The 5 means US currency. 51494 means $14.95. Other prefix numbers are for the British pound (I think it's 1), the Canadian dollar (4), the Rupee, the Euro, the old European currencies, the Rouble, etc. 90000 is used when a book costs more than $100.00 or when a publisher believes that the price of the book is likely to change rapidly. 90000 is used more now, or publishers simply don't put the price on the book. It comes to the same thing.

ISBN's and bar codes used to be 10 digits--they didn't always identify "book." However, about ten years ago when bar codes became almost universal in the world of commerce, the 978 prefix was added. (The adding of this prefix necessitated a change in the algorhythm used to determine the final digits of the ISBN. People who had bought ISBN's under the 10 digit system had to re-calculate their numbers. It was rather a bother but not difficult to do.)

Probably this is more about ISBN's and bar codes than most people who read the posts on this list serve want, but the discussion has a way of meandering interestingly, so I offer this fo those who might be curious.


Roger Lathbury

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