General Information about the ISBN system

What is an ISBN?  

An ISBN is an International Standard Book Number. ISBNs were always 10 digits in length up to the end of December 2006, but since 1 January 2007 they have consisted of 13 digits. The number is calculated using a specific mathematical formula and includes a check digit to validate it.

What is an ISBN used for?

An ISBN is essentially a product identifier used by publishers, booksellers, libraries and internet retailers and other supply chain participants for ordering, listing, sales records and stock control purposes. The ISBN identifies the registrant as well as the specific title, edition and format.

What sorts of products are eligible to be identified by ISBN?

ISBNs are assigned to text-based monographic publications (i.e. one-off publications rather than journals, newspapers, or other types of serials) and certain types of related products that are available to the public, whether those publications and related products are available on a gratis basis or to purchase.

In addition, individual sections (such as chapters) of publications or issues or articles from journals, periodicals or serials that are made available separately may also use the ISBN as an identifier.

With regard to the various media available, it is of no importance in what physical form the content is documented and distributed; however, each product form should be identified separately.

Some examples of the types of publication that qualify for ISBN are:

• Printed books and pamphlets

• Individual chapters or sections of a publication if these are made available separately

• Braille publications

• Publications that are not intended by the publisher to be updated regularly or continued indefinitely

• Individual articles or issues of a particular continuing resource (but not the continuing resource in its entirety)

• Maps

• Educational/instructional films, videos and transparencies

• Audio books on cassette, or CD, or DVD (talking books)

• Electronic publications either on physical carriers (such as machine-readable tapes, diskettes, or CD-ROMs) or on the Internet

• Digitized copies of print monographic publications

• Microform publications

• Educational or instructional software

• Mixed media publications (where the principal constituent is text-based)

What sorts of products are NOT eligible to be identified by ISBN?

Any publication that does not have a defined end (e.g. a continuing resource such as a periodical or newspaper that will appear in subsequent issues over time) should not be assigned an ISBN.

Some examples of products that do not qualify for ISBN are:

• Journals, periodicals, serials, newspapers in their entirety (although single issues or articles where these are made available separately may be assigned ISBN as well)

• Abstract entities such as textual works and other abstract creations of intellectual or artistic content

• Ephemeral printed materials such as advertising matter and the like

• Printed music

• Art prints and art folders without title page and text

• Personal documents (such as an electronic curriculum vitae or personal profile)

• Greetings cards

• Music sound recordings

• Software that is intended for any purpose other than educational or instructional

• Electronic bulletin boards

• E-mails and other electronic correspondence

• Games




What is the format of an ISBN?

Each ISBN consists of 5 parts with each section being separated by spaces or hyphens. Three of the five elements may be of varying length:

Prefix element currently this can only be either 978 or 979 (it is always 3 digits).

Registration group element this identifies the particular country, geographical region, or language area participating in the ISBN system. This element may be between 1 and 5 digits in length.

Registrant element - this identifies the particular publisher or imprint. This may be up to 7 digits in length.

Publication elementthis identifies the particular edition and format of a specific title. This may be up to 6 digits in length

Check digit this is always the final single digit that mathematically validates the rest of the number. It is calculated using a Modulus 10 system with alternate weights of 1 and 3.

                                                                                                                                          Why should I use an ISBN?

If you are a publisher or bookseller it may be in your own interest as you want to sell books. If your books cannot be ordered and distributed by ISBN and if they are not listed in Books in Print type listings you may find that your books do not sell. People will assume your books do not exist, and even if they do know they exist they may consider it too much of a bother to handle them since they will need to do so using full title, manual ordering.

Do I need to have an ISBN?

The international ISBN system does not impose any legal requirement to have an ISBN, and the ISBN conveys no legal or copyright protection. The use of ISBN is prescribed by law in some countries, however.

Do books need an ISBN if they are not going to be sold?

It is desirable that all books made publicly available, whether they are available for sale or on a gratis basis, are identified by ISBNs.

 How to obtain ISBNs

I am not a publisher; can I still obtain an ISBN?

Yes. For our purposes, a publisher is the group, Organization, company or individual who is responsible for initiating the production of a publication. Normally, it is also the person or body who bears the cost/financial risk in making a product available. It is not normally the printer.

Please remember that in a number of countries there is detailed legislation regarding publishing.

What requirements do publishers have to meet in order to participate in the ISBN system?

Publishers should comply with the implementation guidelines including the scope and assignment rules for ISBN. Publishers must supply the Ministry of information and culture with a specified amount of metadata about the publication to which the ISBN is assigned. The specifications concerning the type and format of the metadata is established by the International ISBN Agency in cooperation with the ISBN registration agencies.

Where do I get an ISBN from?

The International ISBN Agency does not issue ISBNs (except to multi-national NGOs).

ISBNs are available from the appropriate local agency for the region or country where the publisher is based.

If you are applying for ISBN as a company or organization it is immaterial in which country your company or organization is registered, it is the location where your company or organization is based and operates from that is the important criterion. If you have more than one site, possibly in more than one country, then ISBNs should be obtained based on where the headquarters of your organization is situated. It also does not matter in which country your publications will be printed, manufactured, marketed or distributed – only your location as publisher determines where you should obtain ISBNs.

My country has an ISBN agency but may I obtain my ISBNs from a different agency?

No, all publishers should apply to the appropriate national agency that is responsible for the country in which they are based. If you have genuine reasons that may prevent you from applying to your national agency then you should contact the International ISBN Agency for advice in the first instance but you should not contact another ISBN agency instead.

Will people in other countries be able to search for my books in search engines in those countries? If not, how can I make this possible?

This does not happen automatically, but by obtaining an ISBN you will be able to take the necessary steps to ensure that your book is widely known.

In order for your book to be listed in other countries you should contact the respective ISBN Agency and ask them for details of how to be entered into their national catalogue for books in circulation (books in print). Sometimes you will have to obtain a distributor from that country or have an address in that country before this is possible. In some circumstances in order to be listed, the book must be in the language of that country.

In our country the book-trade works mostly without computers. Do I nevertheless need ISBNs?

You do not need to have computers to make use of ISBN. The ISBN saves you and other people the bother of copying bibliographic records. Also, if you want to export your books they will have more chance of being accepted in bookshops and being listed in books in print type listings if they have ISBNs.

Our country still lacks an efficient infrastructure in the book sector

ISBN is an ideal means of building the infrastructure and of catching up with other countries.

 Scope and assignment of ISBNs

Where should I display an ISBN?

On a printed book an ISBN should be included on the copyright page (also called the title verso page) or at the foot of the title page if there is no room on the copyright page. If there is no bar code, then the ISBN should also be on the back cover or jacket preferably on the lower right.

In the case of electronic publications (such as compact discs, online publications), the ISBN must appear on the title display, that is the first display page or on the screen that displays the title or its equivalent (e.g., the initial screen displayed when the content is first accessed and/or on the screen that carries the copyright notice).

For eligible educational/instructional films, videos, and transparencies, the ISBN must appear on the credit titles.

If the publication is issued in a container that is an integral part of the publication (e.g., a compact disc, cassette, or diskette), the ISBN should be displayed on any labels included with that container. If it is not possible to display the ISBN on the container or its label, then the ISBN should be displayed at the bottom of the back of any permanent packaging for that container (e.g., the box, sleeve, or frame).

Do different formats of an electronic or digital publication (e.g., .pdf, .html) need separate ISBNs?

Different formats of an electronic or digital publication are regarded as different editions and therefore need different ISBNs in each instance when they are made separately available.

I have a homepage on the internet. Does it require an ISBN?

No. Publications that are intended by the publisher to be regularly updated or continued indefinitely (such as journals, magazines, newspapers, updating loose-leafs, updating websites) shall not receive an ISBN.

I am publishing a book in a foreign language. Should it have an ISBN of the country in whose language the book is written?

No, it is the country in which the publisher is based which determines the group identifier, and not the language of the text.

How are ISBNs allocated to multi-format/multi-volume works?

An ISBN must be allocated to the whole set of volumes of a multi-volume work; also, if the individual volumes of the set are sold separately, each volume must have its own ISBN. Even when each volume is not sold separately, the allocation of an ISBN to each volume is advisable. It facilitates the handling of returns (damaged volumes) and eliminates the possibility of confusion over specific publications. Each volume should list all ISBNs.

Similar rules apply to kits (e.g. a CD-ROM with accompanying booklet). If any part is available separately, a separate ISBN must be allocated to each part, and to the kit as a whole.


I am publishing a book with another publisher. Whose ISBN should appear on the book?

In the case of a joint publication, both publishers are entitled to have an ISBN on the book. It should be made clear which number identifies which publisher. However, if only one publisher is to hold stock and distribute the publication, then it is recommended that the ISBN of the publisher who is responsible for distribution appears in bar-coded form on the back cover of the book.

Is it possible to reassign ISBNs when the books to which they were allocated are out of print?

No, an ISBN identifies a given title and its edition and binding for all time. Even if out of print, it will still exist in some shops, and will certainly still exist in libraries.

I sell books but also stationery, toys and many other items. As the ISBN only identifies books, what can I do about the rest?

This material can be numbered by other numbering systems, such as EAN article numbers (bar codes). Modern scanning equipment reads and processes the different kinds of bar-coded numbers.

Does a price change require a new ISBN?


Does a change of format require a new ISBN?

Yes, different formats need different ISBNs in order, for example, that a customer who wants to buy a book in hardback rather than paperback can be confident that they will receive the correct format.

I am revising a book. Does it require a new ISBN?

A (substantial) change of text requires a new ISBN, and if revisions have been made then the reverse of the title page should state that the book is a revised edition, and the new ISBN should be printed there.

Does a reprint without change of text or binding require a new ISBN?

No, the original number must be retained, provided the publisher remains the same.

I would like to issue a new ISBN for marketing reasons. Is this permissible?

No, a new ISBN cannot be issued solely for marketing or promotional reasons. A new ISBN can only be issued where there are changes of text, format or binding which would justify this.

I am reprinting a book with a price change. Is a new ISBN required?

No, a price change does not require a new ISBN.

Do I need a new ISBN when I am reprinting a book with a new title?

Yes, a new title requires a new ISBN.

I am taking over another firm which already has an ISBN prefix. All future books will be published under my name. Can I renumber all the other firm’s titles?

Not until they are reprinted under your own publisher name or imprint and carry your publisher name.

What happens if I have used all the numbers under my identifier prefix?

An additional identifier prefix can be assigned – allowing for a larger output if necessary. This is an additional identifier prefix and not a replacement.

Can the ISBN be represented as a bar code?

Yes. The ISBN is already in 13-digit format and can be represented easily as a bar code. Bar coded ISBNs may assist distributors and retailers in stocking and selling your publication. Your local ISBN Agency should be able to provide advice on bar code suppliers to help you show your ISBN as a bar code graphic. To maximize the benefits of bar code recognition and scanning speed it is recommended to print the bar code on the lower right of the outside back cover of the publication.