A to Z Challenge – I is for ISBN

Blogging from A to Z April 2013 Challenge

I is for ISBN


Everything You Never Wanted To Know About The Dreaded Card Catalogue

The nine-digit Standard Book Number (SBN) was created by Gordon Fosters in 1965. In 1970, the International Organization for Standardization created the ten-digit ISBN. The nine-digit can become a ten-digit by adding the digit 0 to the front. In 2007, the book world began using a thirteen-digit number. Every medium needs its own individual ISBN number: paperback, hardcover, 2nd edition, ebook, etc.

The digits are divided by dashes, as in 978-0-9883545-0-0. (That’s my ISBN for my paperback “Okatibbee Creek.”)

The first group of numbers indicated the language, with 978 and 979 being English.

The second group is one to five digits and indicates the country; 0 or 1 for English speaking, 2 for French, 3 for German, and so on. The more obscure the country, the longer the number.

The third group is the publisher code. Here’s the rub on that one. No agency offers a listing of those numbers, so you couldn’t look up the catalogue of a publisher’s works if you tried.

The final digit is the check digit. It’s a whole crazy modular mathematical calculation that goes something like: Take the first twelve numbers and multiply them by 1 and 3 alternately. Then add those numbers up and divide by 10. Subtract the leftover. Whatever remains is the “check digit” or more simply “the last number.”  All right, here, I’ll show you using my number.


(9×1) + (7×3) + (8×1) + (0x3) + (9×1) + (8×3) + (8×1) + (3×3) + (5×1) + (4×3) + (5×1) + (0x3) =

9 + 21+ 8 + 0 + 9 + 24 + 8 + 9 + 5 + 12 + 5 + 0 =

110 / 10 = 11

1-1 = 0

Or something like that…

When you publish a book, you must obtain an ISBN number from your country, and then you can sell your book around the world. Note that ebooks are not required to have an ISBN. Here in the States, ISBN numbers run $125 each, but in Canada, they are managed by the government and are free. Go figure.

If you have a block of ten-digit ISBNs sitting around, you can turn them into thirteen digits by adding the language code (978) up front and the check digit at the end. Good luck with that.

Don’t even get me started on barcodes.

Here ends our class for today.

4 responses to “A to Z Challenge – I is for ISBN

  1. I don’t go much to the library anymore, but I remember looking through the card catalogue files when I was in college. I guess everything is on the computer now which save a lot of searching.

    Interesting breakdown of how the numbers work. What a crazy mathematical deal that is.

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