Sunday 3 March 2013


Once I shared an embarrassing ‘secret’ with a group of friends. I was a tad tipsy at the time. ‘Don’t you find that always happens?’ My question was greeted by blank faces and a chorus of ‘No’s. So I’m not going to stick my neck out here in public and suggest that every published author reacts like me on seeing their first ISBN number.

I danced round the room (only my devoted husband would acknowledge my clumsy gyrations as dancing, but still….) I learned my ISBN number off by heart, wrote it in my diary, displayed it on my desk – I was as silly with it as I had been with the name of my first boyfriend, which I scribbled in the back of my school books and inside my pencil case. (In case you’re wondering, I can’t remember that particular ISBN number any more. Or the name of my first boyfriend.)

The idea for an International Standard Book Number (ISBN) was dreamed up in Britain in the mid 1960s. It rapidly caught on as an international system for identifying individual books, to avoid the confusion of books being allocated different codes by each distributor. 150 agencies now issue the codes worldwide, one per country. With so many books uploaded daily, a uniform means of identification would seem more necessary than ever. Yet paradoxically, with the phenomenal growth in digital self-publishing, there is discussion about whether ISBN numbers are necessary or relevant today. Publishers buy blocks of ISBN numbers, but for an individual writer self-publishing their own book, it is an additional cost they might not wish to incur for a title that is unlikely to enter large distribution chains.

A further threat to the uniform system was introduced when Amazon established the Amazon Standard Identification Number (ASIN). Other suppliers followed suit. A brief scout online revealed four separate codes on UK sites alone for one of my novels in ebook form. That’s just the ebook. Including different editions of the paperback, audio books, large print, and the rest, worldwide, I can’t imagine how many codes must exist for just one book. As the system fragments, the notion of an ISBN number does begin to seem a little outdated.

Seeing my first ISBN number was genuinely thrilling. It signalled the transformation of my words into a real book with an independent existence. With so many books published, it is likely there will be another book with the same title, maybe even written by an author sharing your name. But an ISBN number was once a unique tag, ensuring an individual book could be correctly identified anywhere in the world without risk of confusion with another title.

It is true that if we abandon ISBN numbers it will make no difference to books per se. Perhaps the system is becoming unworkable with so many outlets globally for so many more books. Maybe I’m being sentimental over the memory of my excitement at seeing my first, special, ISBN number. Yet for me as an author ISBN codes represent more than a practical function, facilitating communication along the distribution chain. I can’t help feeling that something significant will be lost if we abandon the ISBN number. It’s nothing tangible. But like cloned life forms, books will lose a touch of magic in relinquishing their unique DNA.

Ironically, the ISBN number in the title of this post is sadly not the original ISBN number of the first edition of Cut Short which is now out of print. The cheap initial edition has been replaced by a glossy B format edition.


Charles Gramlich said...

I hadn't really thought about this. I don't get ISBN's for my Amazon and Nook books. I don't see the need. But I can still see a place for them in print books. I was not so excited to get my first ISBN as you were. :)

Leigh Russell said...

I was VERY excited, Charles!

BernardL said...

Smashwords still issues an ISBN. I noticed more listing places let you ID books with the Amazon number. There's no such thing as too excited. :)

Leigh Russell said...

"No such thing as too excited" - indeed, Bernard!

Guillaume said...

Doesn't every book in the world receive a number from the Library of Congress?

Roger Cornwell said...

Actually, there was a danger that the world would run out of ISBNs, which is why the numbers were extended from ten to thirteen digits in 2007. The present system can cater for up to two billion books.

Did you know that if you add together the first, third, fifth ... thirteenth digits of an ISBN, and then add three times the second, fourth, sixth ... twelfth the answer shouls always be a multiple of 10? If it isn't, you've made a mistake in copying out the number.

Leigh Russell said...

There must still be plenty of numbers left, and surely letters could be added if necessary to avoid lengthening the sequence even further? I had no idea of the complex computation you describe here, Roger! I'm going to check it with my original ISBN number which I realise I still remember (but the name of my first boyfriend still escapes me!)

Leigh Russell said...

Guillaume - it would appear not, but I have no idea. Perhaps someone will enlighten us in due course.