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Thursday, February 01, 2007

The New ISBN System

Yes, I know that title sounds like a cure for insomnia. However, a major change to the ISBN system was implemented on 1 January, and it's important for all writers to be aware about it, especially if they have at least one full-length book published.

As you may know, every published book is allocated an ISBN number. This is used by bookshops, libraries and wholesalers to refer to the book and place orders for it, so it's a very important figure!

Anyway, as from January 2007, the big news is that all ISBNs will have 13 digits instead of the 10 digits used before. The purpose of the change is two-fold. Partly it's to make more ISBN numbers available, and partly to make the system fully compatible with the barcode system widely used in product packaging. The new 13-digit ISBNs are identical to the 13-digit barcode number that is normally printed on the back of a book.

All new ISBNs issued from now on will begin with the number 978 (the product number currently allocated to books), and when 978 ISBNs are exhausted, the 979 prefix will be introduced. Older books will have a new 13-digit ISBN applied to them, and this is where writers need to be clued up.

Basically, your book's new-style ISBN will be its old 10-digit number prefixed by '978' and with a recalculated check digit at the end. As an example, the first edition of my book 'Living and Working in Germany' has the ISBN 1901130355. Its new 13-digit ISBN will be as follows: 9781901130355. Note that in this case the final check digit stays the same, but in many cases it will change.

The check digit is derived from a mathematical formula that includes all the preceding digits. The idea is to provide an internal audit of the ISBN's consistency. If performing the calculation results in a different check digit from the one in the ISBN, that means someone, somewhere has made a mistake (probably by copying a digit of the ISBN wrongly). You can read about the maths behind this in this Wikipedia article if you are so inclined. However, if you don't want to get your calculator out (and who could blame you?) the following website will automatically convert any old 10-digit ISBN to the new 13-digit version:

Although during the transitional period bookshops and libraries will still recognise 10-digit ISBNs, if you're sending out publicity for any of your books from now on, I highly recommend switching to the new 13-digit ISBNs straight away.

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