Production: Wherefor art thou ISBN?

Part of what I want to be able to blog about while Tin-Can Canucks is being developed, is the process behind writing, publishing and promoting a small-press book here in Canada.  Today’s Production note is about getting an ISBN (and what the heck is it anyway?).


In this day and age, when purchasing something physically at a shop we have those items’ bar codes (UPC codes) scanned by the check-out (self-serve or otherwise).  This is done to ensure both accuracy in pricing and to assist in inventory control.  With books this bar code is based on a special number known as the ISBN, or the International Standard Book Number.

If you’re going to be publishing a book through a print-on-demand service like CreateSpace you can generally use their service to generate an ISBN for your work–assuming it’s a book.  For music there’s a ISMN service, and for periodicals or serialized publications there’s an ISSN service, and these would be used in lieu of an ISBN for those sorts of works.  Regardless, CreateSpace will generate an ISBN for you should you wish to use their service.

If however, you’re going to be publishing your book through a publisher or imprint, then you can generally get that publisher/imprint to register an ISBN for you through Library and Archives Canada’s ISBN Canada service.  This assumes of course that the publisher has an account with LAC’s service–but if not, it’s pretty simple to set one up.  (I should also note that there’s no requirement to use a CreateSpace generated ISBN with their service–an imprint could generate it’s own and still print the book through CreateSpace, using the ISBN registered to that imprint).

Within their account each publisher has what is known as a Logbook, which contains a list of all the ISBNs assigned to their publications.  As Kay Cee Publications is publishing Tin-Can Canucks, they have the following entry in their logbook:

ISBN Title Product Form Projected Date Publication Status
978-0-9691548-2-2 Tin-Can Canucks: A Century of Canadian Destroyers Book 201608 Forthcoming

As you can see it is pretty basic information–in fact when you request a new ISBN all you need to provide is the title, the type of product (which can include DVDs, CD-ROMs, Calendars and other non-Books), when it was (or is projected to be) published and it’s status–forthcoming, active, out of print, cancels and several others.

Upon filling out the form and submitting it the service will provide an ISBN number for your new work.  If the publication date and status change these can be updated in the logbook by the publisher.  Generally a second edition of the same book will keep the same ISBN–but there are lots of other questions and answers outlined at the first LAC link noted above.

by peternikolow

So, what makes up an ISBN?  As shown in the graphic to the left, the number provided defines a variety of information about the book–including the publisher, the language and the title’s numeric ID.  The first two are defined by the publisher’s ‘prefix code’ (no, this wont provide you access to the publisher’s starship), which in the case of Kay Cee Publications, is 0-9691548.  Every book by this publisher starts with this prefix.

You’ll note that in the graphic above and in the Tin-Can Canucks ISBN there’s a set of three numbers that come before the Kay Cee Publications prefix–these are part of the EAN; the International Article Number (previously known as the European Article Number, hence the acronym) which is used for point-of-sale purposes(it’s a subset of the UPC standard used to uniquely track saleable items)–for books this is 978. Taken all together this allows book sellers to track what books they have in inventory and relate the book’s price to inventory levels and other fun stuff useful to selling books.

Not the same as an ISBN prefix code
Not the same as an ISBN prefix code

All that said, while the ISBN is handy for selling your book (and even having them found through services like Amazon or AbeBooks or even Google Books) it’s not crucial when publishing. One of Kay Cee Publications’ previously published books, As the Fella Says, has the ISBN 978-0-9691548-0-8; however when originally published in 1983 the ISBN bar code was not included on the back cover nor on the inside contents–leaving the book difficult to find in used book stores or websites like AbeBooks because the individual book sellers can’t find the ISBN to list it under. (This is slated to be rectified when a second edition of As the Fella Says is released prior to it’s 35th anniversary).

So, an ISBN is important for your book to be sold–though you can publish it without one, why bother?  Happily they are not difficult to get–either through your publisher or publishing service.  In the end, having an one is cheap and easy–and a good thing to do.