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Link to the ISO TC 46/SC 9 Home Page

ISO 2108:2105
International Standard Book Number (ISBN)

Frequently Asked Questions
about the new ISBN standard

Please link to this site (instead of copying it) to ensure that you have the latest and most accurate information about the new ISBN standard.
This version was updated on May 31, 2005.


Guidelines for the implementation of 13-digit ISBN
[from the International ISBN Agency]

Project status

ISBN Working Group

ISO/TC46/SC9 Web site

International ISBN Agency

EAN-UCC product code system

. The International Standard Book Number (ISBN) is based on an ISO International Standard that was first published in 1972 as ISO 2108. ISO 2108 specifies the basic structure of an ISBN, the rules for its allocation, and the administration of the ISBN system.

The new fourth edition of ISO 2108 was published in May 2005.


Why was the ISBN changed?

The main reason for changing the ISBN was to increase the numbering capacity of the ISBN system. As a result of electronic publishing and other changes in the publishing industry, the numbering capacity of the ISBN system is being consumed at a much faster rate than was originally anticipated when the ISBN system was designed for printed books in the late 1960's.

In effect, the ISBN system would have run out of numbers in its current format. That wasn't going to happen tomorrow but it was a real concern for the future. We acted on a solution now, while the industry still had enough time to plan and budget for change, so that the ISBN system will remain viable far into the future.

The solution, simply put, is that the length of the ISBN number changes from 10 digits to 13 digits, effective 1 January 2007.


How is it that a 10-digit ISBN system can run out of numbers?

A 10-digit ISBN system (9 digits plus the check digit) has the capacity to assign 1 billion numbers. On the face of it, that might seem like more than enough but, in fact, the internal structure of the ISBN limits the available capacity of the system.

The ISBN is a hierarchical system of assignment and that hierarchy is reflected in the number itself.

First, blocks of ISBNs are allocated by the International ISBN Agency to specific regional groups or countries. Those blocks are identified by the "group identifier" which is the first element an ISBN.

Next, within each regional group or country, blocks of ISBNs are allocated by the national ISBN agency to specific publishers according to their publishing output. Those blocks are identified by the "publisher identifier" (sometimes called the "publisher prefix") which is the second element of an ISBN.

This hierarchical allocation of blocks of numbers to groups and publishers from within the 10-digit number, limits the overall capacity of the ISBN system. If the ISBN was a "dumb number" (i.e. if it did not contain any meaningful internal elements), then all of the unassigned ISBN would be available for use throughout the whole ISBN system. But because the system is partitioned into pre-determined blocks of ISBN the actual capacity is much less.

From the system's existing capacity of 1 billion numbers, ISBN have been assigned for almost 35 years in over 150 countries or territories. Exactly how many years the 10-digit system would have lasted depends on several variables. In part the rate of depletion is determined by the proliferation of new publishing formats (print on demand, customisation, e-books, etc) and new publishers. It also varies for each group and for types of publisher within each ISBN group.

The point is that any shortage of numbers in one area of the global ISBN system affects the utility and credibility of the system as a whole. We wanted to prevent this problem from occuring so that the ISBN remains viable for international trade far into the future.


How does the change to a 13-digit ISBN work exactly?

To explain the nature of this change to the ISBN, you need to know a bit about the internal structure of the 10-digit International Standard Book Number.

A 10-digit ISBN consists of 4 elements, in this order: a group element, a publisher prefix, a title element, and a check digit. Example: ISBN 1-85375-390-4.

When a barcode is applied to the publication, as is required by retail systems throughout the supply chain, the 10-digit ISBN has to become compatible with the 13-digit EAN-UCC international product coding system for bar codes. This is done by adding the 3-digit EAN product code for books "978" in front of the 10-digit ISBN and recalculating that ISBN's check digit to include those extra 3 digits. This 13-digit combination of the EAN 978 product code and an ISBN with a recalculated check digit was sometimes referred to as the "Bookland EAN".


A 10-digit ISBN 0-901690-54-6 looks like this when it becomes part of the 13-digit barcode on a publication:

Picture of an ISBN converted into a barcode (courtesy of the International ISBN Agency)

To expand the capacity of the ISBN system, we added another EAN product code, "979", into the mix which opens up a new range of slightly less than 1 billion numbers. (Some of the numbers available in a particular group of the "979" range have already been assigned to printed music publications so those numbers can not be re-used as ISBN).

Because both the "978" and "979" EAN product codes will be used for book products, the EAN product code has to become an integral element of the ISBN to prevent any possible confusion between duplicate numbers in the "978" and "979" ranges of ISBN. That turns the ISBN from a 10-digit into a 13-digit number. It also means that its check digit will be calculated over the preceding 12 digits (instead of 9).

The new 13-digit ISBN format is identical to the barcoded version of a 10-digit ISBN.


Why this solution and not others?

The 13-digit solution was adopted because books already carry both the 10 digit ISBN and its 13 digit equivalent in the barcode.

The 13-digit solution also enables the ISBN system to make use of a new "979" EAN prefix which was reserved years ago for the future use of the book trade within the EAN system.

Another factor is that the Uniform Code Council is migrating the U.S. system of 12-digit UPC barcodes to the EAN.UCC standard 13-digit format. The 13-digit solution for the ISBN system dovetails nicely with this move to the EAN.UCC system in the North American supply chain. It also aligns the ISBN system for books with all other product numbering, making trade with non-book retailers much easier.

More information about the EAN.UCC system is available on the EAN International Web site: http://www.ean-int.org.

The idea of expanding the capacity by changing to an alphanumeric or hexadecimal ISBN (using a combination of letters and numbers within the 10-digit format), was rejected because it would be incompatible with most barcode systems.

We also rejected the idea of changing the ISBN into a completely "dumb" number and culling all the unassigned ISBN for re-allocation elsewhere in the system. Such a system would be unmanageable without the support of a strong central database to administer the assignment of ISBN and prevent duplication. Developing that central database, even in the form of a distributed network, would make that proposal one of the most costly and complex solutions for users of the ISBN system.


Who is affected by these changes?

Everyone in the supply chain who currently uses an ISBN is affected by this change to some degree.

All types of publishers (trade, educational, etc.) are equally affected as well as distributors, retailers, libraries and any other organizations that record and exchange ISBN in automated systems. areas. Although the conversion to the 13-digit primarily affects system, it also has an impact on editorial processes, sales and marketing, design and production departments, royalty and accounting functions, as well as catalogue systems.

Any organization that uses the ISBN in any capacity should review all their existing systems – manual and electronic - as soon as possible, develop an action plan and allocate resources to ensure that those systems can accommodate the new 13-digit ISBN well in advance of the January 2007 implementation date.

Publishing organizations will need to review the following, among other potentially affected areas:

  • ISBN request and allocation functions;
  • product information records;
  • editorial management;
  • Cataloguing-in-Publication submissions;
  • production systems;
  • e-book supply systems;
  • order fulfilment;
  • warehouse management and inventory control systems;
  • rights and contracts;
  • royalty and accounting systems.

Booksellers will need to review, among other possibly affected areas:

  • ordering systems;
  • stock control;
  • point of sale systems;
  • accounting.

Libraries will need to review, among other functions:

  • acquisitions systems including transaction messages with trading partners;
  • cataloguing and other bibliographic data entry systems;
  • Inter-Library Loan (ILL) systems;
  • system routines for importing bibliographic records, including matching algorithms;
  • barcode scanners;
  • local catalogues/OPACs;
  • information portal / metasearch systems;
  • interoperability and system links with remote information sources and clients.


What are the impacts of changing to the 13-digit ISBN?

Everyone who records, stores or exchanges ISBN data in an automated system is going to have to ensure that those systems can accommodate the 13-digit ISBN format. Publishers, distributors, retailers, and libraries are the main user groups affected by these changes. It will affect software applications such as automated ordering systems, inventory control systems, point-of-sale systems, and library databases.

If you're using a turnkey system, you should check with the vendor that they plan to prepare for the 13-digit ISBN.

If you're using a system that was developed or customized in-house, you should inform your IT staff that the ISBN will be changing to a new 13-digit format and ask them to check what that will entail for changes to your automated system.


When do these changes take place?

ISO 2108:2005 specifies an implementation date of 1 January 2007 for the new 13-digit ISBN.

Guidelines for the implementation of the 13-digit ISBN are available on the Web site of the International ISBN Agency at: http://www.isbn-international.org/en/revision.html.


Who made these decisions about changes to the ISBN?

The ISBN system is based on an ISO International Standard for which "ISO/TC 46/SC 9" is responsible:
  • ISO is the International Organization for Standardization.

    ISO is a worldwide federation of national standards bodies from more than 140 countries. Since its establishment in 1947, ISO's mission has been to promote and develop standards that facilitate the international exchange of goods and services. The international agreements that are developed within the framework of ISO and its subject committees are published as International Standards. More information about ISO is available on its Web site at: www.iso.org.

  • TC 46 is ISO's Technical Committee (TC) for information and documentation standards.

  • SC 9 is the TC 46 Subcommittee (SC) that develops and maintains ISO standards for identification and description within the broader field of information and documentation.

    SC 9 (and its predecessor within TC 46) has been responsible for the ISBN standard, ISO 2108, since it was first developed as an international agreement in the late 1960's. The first edition of ISO 2108 was published in 1972.
    The International Secretariat for TC 46/SC 9 is provided by the National Library of Canada (which also manages the Canadian ISBN Agency).

In January 2002, at the request of the International ISBN Agency and some industry organizations, ISO TC 46/SC 9 established an international Working Group (WG 4) to revise the ISBN standard under the leadership of Mr. Michael Healy of Nielsen BookData Ltd. (which provides the U.K. ISBN Agency).

The Working Group included publishers, retailers, librarians and other stakeholders appointed by the national standards organizations of several countries, as well as representatives from the ISBN agencies and international associations of publishers, booksellers and libraries.

Working Group members drafted the text of the revised ISBN standard which was then circulated for international review and voting within ISO's member countries.


What stage is the ISBN revision project at now?

The new fourth edition of ISO 2108, the ISBN standard, was published in May 2005. It specifies an implementation date of January 1, 2007 for the change to a 13-digit ISBN.

Copies of ISO 2108:2005 are available for purchase, in separate English and French editions, from the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and its national member organizations.


Will new ISBN have to be assigned to products that have already been published?

No. Publishers should convert existing ISBNs from the 10-digit format to the 13-digit format (prefixed by 978) by 1 January 2007. This applies to their records for any title for which commercial transactions may occur and should therefore include out of print titles as well as those currently in a publisher's catalogue.

The ISBN and bar code on books will not need to be changed until the book is reprinted as the bar code already represents the EAN13 which is identical to the new 13-digit ISBN.


May a publisher re-use existing 10-digit ISBNs on new publications by adding a 978 prefix?

No. The addition of a 978 prefix to a previously used ISBN does not make a new ISBN and for that reason must not be assigned to a new publication.


Will we be able to communicate with trading partners using 10-digit ISBNs after 1 January 2007?

After 1 January 2007 the ISBN will be a 13-digit number and all electronic systems will have to be able to accommodate that form. Commercial systems will not support 10-digit ISBNs after that date. In the transitional period, however, arrangements may be made between trading partners to support both formats.


What happens to ISBN that have already been obtained by a publisher but are not yet assigned?

The publisher should continue to use these until they are exhausted but must convert the number formats to the new 13-digit standard, prefixed by 978.


ISBN 1-873671-00-8
is converted to
ISBN 978-1-873671-00-9


Will publishers have to change to 13 digit ISBN or can they continue using the 10 digit ones?

Publishers are strongly encouraged to make the necessary conversions to 13 digit ISBN no later than 1 January 2007. This will ensure that their ISBNs remain unambiguously unique when the additional 979 prefix comes into use at a future date.

Technical systems must be ready to use the 13 digit ISBN by 1 January 2007 to ensure that communications with trading partners continue without interruption.


If our company still has lots of 10-digit ISBN available, why do we need to change to the 13-digit ISBN?

Converting your unused supply of 10-digit ISBN to the new 13-digit ISBN format facilitates the integration of your ISBN data with others in trade applications. Chaning your existing supply of unused ISBN allows systems throughout the supply chain to handle your ISBN data.

Actually, this kind of conversion is already taking place every time a 10-digit ISBN is printed in the bar code on a publication. To create that bar code, the 978 EAN prefix is inserted before the ISBN and the check digit is recalculated, thereby automatically converting the 10-digit ISBN into a bar code that is identical to new ISBN 13-digit format.


Should both a 10-digit and a 13-digit ISBN be printed in a publication?

For books published after 1 January 2007 only the 13-digit ISBN should be printed.

To ease the transition process, it is recommended that publishers should begin printing both the 10-digit and 13-digit ISBNs on the verso of each publication's title page as soon as possible and in a way that will allow the 10-digit ISBN to be easily deleted from any future reprints after 1 January 2007.

For titles published after 1 January 2007, publishers should print the 13- digit ISBN in eye-readable form above the bar code on the back cover of their publications, retaining the correct hyphenated structure of those ISBNs.


May publishers use the 979 prefix on their existing 10-digit ISBNs?

No. Please see the next question below.


Will our company get the same prefixes in the new 979 range as we have in the 978 range?

Almost certainly not. There is no fixed relationship between the two ranges of prefixes.

One of the reasons for the current shortage of 10-digit ISBNs is that prefixes were allocated too generously in the past, resulting in some publishers having many more numbers than they require. ISBN agencies will seek to assign smaller blocks of numbers in the future and this will lead to new criteria for the allocation of prefixes.


How are ISBN assigned to e-books?

The revised ISBN standard specifies that the ISBN system applies to any form of monographic publication, including e-books.

Each different format of an e-book should be assigned its own ISBN. This is important to the supply chain. In the same way that the ISBN distinguishes between the hardcover and paperback edition of a title, the supply chain also needs the ISBN to distinguish between each of the different formats in which an e-book can be ordered and sold.

The ISBN is a vital tool for managing transactions on products in the publication supply chain. Each tradeable product within the publication supply chain needs to be uniquely identified by an ISBN so that automated ordering and other information transactions can be conducted with precision and efficiency.


What happens if a publisher doesn't know in advance exactly how many different formats there will be for an e-book?

The ISBNs assigned to all of the various formats of an e-book don't have to be sequential numbers. ISBN should be assigned to each new format of an e-book as the need arises to identify it as a new item entering the supply chain.


What is the relationship of the revised ISBN to the DOI?

The DOI was not a factor in revising the ISBN system, although the International DOI Foundation participated in the revision project.

ISBNs can be incorporated into other "umbrella" systems that make use of existing identifiers, in the same way that product numbering systems for bar codes incorporate the ISBN for books. The DOI (Digital Object Identifier) can be considered another such mechanism. A DOI is a persistent identifier mechanism for use on digital networks to enable the resolution of an identifier (to URL or other data) and interoperablilty via declared metadata. The DOI consists of a prefix and a suffix: an ISBN can be used as the suffix portion of a DOI.

Further information on this topic is available on the DOI Web site at: http://www.doi.org/handbook_2000/enumeration.html.


Where can I get further information?

International Standard ISO 2108, 4th edition, was published in May 2005. Copies of ISO 2108:2005 are available for purchase, in separate English and French editions, from the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and its national member organizations.

Guidelines for the implementation of these changes to the ISBN system are available on the Web site of the International ISBN Agency.


Copyright © ISO 2005.
Latest update: 2005-05-31.
Comments: iso.tc46.sc9@lac-bac.gc.ca

The ISO TC46/SC9 Secretariat is provided by Library and Archives Canada on behalf of the Standards Council of Canada, a member of the ISO.