Examining the International Standard Book Number

We use ISBNs daily, but did you know that just looking at one will tell you where a book was published and by whom? This is a simple look at the International Standard Book Number (ISBN). This global system works for publishers from Australia to Zimbabwe.  

Dissecting an ISBN

There are five parts to an ISBN:

Prefix: 978 is the prefix that came into use when the standard switched from 10 digits to 13 digits in 2005. When 978s run out, the prefix will become 979.

Registration group element: The second part is a group or country identifier. For example, English-speaking countries start with 0 or 1, French-speaking areas start with 2, German-speaking areas start with 3, Japan starts with 4, and so on. There is a complete list of country identifiers here: http://www.isbn-international.org/en/identifiers/allidentifiers.html.

Registrant element: This set of numbers identifies the publisher who purchased the block of ISBNs.

Publication element: This group of numbers identifies a specific book.

Check digit: Finally there is a single check digit, which validates the ISBN.



  • The first ISBNs were created in 1972.
  • In 2005, when the ISBN moved to 13 digits, the system merged with the EAN system (universal product codes).
  • A price change does not require a new ISBN.
  • Reprinting without changing the text or binding does not require a new ISBN.
  • Changing the format (e.g. e-book, audio) or binding (e.g. a new paperback edition) does require a new ISBN.
  • Changing the title of a book does require a new ISBN.
  • You cannot reassign ISBNs for books that are out of print. It would be like identify theft.


To read more go to:



ISBN 10/13 Converter: http://www.isbn.org/converterpub.asp


Davida G. Breier, Manager of HFS, worked at two book distributors prior to joining JHUP in 2010. She also sits on the board of No Voice Unheard, a non-profit publisher, and was a contributing writer and photographer for the book Ninety-Five: Meeting America’s Farmed Animals.