The ISBN was invented in the 1960s, when British bookseller W. H. Smith began computerizing its distribution system. It became an ISO standard in 1970, and now the ISBN forms the backbone of the book supply chain around the world. Certainly there are plenty of books published that do not have ISBNs. Proprietary publications that are not traded, for example, don’t require ISBNs. Books that are sold in “walled garden” environments don’t require ISBNs. So why use them?
- Most physical bookstores still require an ISBN. Their databases are set up so that the ISBN links to critical information about the book – such as the price – that enables bar code scanning at the cash register.
- Library cataloguers prefer them. An ISBN definitively states, in a standardized way, that one edition of a book is different from another. This eliminates confusion.
- Search engines prefer them – for much the same reason that library cataloguers do. Accuracy is crucial for search engines, and the ISBN ensures that a book is uniquely identified. Your book listings will be ranked higher if you use ISBNs to identify your titles.
- Books with ISBNs are included in Books in Print. This is a database of all books with ISBNs, which is licensed by online bookstores, libraries, search engines, and social networking sites. If your book has an ISBN, its listing will be made available to all licensees of Books in Print (which includes vast library systems, search engines, and most online booksellers). If your book does not have an ISBN, you will have to approach each outlet separately to ask them to list your title.
- ISBNs denote the official publisher of the book. If you are using ISBNs supplied by a self-publishing company rather than applying for your own, that self-publishing company will be listed as the publisher of the book. Some libraries and bookstores refuse to list those titles (they exclude them from their Books in Print feed), and some distributors refuse to carry those books as well. Being officially listed as the publisher of your own book, with your own ISBN prefix, means that you have entry into more retail and library outlets.
- Essentially, an ISBN is a marketing tool. It makes your book’s journey through the supply chain much smoother, adds credibility and professionalism, and differentiates it from other books with similar titles or subject matter.
Identifiers…name something. Usually they name it with a number. Your social security number, for example, is an identifier. It means you - in a certain context. A license plate is an identifier - it means your car. These numbers may have some internal significance - state of issue, year of birth, etc. - but most people don’t really think about that. They just use the numbers when they are called upon to identify themselves or their cars.
Other identifiers - phone numbers, for example - are similar. Yes, we have area codes that used to mean something hard and fast - 212 was Manhattan, 718 was Brooklyn - but increasingly even those numbers are losing meaning. Three factors have contributed to the dilution of meaning in area codes – the rise of the fax machine (requiring a separate phone line), the rise of the modem (also frequently requiring a separate phone line), and the rise of the cell phone. All three of these phenomena have meant a drastic increase in the amount of phone numbers being assigned. New area codes have proliferated. This means that the area code - as an human-interpretable piece of data - is becoming irrelevant.
ISBNs have followed a similar path. The publisher prefix is rather confusing now that we have so many many publishers – and publishers are merging, or selling off/buying divisions (the books retain their ISBNs regardless of who the ultimate publisher is). Of course, there are also now so many books on the market (1.5 million new titles published in 2011 alone) that publishers cannot be guaranteed to get the same prefix when they buy a new block of numbers. Increasingly, the ISBN is becoming what it should have been all along - a dumb number.
Attaching too much meaning to your prefix is, for a publisher or self-published author, a misunderstanding of what the ISBN is supposed to do. The ISBN merely identifies your product - that identification is fairly meaningless without metadata to describe that product. Compare this with your phone number - someone can dial that number, but unless they know who is supposed to pick up on the other end, the number won’t mean an awful lot. The ISBN identifies - the metadata describes. So your descriptive data (or whatever it is that you’re sending to Bowker, your distributor, libraries, what have you) is what will tell those recipients more about the book.
The identifier is just a number that says “this product is not that product - it is itself.” Just as a license plate says, “This car is not that car” - and doesn’t describe what KIND of car you’ve got, identifiers say, “This is itself, and not these other things”. Descriptors - metadata - say, “These are the properties of that thing you’ve just pointed at.”
When you buy ISBNs these days, you get the ability to upload descriptors - the metadata about your books. ISBNs plus metadata are extremely powerful tools - combining them assures that search results unambiguously turn up the products they are supposed to turn up…and readers won’t get the wrong number.