What is an ISBN?

The International Standard Book Number (ISBN) is a system of numerical identification for books, pamphlets, educational kits, microforms, CD-ROMs and other digital and electronic publications. Assigning a unique number to each published title provides that title with its own, unduplicated, internationally recognized identifier. Publishers, booksellers, libraries and others in the book industry use ISBN in order to expedite the handling and retrieval of publications.

The International ISBN Agency maintains an excellent ISBN Users' Manual (last updated December 2017).

How Do I Get An ISBN?

In Canada ISBNs are managed by Library and Archives Canada. Getting an ISBN in Canada is easy and even better, it's free. The ISBN Canada has an online service allowing publishers to assign ISBNs to future publications.

ISBN-10s, EAN and ISBN-13s

All ISBNs assigned after 2007 are 13 digits with either a 978 or a 979 prefix. ISBN-13s that begin with 978 have ISBN-10 equivalents while those with 979 beginnings do not. The first 979 prefix was issued in France in Spring 2009 ending any backward compatibility between ISBN-13 and 10.

The International Standards Organization (ISO) approved changing the length of the ISBN from 10 to 13 digits in order to expand the capacity of the system and to alleviate numbering shortages. In making this change, the ISO adopted the EAN standard for calculating ISBN check digits.

In short: An ISBN-13, a book specific product identification number issued under the authority of a national ISBN organization, is now identical to the EAN barcode number (the Bookland EAN) that's been used by the book industry for years.

And the big benefit is that changing the ISBN to 13 digits fully aligns the numbering system for books with the global GTIN identification system that is widely used to identify most other consumer goods.

Best Practices For Identifying Digital Products

The latest 2017 revision of the ISBN User Manual incorporates the recommendations made by The Book Industry Study Group (BISG) in its policy statement outlining best practices in assigning ISBNs to e-books and other digital books.  The original document remains useful and of interest but your primary guide should be the current ISBN User Manual.   The original document can be found here:  POL-1101: Best Practices for Identifying Digital Products.

BookNet Canada worked as part of the BISG’s Identification of E-Books Working Group on this policy and the BNC Board of Directors endorses it as the recommended best practices for use in Canada.

For more information have a look at our blog post on the topic and feel free to email us with your questions.

What is the Bookland EAN?

  • International Article Number (in its thirteen-digit form) is reserved for use on books and related products
  • Used internationally to identify books and related products
  • Also known as Bookland EAN/UCC-13
  • Hyphenation: Never hyphenated
  • Bookland EAN numbers are a subset of the larger pool of EAN/UCC-13 product identifiers
  • Current EAN ranges reserved for the use of books and related products are 978- and 979-
  • Should only be used to identify books and related products as defined in the ISBN Standard (and in the contract between ISBN International and GS1)
  • Numerically equivalent to the ISBN-13
  • Bar coding: Uses a standard EAN/UCC-13 bar code (with or without five-digit price add-on)
  • May be easily converted to a GTIN-14 by prefixing a leading numeral and recalculating the check digit

Is there any value in retaining ISBN-10?

979-ISBN-13 are in use in the Canadian supply chain and they have no corresponding ISBN-10 value.  Therefore an ISBN-10 can no longer represent all book products in our market and BookNet Canada can no longer recommend that ISBN-10 be used in data exchanges.   Some end users may still ask for ISBN-10.  If you are using 979-ISBNs you should ensure that they have the capacity to use your identifier, but there is no harm in supplying ISBN-10 on 978-ISBNs and some software will automatically include them.  (Be sure your software doesn't attempt to create an ISBN-10 based on a 979 ISBN-13.)

How Do I Convert ISBN-10 to a 978-EAN/ISBN-13?

  • First: A reminder that you cannot convert a 979-ISBN-13 to ISBN-10.  Only 978-ISBN-13 can have a corresponding ISBN-10.  ISBN-10s can only be converted to a 978-ISBN-13.
  • Second: An observation that conversion utilities that support ISBN-10 are disappearing and you should not rely on ISBN-10.  ISBN-13 is the only active ISBN type in the Canadian market
  • Pragmatically there remains a need to work with legacy data so here's some remaining resources that might help
  • For single conversions either way:
  • Here is a useful Excel spreadsheet bulk converter ISBN10-13 Converter.xls (the original source of this document follows but this link is no longer active:

    While this conversion spreadsheet works, GREAT CARE MUST BE TAKEN when converting ISBN-10s with leading zeros OR that may be loaded as 9 (or fewer) digit numbers (legacy data held in Excel spreadsheets often has it's leading zeros stripped).  The spreadsheet makes no allowance for this.
    Using 0-538-75077-4 as an example:
    • 10 digit ISBN-10 0538750774  loses it's zero and becomes 9 digit 538750774
    • The spreadsheet assumes all numbers are 10 digits and strips off the tenth number(a check digit) and then re-calcuate the correct check digit for the 978-ISBN-13
    • 0538750774  should become  053875077 but if the column contains 538750774 as a 9 digit number it is simply transferred (the spreadsheet doesn't prevent transfer of a 9 digit number)
    •  The resulting ISBN-13 calculation can proceed on the incorrect number and create different results. There is only one correct match for 0-538-75077-4