Countdown to ISBN-13: Don’t Let Three More Digits Add Up to One Big Headache

By Nathan Delacretaz

Remember the Y2K scare? What if a similar digital dilemma threatened the book industry? As the pros know, January 1, 2007, isn’t just another day of college bowl games and crushing hangovers. It’s the date of the official, indelible, unavoidable introduction of the ISBN-13 system. The ISBN-13 system is a 3-digit expansion of the International Standard Book Number (ISBN)—that little number that holds the publishing industry together.

Luckily, the ISBN-13 transition doesn’t quite inspire the panic (and endless news coverage) associated with the Y2K scare. There are still six months of prep time, but there are good reasons to understand and care about ISBN-13 now. Here’s what to focus on:

1. Avoid printing or distribution delays
Although ISBN-13 has been “sunrising” into distribution and supply systems since January 1, 2005—and current EAN barcodes provide a scanner-readable version of the ISBN-13—new authors and publishers should make sure the “human eyes” in the production and supply chain teams have ready access to both versions of their ISBNs during the final months of 2006. The time necessary to remedy even a minor omission or error can have a serious negative impact on the industry’s notoriously tight printing and distribution schedules. A little extra time and attention will help avoid unpleasant surprises—especially if you’re printing this summer for the all-important fall/holiday season. A mistake now could result in returns before the fruitcake dries out.

2. Make sure your back office is ready
Accounting, purchasing, and fulfillment systems rely on the ISBN as the unique identifier to drive transactions and reporting. Check that your back-office partners—especially any that deal with EDI transactions (electronic data interchange, a fancy way to say sending and receiving orders electronically)—have established ISBN-13 fields in their systems and are prepared to handle ISBN-13 transactions. You don’t want to know what will happen if they don’t.

3. Allow for overlap in your promotional materials
Will the catalogs or other promotional materials in circulation this summer or fall continue to generate orders through January 2007 and beyond? If so, make sure they display your books’ ISBN-13s as well as the ISBN-10s. Having both is the best idea—easier for your customers and a smoother segue to the new world order.

Don’t let an aversion to details or a case of “bar code boredom” get in the way of a successful book launch and strong sales down the road! For a comprehensive guide to the coming ISBN-13 transition, check out the excellent online resources at

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