The heebie-jeebies of ISBN


ISBN is important for any book to be decipherable in any space – online or offline. Here, Hasan Khurshid shares useful information on ISBN.

What is ISBN?

Hasan KhurshidThe acronym “ISBN” stands for International Standard Book Number. ISBN is a unique International Publishers’ Identifier number, which is meant for monograph publications. Earlier ISBN used to be in ten digits, but now it is the thirteen-digit number, which replaces the handling of long bibliographic descriptive records. ISBN is known world over as a short and clear machine-readable identification number, which marks any book unmistakably. It is displayed in barcode format on publications or books on their back jacket (lower right) the thirteen digit of ISBN, consist five elements separated by spaces and hyphens, e.g. ISBN no. 978-81-309-1771-9, which indicates the following information:

  • 1st element – denotes a specified prefix element (978).
  • 2nd element – identifies the particular country or the geographical area (81).
  • 3rd element – identifies the particular publishers (309).
  • 4th element – identifies the particular edition, format of a specific title (1771).
  • 5th element – Validation check digit (9).

Why ISBN is important?

ISBN is a product number required to assist in internal processing and ordering while book selling. It provides access to bibliographic databases used by the book industry and libraries to provide information. ISBN can be applied by publisher of the book author of the book if he decides to publish the book himself. ISBN does not provide any copyright or legal protection, nor there is any legal requirement for obtaining the ISBN. The ISBN trend came in to being internationally in the year 1970. The nodal international agency on ISBN started collaborating with organizations in various countries to enable them to assign ISBNs to publishers in their respective countries. In India that collaboration was set-up with Raja Rammohun Roy National Agency for ISBN, under the authority of Ministry of HRD, Government of India.


However, the publishing industry for the past two years has been facing a critical situation due to delayed issuance of ISBN for book publishers. This is happening at a time when publishing in India is booming. Even the practice of self-publishing is on the rise not only in India but across the world. As an average almost five to six of the top ten bestselling titles every month are self-published ones. The booming of publishing industry in India can be assessed with the recent Bloomberg article which estimated the total publishing sector at $ 6.76 billion. It also estimated that the sector is set to grow at an average compound annual growth rate of 19.3% till 2020.

In such a favorable situation, the ISBN is of paramount importance for carrying on the business. Publishers generally assign ISBNs to a new title from the batch received by him from Raja Ram Mohun Roy National Agency for ISBN, (RRRN), at the time when the contract is signed with the author viz. at the very initial stage of the publishing process. Whereas, on the contrary, the publishing industry has been facing the crisis-like situation at the hands of RRRN Agency. The problems faced included the lack of response on phone, e-mail or personal visit at the agency; the ISBNs are being issued very late, causing monetary loss to the publishers and the agency has imposed restrictions on the number of ISBNs assigned in one go, from a set of 100 to a set of 10.

These problems got multiplied with the decision of past HRD minister Smriti Irani in the year 2016, introducing the ISBN portal, making the process of registration and application for ISBNs, new or additional, online. Since then, the application process has become nightmarish and the publishers have to wait for long time to get the new batch of ISBNs, which results in direct losses to publishers. The new online application system has also raised fears of censorship as the Ministry is seeking details of each book before issuing ISBN.

However, according to reported news, now the Prime Minister’s office has sought an explanation from the Ministry of Human Resource Development after having received a warning from ISBN international Agency to strip the Indian government of its role in distributing ISBNs to publishers amid complaints of red-tapism and fears of censorship.

It is believed that the HRD Ministry held a meeting on May 31, 2017, on issues flagged by the ISBN international Agency and decided to, henceforth, process all ISBN applications within 48 hours. The approaching time will only tell as to how firm is the commitment of the HRD Ministry in issuing the timely ISBNs to publishers.

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