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International Standard Book Number, the globally accepted unique identifier of book editions which must be used if the book is to be traded. Normally, ISBNs are assigned in blocks by national ISBN agencies to their local publishers but individuals can apply for a single ISBN for their self-published work. ISBNs recently changed from being 10 digits long to being 13 digits long.

The code has 5 elements: a 3-digit product code (‘book’); a 1–3-digit country/language code; the publisher ID; the book edition ID; and a check digit to pick up typos in the ISBN. Hence the ISBN of the paperback edition of our book is 978-87-91114-77-9, i.e. ‘978’ (book), ‘87’ (Denmark), ‘91114’ (NIAS Press), ‘77’ (paperback edition) and ‘9’ (check digit).

Publishers often have to pay for the numbers and for their registration by bibliographic agencies. This is becoming an issue with e-publishing. If an e-book is to be sold in several different formats (one compatible with the Kindle, another with the Sony e-Reader, a third with the iPhone, etc.), then separate ISBNs must be issued and maintained for each of these formats.

This definition is extracted (and expanded on) from the book Getting Published: A Companion for the Humanities and Social Sciences by Gerald Jackson and Marie Lenstrup. It was first referred to in the blog Getting Published in a post on the requirements and costs of self-publication.

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