Preparing for ISBN-13

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On January 1, 2007, the length of the ISBN (International Standard Book Number) will officially change from 10 to 13 digits; however, preparations for the switch, which affects the entire book industry, are underway.

To help ease the transition, the Book Industry Study Group created an ISBN-13 Task Force to help identify potential operational and logistical problems and then resolve those problems before they occur. Among the members of the task force, which includes representatives from all segments of the book industry, including retailers, publishers, wholesalers, manufacturers, and libraries, is ABA Special Projects Director David Walker.

BTW recently spoke to Walker about ISBN-13 and what it means for independent booksellers.

BTW: What is your role on the ISBN-13 Task Force?

David Walker: I represent independent bookstores, which means I explain the issues that are likely to arise in our part of the industry and discuss with the task force ways in which independent stores can be assisted with the transition to the new ISBN.

Why is the book industry changing from a 10-digit to a 13-digit ISBN?

DW: The change is taking place mainly because the industry is getting close to running out of 10-digit numbers.

When do booksellers need to start preparing for the shift to the 13-digit ISBN? And what should they be doing?

DW: The change to 13 digits is scheduled to take place by January 2007, so now would certainly not be too soon to start preparing. In addition to learning all they can about how the shift to the longer ISBN will impact bookstores in general, booksellers need to find out about their own POS vendor's plans for upgrading their system to handle the new ISBN.

Can you direct booksellers to some good information resources about ISBN-13?

DW: The Book Industry Study Group's website is by far the most comprehensive resource on this topic. Booksellers should go to and follow the ISBN-13 link.

In addition to general information about the transition (including an "ISBN-13 For Dummies" guide that can be downloaded), there are a couple of specific resources that I would strongly recommend booksellers look at:

  1. A webinar called "Are You Ready for ISBN-13?" which explains how and why the change to 13 digits is happening. Although some parts of this webinar are directed at publishers rather than retailers, it provides an excellent overview of the issues involved in the transition. The webinar is presented by Tom Clarkson from Barnes & Noble, who is one of the world's leading experts on this subject. He is very good at explaining the technical issues in easy-to-understand terms. (Booksellers should select the recorded version of the webinar; they will need to enter some registration information in order to view it.)
  1. An ISBN-13 readiness directory that contains checklists detailing the transition plans of individual companies throughout the industry, including POS vendors. Booksellers should select the link labeled "POS vendors" to see if their vendor has submitted a readiness checklist. If their POS vendor is listed, they should click on the vendor's name. They will then be asked to fill out a "small retailer" survey that asks for some very basic information such as store name and address. After submitting the survey, they will receive an e-mail with a password allowing them to access the readiness checklist for their POS vendor. By the way, booksellers should pay attention not just to the vendor's answers, but also to the questions that are asked on the checklist, as these provide a good indication of the key issues that the ISBN-13 Task Force believes POS vendors should be addressing.

    I should also mention that these checklists are intended to serve as a guide to each vendor's plans. They are not a substitute for speaking with the vendor. I recommend that booksellers use the checklists to get an understanding of their POS vendor's plans, as well as the key issues involved, and then contact the vendor to discuss specific details concerning how and when their system will be upgraded.

    If a bookseller's POS vendor is not listed in the readiness directory, he or she should contact the vendor to discuss the vendor's plans for transitioning to the new ISBN.

Will all booksellers' POS systems be able to be upgraded to handle the 13-digit ISBN?

DW: No. My understanding is that certain versions of some POS systems will not be able to be upgraded -- which is one reason why booksellers need to start looking into this now.

What will happen while the industry is in the process of shifting from a 10-digit ISBN to a 13-digit ISBN?

DW: The ISBN-13 Task Force is recommending that all industry participants maintain the capability of handling both 10-digit and 13-digit ISBNs during the transition.

What is the GTIN and should booksellers be concerned about it?

DW: GTIN stands for Global Trade Identification Number. The GTIN has 14 digits: the 13-digit EAN (or ISBN in the book industry) that identifies the item, plus a leading digit that indicates the packaging level of the item. A leading digit of zero indicates a single unit -- in our industry, a single copy of a book. Use of leading digits other than zero has not yet been defined in the book industry, but it is likely that publishers will use one digit to indicate a carton quantity, another to indicate a skid quantity, and so on.

To answer the second part of your question, booksellers should definitely be concerned about the GTIN. Although many independent bookstores don't order in carton quantities, I believe that the 14-digit GTIN, not the 13-digit ISBN, will become the standard number for electronic ordering and other electronic transactions (in fact, publishers tell me that they are already receiving orders in 14-digit format from some of their customers.)

Assuming that the GTIN does become the standard, bookstores that are not able to communicate in 14 digits may not be able to order electronically from some publishers --or, even if they can place electronic orders using only 13-digit ISBNs, their orders may take longer to process.

For this reason, I strongly recommend that booksellers insist that their POS vendors provide them with the capability to handle 14, not just 13, digits. Booksellers do not want to upgrade to 13-digit capability now and then, in another year or two, find themselves having to go through another upgrade so they can handle 14 digits.

What should booksellers do if they are unable to get answers from their POS vendors, or if they have other concerns about the new ISBN?

DW: They can always contact me for assistance. I can be reached by telephone at (800) 637-0037, ext. 6612, or by e-mail at [email protected]