Back in 1986 it took a lot longer to get an ISBN (International Standard Book Number) from Bowker.
I remember talking to the women who issued the ISBNs from an office somewhere in New Jersey. There was an administrative fee, as I recall of about $35, and once your order was placed, eventually a large envelope would arrive in the mail with a printout on computer “green-bar” paper.
It was pretty exciting, because somehow possession of these 100 strings of numbers somehow signified that I was a “real publisher.”
Self-publishing in those days mostly happened under cover, since authors who published their own books were either:
- Entrepreneurs with ready access to an audience who would buy their books, and who realized they could make quite a bit more money doing their own publishing, and
- Writers who couldn’t get a contract from a traditional publisher, but who were unwilling to put aside their desire to publish their work simply because it was deemed unpublishable by the assorted gatekeepers who controlled the entry to publishing.
The excitement was a little anticlimactic, since besides the instructions and other information in the big envelope, all I received was that paper with lots of numbers on it.
As I learned, ISBNs are issued to the publisher, and it’s the publisher’s responsibility to assign the individual numbers to specific books.
So far, so good. I used the space on the green bar paper to make a note of which numbers I had assigned to my first book, one for the hardcover version and a separate one for the paperback.
Finished. On to the rest of the work of publishing my books from my new publishing company.
Keeping Track of Your Own History
Time goes on. Soon, based on the success of that book I soon started publishing books by other authors.
This is happening right now, too, with the maturation of self-publishing. More authors are publishing more of their own books, with some novelists turning out new books every few weeks.
And some authors have really taken to book publishing, and are going through the process I went through back then. If you’ve got a complete book publishing infrastructure set up, why not publish books by other authors?
Self-publishers are turning into small presses and cooperative ventures with other authors.
All this is to point out that it’s a basic part of the publishing business to keep and track those ISBNs. Otherwise, how will you remember which ISBN you used where?
For many years I kept that computer paper, and I know I have it somewhere still, but I can’t put my hands on it today.
Partly, that’s because 20 or so years ago I switched over to a spreadsheet to keep track of all this.
Tracking Your ISBNs
My own publishing has gone through lots of phases since I published that first book in 1986. And the world has changed a lot in 30 years, too.
Over time I’ve developed a simple way to keep track of my ISBNs on an Excel spreadsheet, and I think it’s a good idea for you, too, if you own more than 1 ISBN.
My spreadsheet has columns for:
- 10 Digit ISBN
- 13 Digit ISBN
- Publication Date
These are all pretty self-explanatory. You might think this is all too simple to bother tracking, but I assure you it’s not.
Why? Because of the limits of human memory. What you have on the top of your mind today may well have receded into the mists of time 2 or 3 years from now when you need to assign a new ISBN or complete some other bibliographic chore.
Here are the values I use in the “Status” field:
- Available—book is for sale to the public
- Out of print—book has been removed from the market
- Cancelled—ISBN was assigned to a book project which was subsequently cancelled. (If you are absolutely certain you’ve never associated the ISBN with this specific title, you can skip this value and treat the number as still available)
- Delayed—book has been assigned ISBN but publication has been taken off the production calendar for now
- Transferred—For books whose rights have been reverted to the author
For “Format” I’ve used these labels:
- Paperback for paperback books
- Casewrap for hardcover books with printed covers
- Hardcover for hardcover books with dust jackets
- Audio for audiobooks and other recordings for sale in retail
- Spiral for spiral-bound books
- ePub for the ePub version ebook files
- Kindle if you are assigning your own ISBN to your Kindle books (many self-publishers don’t bother with this, using Amazon’s ASIN instead)
These simple categories allow me to track and assign ISBNs to future projects with confidence, and to find ISBN assignments from years past.
Download the ISBN Logbook
I’ve created a blank version of my ISBN logbook for you to use for your own books. It’s a simple Excel file, so feel free to change it to match your own needs.
It’s highly recommended that you back this file up to an offsite location so you don’t lose it. I’ve had mine for decades, through all the upgrades to Excel, and it still works just fine.
Click this link to download your own free copy:
If you have questions about getting or using ISBN, leave them in the comments. Here are more resources related to ISBN:
How to Reconstruct Old ISBNs for Use Today
ISBN 101 for Self-Publishers
Self-Publishing Basics: How to Read an ISBN
Bowker’s 10- to 13- Digit ISBN converter
Self-Publisher’s Quick and Easy Guide to ISBNs and Barcodes
Bowker’s My Identifiers site to purchase ISBNs
TheBookDesigner articles on ISBN