Home Features Your Publishing Journey with Nielsen: The Importance of the ISBN

Your Publishing Journey with Nielsen: The Importance of the ISBN

What is an ISBN and how do we use it? Eleanor Pigg from Nielsen explains the key facts.

In 2019, 12.2m print books were sold through Irish booksellers to the tune of €147.4m. Those sales were all tracked thanks to their ISBN. This simple 13-digit number ensures publishers, distributors and booksellers can identify and track the stock and sales of each book produced, demonstrating how crucial it is to the book trade.

The ISBN, or International Standard Book Number, was developed in 1965 at Trinity College, Dublin by Gordon Foster, Emeritus Professor of Statistics, who was challenged by WHSmith to come up with an algorithm to help booksellers track books.

Today the UK and Ireland ISBN Agency is licensed to Nielsen Book, by the International ISBN Agency, to supply ISBNs and Publisher Prefixes to eligible publishers. As part of that responsibility it also promotes the importance of the ISBN and provides technical advice and assistance to the book trade on correct usage. Above all the ISBN must be maintained as an ISO Standard.

In its unique position as the UK and Irish Agency, Nielsen Book maintains the metadata for over 20m titles published in these territories. The ISBN is the key to unlocking this data for retailers and libraries around the world. A single book record on the Nielsen Book database can have over 500 data elements and a single title can have many incarnations. An ISBN contains a small, but crucial, amount of data and will differentiate the various titles, formats and editions. 


The ISBN revolves around best practice. It uniquely identifies products, the publisher and imprint, and the location of the publisher. It is also recognised internationally. They are permanent and once assigned that ISBN identifies that book and format for life! 

Whether you’re a self-publisher, an international publisher, a bookseller or a library you need to be able to identify a book. Without one a book cannot be discovered, ordered or distributed. There are exceptions, especially in this digital age, but assigning an ISBN is always recommended especially if multiple formats are likely to be produced in the future. It also gives publishers ownership of the book and the ability to track its success themselves.    

Correct usage of an ISBN allows different product forms and editions of a book, whether printed or digital, to be clearly differentiated, ensuring that book buyers receive the version they require. The ISBN can be displayed as a machine readable 13-digit EAN-13 barcode which can be read by systems throughout the supply chain saving time and reducing mistakes.

The ISBN facilitates the following:

  • Discovery and unlocking of metadata on bibliographic databases, websites and internal systems
  • Fast and efficient ordering and distribution of books
  • Tracking and measurement of book sales
  • Informs the National Lending Right in some countries. 


 The ISBN is broken into five elements.

  • Bookland Prefix: shows that the product identifier is a book – it is “from” Bookland
  • Registration Group: identifies a country, area or language area where the publisher is based and the ISBN is assigned
  • Registrant (Publisher) identifier: identifies a particular publisher and usually indicates the exact identification of the publishing house and its address
  • Title Identifier: identifies a specific edition of a publication of a specific publisher
  • Check Digit: validates the full number

Here’s one in action:

Writers and Artists Yearbook 2019


  • Area Code for Anglophone area (UK, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa, USA) – 978-1
  • Publisher number for Bloomsbury – 4729
  • Title number – 4749
  • Check Digit – 9  

Eleanor Pigg
UK Registration Services Manager for the UK and Ireland ISBN Agency.


Your Publishing Journey—Seminar Series

This June (15-18) Nielsen Book will host an online Seminar Series for independent publishers and self-published authors. Each 45-minute seminar will cover a range of topics including ISBNs and the importance of metadata. For more information about the seminars and to register your free place see: https://nielsenbook.co.uk/your-publishing-journey/

Alternatively you can visit the Nielsen ISBN Store:
www.nielsenisbnstore.com or email: isbn.agency@nielsen.com

Nielsen Book provides a range of services to the book industry internationally, aiding the discovery and purchase, distribution and sales measurement of books. For more information visit: www.nielsenbook.com