All Things Writing

Talking ISBN and How the Heck It Ever Came Into Being

January 31, 2021 Bryan the Writer Season 2 Episode 4
All Things Writing
Talking ISBN and How the Heck It Ever Came Into Being
Show Notes Transcript

Hey everyone and welcome to this, our fourth show of the season. I want to thank all of you for joining me today.

Welcome to a cold and snowy day out here in Northern Virginia (at least when I recorded this).

On this episode I give you a quick update on what is going on in the life of Bryan the Writer and then I launch into a discussion about ISBN. Not necessarily what it is, but where did it come from in the first place.

You know the company as R.R. Bowker. But do you know who R.R. Bowker was? Did you know there was a connection between R.R. Bowker and the founder of the Dewy Decimal System? No, well, take a listen and find out about something we take for granted.

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Hey everyone and welcome to this, our fourth show of the season. I want to thank all of you for joining me today.

Last week, if you recall, I talked about something super important. It was the almighty copyright show. I know at least a few of you found it interesting enough to listen to. I think it was, at least I tried to make it interesting.

This week we are going to talk about something I find equally interesting and also something that is elusive.

I am going to talk about what an ISBN is? If you don’t know what I am talking about, pull out the nearest book to you and look in the copyright and you will see something called an ISBN in many of those books.

Our journey today begins in chapter 1.71 of the trusty Chicago Manual of Style. Where we find out that the ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number. We also learn that book covers need to include this information.

In section 1.32 of the almighty CMS we also learn that It is a number assigned to each book by its publisher under a system set up in the late 1960s by the R. R. Bowker company and the International Organization for Standardization. For those of you working out in various industries, you will know that these are the same rascals which enforce ISO compliance for work place practices. 

This section goes onto talk about how the ISBN should be on the copywrite page and how it should be printed. But, that is only part of the story.

The American system was brought into being by a company. To understand that company and its connection, you need to know a little about a man whose name you likely have never heard of, Mr. Richard Rogers Bowker.

Richard Rogers was born in 1848 and died in 1933. A journalist by training, he edited Publishers Weekly and Harper's Magazine. His family moved to New York where they were going to set up a cooper’s business, basically making barrels, but that did not work out so well. 

Richard eventually found his way to City College of New York in 1866. There he thrived. Studying journalism, he founded the The Collegian, which has the distinction of being the first college newspaper in the country. He got involved in college politics and served for a time as a member of the student senate. Ultimately he graduated from the college with a B.A. in journalism.

One of the things that fascinate me as a writer is really getting to the point where someone comes into their own. When does the protagonist flourish into the protagonist instead of just being another character? I know, for me, that was in 2013 when I started writing.

For Richard, I would argue that was in the 1870’s. He had a very successful career as a journalist, but he got involved the New York Evening Mail, and the New York Tribune. He would rise to become became manager of The New York Times in 1896. During these times he was also living in London in 1880 and 1882, managing the British edition of Harper's Magazine.

He also helped found the Publishers Weekly (then The Publishers' Weekly), which would become the most important book-trade journal in America. Bowker served as an owner and editor of the publication for fifty years.

But what does this have to do with ISBNs, your may be asking. Well, during his lifetime he worked extensively with Melvil Dewey, who was the founder of the Dewy Decimal System which was the most important thing to happen to books ever, since now we could find what we were looking for.

Many of us older generation remember having to study it so we would know how to use the card catalogue system to find what we were looking for. Those cards had an almost aromatic quality to them. They were the scent of knowledge. But, I digress. 

Needless to say, cataloguing and organizing books became a passion for Richard.

But, before we get to that, I need to refill my customary tankard of grog and will be right back. In the meantime, take a listen to this.


And we are back. Where did this leave our man Richard? 

It is important to note that the company we know of as R.R. Bowker was not actually founded by him. It was founded by his partner, German immigrant, Frederick Leypoldt. Bowker and Leypoldt worked together quite a bit and the German recognized the need to make it easier to find books for those working in book business. 

It was Leypoldt who first published the first edition of the Annual American Catalogue, the forerunner for Books in Print. In 1878 Leypoldt's company was acquired by Richard. 

In 1932, the year before Richard passed away, The R.R. Bowker Company published Periodicals Directory: A Classified Guide to a Selected List of Current Periodicals Foreign and Domestic by Carolyn Ulrich. Its 323 pages capture information for about 6,000 titles. It is the great grand parent of today’s Ulrichsweb™ which captures details for more than 300,000 titles.

The company continued to print listings of books and references for the next 30 years until something very interesting happened.

In the mid-1960s as computer technology started to really come into its own. Publishers began implementing their own, in-house, numbering systems in order to do business efficiently with their trading partners.

Two such systems introduced at that time were those of UK publisher J Whitaker & Sons of London, and R R Bowker in the USA.


While the united states and other governments don’t actually own ISBNs, the issuers of those ISBNs do operate with an acceptance that only the one company would do it. Can you imagine if there were multiple companies issuing ISBNs? 

Well, the ISO organization I talked about earlier, helped to standardized the practice so there was order to the chaos. In the United States, that means R.R.Bowker company issues those and registers the book titles. I, for example, own a set of ten ISBNs that I can apply to different books and versions of those books.

You would be correct if you said that books on Amazon don’t necessarily need a number. Amazon does maintain a registry of books when you list them with Amazon, but that number is not transferrable. For example, if I use their numbering system, I cannot just take that number and apply it to books produce by another retailer since I don’t actually own the number myself. Amazon does.

So, what is an ISBN? 

If the book is printed after 1 January 2007, it has a 13 digit number. The firs three numbers is a prefix. It is known as the EAN and represents the country code of the book.

The other ten digits place the book by category and other things. 

So, that is it for this week’s episode of All Things Writing.

I am off next week but after that I am going to dig into the vaults and give you a couple of book reviews of books I read a while ago. I am also hoping to get a guest on soon. More to come on that as I work out the details.

Thanks for listening. This is Bryan the Writer, signing off.