• 12.01.06

Publishing’s New Math: 14 > 13

Will the publishing industry finally get its data in sync with the rest of the world?

The book-publishing business is famously anachronistic. There’s the whole words-on-paper thing, for one. Consider this, too: Nearly every other consumer product for ordering and inventory bears a 14-digit Global Trade Item Number. Since the 1960s, the book industry has embraced the 10-digit ISBN standard. Why? Long story. But now, some 10 billion books later, publishers are running out of numbers. So as of January 1, they’ll move en masse to a new system. With, um, 13 digits. Sigh.


Tom Clarkson and his friends at the Book Industry Study Group aim to rescue the industry from its self-perpetuated obsolescence. “Anytime you have to do anything out of the ordinary it’s an extra cost,” says Clarkson, director of supply-chain technology for Barnes & Noble. His industry group is encouraging anyone converting a computer system for the new ISBN to just throw in an extra digit. That way, retailers could order the latest potboiler using the same system they use to order … pots. No need for new software. Fewer mistakes. And lower packaging costs, since that 14th digit would indicate a specific carton size.

Barnes & Noble plans to convert its ordering system to 14 digits by next summer. Others will, we sure hope, follow.