4 Key Differences Between ISBNs and ISSNs

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What are the key differences between ISBNs and ISSNs?

International Standard Book Numbers (ISBNs) and International Standard Serial Numbers (ISSNs) are essential identifiers in the publishing world. Though they may seem similar at first glance, understanding the key differences between ISBNs and ISSNs is critical for anyone working with books, journals, magazines, and other publications.

In this introductory section, we’ll highlight the importance of ISBNs and ISSNs, provide a brief overview of what each identifier is used for, and explain the structure of this blog post so you know what to expect as you read on.

The Concept of ISBN and ISSN

ISBNs and ISSNs are unique identifiers used in publishing but serve different purposes.

ISBNs are assigned to identify individual books and book-like products such as audiobooks, while ISSNs are used to identify serial publications like journals, magazines, and newspapers.

The Importance of Understanding the Differences Between ISBNs and ISSNs

Though they look similar, with both being made up of digits separated by hyphens, ISBNs and ISSNs serve distinct roles. Mixing up these identifiers can lead to problems with organizing, inventory management, sales reporting, etc. That’s why it’s crucial for anyone working with published content to understand their critical differences.

In this write-up, we’ll explore ISBNs and ISSNs in depth – from what they are to how to identify and use them properly. You’ll learn the nitty-gritty details about each identifier, how to distinguish between them, and why it matters to use the correct code. By the end, you’ll be an expert at spotting the differences between ISBNs and ISSNs.

We’ll examine ISBNs and ISSNs separately, then dive into the key differences and why they matter. We’ll also provide tips for identifying and verifying them properly. Let’s get started demystifying these critical publishing identifiers.

What is an ISBN?

An ISBN is a unique number assigned to identify a specific edition of a book or other monographic publication. An ISBN aims to facilitate inventory management and book ordering by booksellers, libraries, universities, and distributors.

Format and Components

ISBNs are 13 digits long if assigned after January 1, 2007. Older 10-digit ISBNs are still valid but are gradually being converted to the 13-digit format. The 13-digit ISBN consists of five parts:

  • GS1 prefix – identifies the national, regional, or language area of the publisher
  • Publisher prefix – assigned to a specific publisher
  • Title prefix – selected by the publisher for a specific title or edition
  • Check digit – used to validate the number is correct
  • Extension – indicates the format (paperback, hardcover, etc.)

Assigning ISBNs

ISBNs are assigned to books and book-like products such as audiobooks, ebooks, and braille books. Each format (hardcover, paperback, audiobook, etc.) and each separate edition gets its unique ISBN. ISBNs can be obtained from the ISBN registration agency in each country.

Self-publishers can now obtain their own ISBN prefixes to assign ISBNs to their publications. Previously, self-publishing authors had to obtain individual ISBNs from third-party distributors.

What are ISSNs?

An ISSN is a unique 8-digit number used to identify periodical publications such as magazines, journals, newspapers, and newsletters. An ISSN aims to facilitate identification and access to serial publications across national boundaries and languages.

The structure of an ISSN consists of 7 numbers followed by a check digit. The first seven numbers identify the particular periodical, while the check digit validates the accuracy of the preceding numbers. For example, the ISSN for the journal Nature is 0028-0836. This allows publications with similar titles to be distinguished.

Here are some examples of publications that require an ISSN:

  • Academic journals – ISSNs help libraries catalog and manage journal subscriptions.
  • Magazines – Popular magazines use ISSNs on their masthead to aid in distribution.
  • Newspapers – ISSNs uniquely identify newspaper titles for indexing and archiving.
  • Newsletters – Professional associations assign ISSNs to their newsletters.

An ISSN is a unique identifier for serial publications like journals, magazines, and newspapers. The structured 8-digit code allows for accurate international identification and access to these periodicals.

Key Differences between ISBNs and ISSNs

ISBNs and ISSNs serve distinct purposes in the publishing world. While both are important identifiers, it helps to understand precisely how they differ.

1. Primary Purpose

The main difference lies in what each code is used for. ISBNs uniquely identify books and similar printed materials like pamphlets or brochures. ISBNs allow publishers, booksellers, libraries, and readers to track and manage different editions and formats of a particular title. On the other hand, ISSNs are used to identify serial publications like magazines, journals, and newspapers. They help catalog periodical content and manage subscriptions.

2. Industry Usage

ISBNs are a crucial part of the book industry supply chain. From publishers to distributors to bookstores, ISBNs enable key players to order, track inventory, process sales, and analyze market trends for print publications. ISSNs serve a similar role in periodicals, where they facilitate subscription management, interlibrary lending, and archiving of serial content.

3. Publication Types

The most apparent distinction is that ISBNs are assigned to books while ISSNs are assigned to serials. Specifically, ISBNs identify monographic publications like fiction and non-fiction books, textbooks, ebooks, audiobooks, and even sheet music. ISSNs are used for magazines, journals, newspapers, newsletters, and other works released in successive parts or with no predetermined conclusion.

4. Format and Length

ISBNs and ISSNs contain numbers plus a check digit, but their structure varies. ISBNs are 13 digits long if assigned after January 1, 2007 (10 digits for older ones). ISSNs are 8 digits long, with 7 numbers followed by a check digit. Also, while ISBNs are now purely numeric, ISSNs contain a hyphen after the 4th digit (e.g., 1234-5678).

Understanding where ISBNs and ISSNs diverge helps publishers, distributors, librarians, and other industry professionals avoid mistakes when assigning and using these essential identifiers.

Why is it Important to Understand the Differences?

Properly distinguishing between ISBNs and ISSNs is crucial for several reasons. First, using the wrong identifier can create significant problems in cataloging, inventory management, and sales tracking.

For example, if a book is mistakenly given an ISSN instead of an ISBN, it may not integrate properly with bookseller databases, leading to lost sales. Similarly, periodicals with incorrect ISBNs may not get appropriately indexed in periodical databases.

Second, identifiers play a crucial role in supply chain logistics and procurement. Publishers, distributors, wholesalers, retailers, and libraries rely on industry-standard identifiers like ISBNs and ISSNs to manage inventory. Errors can propagate through the supply chain and lead to costly disruptions. For instance, a retailer may have trouble reordering an item without the correct identifier.

Finally, identifiers allow publishers to analyze the sales and impact of their publications better. With distinct ISBNs and ISSNs, publishers can track the performance of individual book titles and journal issues. This metadata provides valuable market insights. However, when identifiers get mixed up, the data becomes less reliable.

In summary, properly assigning and distinguishing between ISBNs and ISSNs provides significant benefits across the publishing industry regarding organization, logistics, and analytics. Carelessness or a lack of understanding of these identifier systems can lead to far-reaching problems. Publishers, distributors, and retailers should invest time in mastering the nuances of ISBNs versus ISSNs.

How to Identify ISBNs and ISSNs

Finding the ISBN or ISSN for a publication can be straightforward if you know where to look. Here are some tips for identifying these publication identifiers:

Looking at the Publication

For books, the 13-digit ISBN is usually printed on the back cover, along with a barcode representing the ISBN. It may also be on the copyright page inside the book. Meanwhile, the 8-digit ISSN can typically be found on the front or back cover of magazines and journals.

Using Online Databases

Several databases allow you to search for an ISBN or ISSN. For ISBNs, try the International ISBN Agency database. For ISSNs, the ISSN Portal lets you look up ISSNs for periodicals.

Verifying Accuracy

To confirm an ISBN or ISSN is correct and valid, check the following:

  • ISBNs should have the correct 13-digit format, starting with 978 or 979.
  • ISSNs should be 8 digits, with a hyphen separating the 4th and 5th digits.
  • According to the ISBN or ISSN algorithm, the digits should be calculated to the correct check digit.
  • The identifier should match the publication details in the official database.

Identifying publications with their ISBN or ISSN correctly establishes an accurate system to manage inventory and catalog items. Following standard publication identifier formats also enables effective search and retrieval.

Challenges of ISBNs and ISSNs in the Digital Age

In the digital age, implementations of ISBNs and ISSNs are facing challenges. Some of them include the following:

Volume of Content

With the advent of digital publishing, the volume of content being produced has increased exponentially. This includes e-books, online journals, audiobooks, and other forms of digital media. Keeping track of all this content requires a robust and flexible system of identifiers.

Format Diversity

In the digital age, a single work can exist in multiple formats. For example, a book may be available as a print version, an e-book, an audiobook, or an interactive app. Each format requires its own ISBN, which can complicate inventory management and data analysis.


The ease of self-publishing in the digital age means more authors publish their works. These authors may not be familiar with the need for or process of obtaining an ISBN or ISSN.

Despite these challenges, ISBNs and ISSNs have adapted to the digital age.

Ebooks and ISBNs

E-books are assigned unique ISBNs, just like print books. This allows them to be properly cataloged and sold across various online platforms.

Online Publications and ISSNs

Online journals and magazines also receive ISSNs, which help libraries and databases track and manage these digital resources.

ISBNs for Different Formats

As mentioned, each book format (e.g., print, e-book, audiobook) gets its own ISBN. This practice has been extended to include digital formats, allowing for better tracking and management of digital content.

Differences between ISBNs and ISSNs

ISBNs and ISSNs play a crucial role in maintaining the integrity and accessibility of digital content. These include the following:

Cataloging and Accessibility

By assigning unique identifiers to each publication, ISBNs and ISSNs ensure that digital content can be accurately cataloged and easily accessed by readers, libraries, and retailers.

ISBNs and ISSNs help protect the rights of authors and publishers by providing a reliable way to track the usage and distribution of digital content.

Data Analysis

With the proliferation of digital content, data analysis has become increasingly important in the publishing industry. ISBNs and ISSNs provide valuable data points that can be used to analyze sales trends, reader preferences, and market dynamics.


In the digital world, content is often distributed across multiple platforms. ISBNs and ISSNs enable interoperability between different systems, ensuring that digital content can be seamlessly shared and distributed.

Despite the challenges posed by the digital age, ISBNs and ISSNs continue to play a vital role in the publishing industry. They have adapted to the new realities of digital publishing and remain essential tools for cataloging, managing, and analyzing digital content.


Let’s recap some key takeaways as we wrap up the differences between ISBNs and ISSNs. Understanding the core differences between these two publication identifiers is crucial for anyone working in publishing or libraries.

The Main Differences Between ISBNs and ISSNs

ISBNs and ISSNs serve distinct purposes: ISBNs identify books and similar publications, while ISSNs are used for serials like magazines and journals. They have unique formats, with ISBNs longer than 10 or 13 digits. ISBNs are assigned to each edition and format of a publication, while ISSNs stay with a serial throughout its lifetime.

Using Them Correctly

Mixing up ISBNs and ISSNs can cause problems tracking inventory, sales, and circulation. Publishers must carefully assign the right identifier to their publications. Librarians and retailers must understand which ID number refers to which type of work. By mastering the use of ISBNs and ISSNs, we can avoid confusion.

Applying Your Knowledge

I hope this guide has shed light on the purpose and proper application and the differences between ISBNs and ISSNs. You now have a solid basis for using these publication identifiers correctly in your work. As you catalog new books and serials, verify existing records, or purchase publications from vendors, keep these key differences in mind. Your new understanding will help ensure each product receives its unique, standardized ID.

Stay Informed and Keep Learning

Understanding the differences between ISBNs and ISSNs is just the start of your publishing education. To stay on top of industry changes and best practices, here are some helpful tips:

  • Follow industry organizations like the ISBN International Agency and ISSN International Centre on social media for news and updates.
  • Check out blogs and online magazines devoted to publishing, which often cover identifier topics.
  • Look for webinars, virtual conferences, or in-person events on publishing industry trends – these are great for learning more.

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