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A Universal 10- or 13-Digit Title

We ran across a somewhat arcane scholarly statistical study a while back. The author, using certain existing databases, established that book titles were exactly 7.421 words in length on average. This sort of information does not exactly produce the Aha! moment, so we jotted the number down but not its learned source. But it got us to thinking about titles.

And in that context, it did occur that the ISBN numbers on the backs of books—and books need these to gain entry to any legitimate bookstore—do represent a fixed length for titles. True. Only computers can translate them from digital marks to text—and only hard AI* true believers can say that computers can actually “read” such titles. But there you are. International Standard Book Numbers come in a 10- and a 13-digit format, and these digits serve as pointers to databases that hold three elements of information: the language group to which the book belongs, the publisher of the book, and the title. These three elements consume 9 digits. Let’s talk about these first before addressing the tenth digit of the shorter and the thirteenth of the longer ISBN number.

The nine digits are divided into variable lengths. The group identifier in the United States is usually a single digit, 0 or 1, in regions that issue small numbers of books in languages spoken by small populations, the group number may take up more digits. The publisher’s code may be relatively long for a small publisher—and a different number may be issued for each batch of ISBNs obtained. It may be quite short if the publisher is large. Similarly, for large publishers the title code may be many digits, for small publishers fewer. But in all cases, of course, the total digits used for these purposes are fixed at nine.

Now for the last digit. In every case, it is a check number produced by the computer to validate the digits that come ahead it, either nine for the shorter or twelve for the longer ISBN number. The 13-digit ISBNs begin with the number 978. This is called a European Article Number, an International Article Number, or a Japanese Article Number, all depending on the context—but always abbreviated as EAN. Welcome to the nether reaches of technology where inspiration produces this sort of thing. 978 actually refers to book publishers. In rare cases you might see another 3-digit wonder preface the ISBN. The world-wide custom is to place the letters ISBN ahead of the number, be it 13 or 10, and ending in an Arabic numeral or a Roman X.

Confident that you were looking to re-anchor yourself in the realm of ordinary and dismal reality now that it’s Monday again, we thought we’d make your day!

The image displayed was taken from Wikipedia here. The issuer of ISBNs in the United states is Bowker (as we’ve had occasion to remark a while back). A page answering FAQs is provided by Bowker here.
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*AI stands for Artificial Intelligence here.

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One Response

  1. Most enlightening; though indeed not an Aha! moment… But thanks for the very helpful illustration.

    Always interested in stats, averages, estimates and medians, my enquiring mind wants to know if in calculating the averages for the number of words in a title, the learned source included those often very lengthy subtitles…

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