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  • Tatia L. Gordon-Troy, Esq.

Self-Publishing by the Numbers: ISBNs, LCCNs, PCNs, Oh My!

Among the legal notices, marketing spiel, and publisher contact information typically found on a book’s copyright page, you will also find sets of numbers that may seem arbitrary to the untrained eye. But these numbers actually have a clear purpose and can help people and entities locate your book online.

Groups of numbers, such as 978-1-7324999-0-4 and 2017949317, listed on a book’s copyright page are not arbitrary at all; in fact, they make up a large part of your book’s metadata—a collection of words, phrases, and descriptions that are unique to your book. A book’s metadata is what Google, Amazon, and other search engines use as part of their search functionality to list and locate a book. Typical metadata for a book consists of:

  • Copyright notice and year of publication;

  • Publisher name and address;

  • Restrictions, use, and permissions clause;

  • Book title, author name, and a basic description of the book’s content; and

  • Names of the editor and cover designer.

But what makes your metadata even more unique are those not-so-arbitrary numbers, which serve a purpose and possess a rhyme and a reason to their sequence.

The ISBN: A Book’s Identifier

The International Standard Book Number (ISBN) is the number system included on a copyright page and as part of the bar code you’ll find on the back of just about any printed book seen on the shelves of bookstores and retail outlets. In 1966, Gordon Foster, a statistics professor at Trinity College in Dublin, invented the ISBN originally as a 9-digit number, which eventually increased to 10 digits, and then to 13 digits in 2007.

An ISBN for a book is akin to a Social Security Number for a person, as it aids in uniquely identifying your book. To sell your book online or in brick-and-mortar bookstores, or to offer it for sale to libraries, your book must have an ISBN. It is used in the process of ordering, listing, and controlling the stock of a book.

The ISBN designates a unique identifier for all published books. Bowker Identifier Services is the official U.S. ISBN agency responsible for registering and issuing ISBNs. According to the Bowker website, the purpose of an ISBN is to:

… establish and identify one title or edition of a title from one specific publisher and is unique to that edition, allowing for more efficient marketing of products by booksellers, libraries, universities, wholesalers and distributors.

Today’s ISBNs are a series of 13 digits with five parts, each with a unique meaning. For example, the 13-digit ISBN recently assigned to the book, Be the CEO of Your Law Firm, is 978-1-7320825-0-2 and breaks down like this:

  • 978: identifies Bowker as the ISBN issuer.

  • 1: either a 1 or a 0 identifies the United States as the country of origin as well as the language in which the book is written, namely English.

  • 7320825: identifies the publisher within a group or country (in this case, Ally Lozano LLC).

  • 0: identifies a particular title or edition of a title.

  • 2: serves as the check digit, which validates the ISBN.

A single ISBN runs $125. But if you plan to offer your book in more than one format, you’ll need a separate ISBN for each of them, namely:

  • Print: hardback and paperback separately;

  • ePub: fixed layout and reflowable layout separately;

  • Mobi for Kindle: fixed layout and reflowable layout separately; and

  • Audio.

For independent authors, knowing the purpose of an ISBN and how to acquire one are especially important.

The LCCN: An Official Numbering System

The Library of Congress Control Number (LCCN) is another unique identifier for your book, but this one is assigned by the Library of Congress (LOC). Librarians use this number when researching your book in the LOC database, which contains millions of books.

When you are self-published, having an LCCN assigned to your book and displayed on your copyright page raises your level of legitimacy in the publishing industry. Most, if not all, traditionally published books display this number on the copyright page, and as a self-published author, you’ll want to mimic what the traditional publishers do.

Best of all, obtaining an LCCN for your book is free.

The book used as an example above carries the LCCN of 2018938420, which is displayed on the copyright page. The first four digits represent the year of publication.

To receive an LCCN before you publish your book, you would apply for a Preassigned Control Number, or PCN, on the LOC website. The PCN program enables the LOC to assign control numbers in advance of publication to those titles that may be added to the LOC’s collections.

The application process consists of two steps: (1) the approval of an Application to Participate followed by (2) completion of a Preassigned Control Number Application for each title. An LCCN is only assigned to a print book, and one copy must be mailed to the LOC, US & Publisher Liaison Division, Cataloging in Publication Program soon after the book is published.

Bear in mind, this department, as well as its process, is separate from the copyright filing process through the LOC.

Strength in Numbers

Knowing what information must be displayed in your book and how it must be displayed is a part of learning the business of self-publishing. The ISBN, LCCN, or PCN serves a particular purpose; and having these numbers assigned to your book before it is published can lend credence to your self-published tome.

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