Viral Book Marketing and the ISBN

The ISBN – International Standard Book Number – is the unique 13 digit number or commercial book identifier that adorns the upc bar on the back of every book that’s available through standard trade channels.  It’s the completely innocuous string of numbers within the little white rectangle on the back of the book jacket, usually in the bottom right corner. Out of the way, where no one can see it.

The ISBN is relegated to that remote jurisdiction because it’s not intended for use by the customer.  It’s an industry identifier that booksellers, publishers, distributors, etc… use to specify and differentiate one book from another.

For instance, Penguin may have several different editions of a particular book still in print. Classics like Crime and Punishment are available in different translations, or newly reprinted editions and can be simultaneously available in trade, hard cover or mass market editions, each of which will have a separate, unique ISBN.

To the average book customer the details of the ISBN are useless.  They just need to provide the bookseller with title, author, whether they want the book in hard cover or paperback, what they’re willing to pay and how long they’re willing to wait if the book is not currently in stock.  That’s it.  The ISBN does not need to be a part of the conversation.

Yet publishers insist on including the ISBN number in their print and digital advertising and it doesn’t make any sense.

I’ll use the otherwise masterful viral book trailer for Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice as an example.

Picture 2

The above picture is a screen capture from the very end of the Pynchon book trailer and it gives the customer all the information she needs to make a purchase: name of the author, title of the book and date of release.  Done.  Customer has the info and can walk to their neighborhood bookstore or order it online.

The Penguin Press throws their logo in there as they should, then there’s some extra promotional writing in the upper right corner which is just a little narrative snapshot for the benefit of the customer and that’s fine, too.  A really tight little package that the marketing/publicity people at Penguin should be proud of.

But they just can’t stop themselves from including the ISBN!  It’s that mess of numbers to the right of the author/title info at the top of the video.

You know, 9781594202247.

It shouldn’t be there for a couple of reasons but mostly because it looks like crap.  It’s visual clutter and it’s completely unnecessary.

For instance, since the book just recently came out and it’s the only book with that particular title by that particular author in print what are the chances that a customer will order the wrong copy of Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon by calling her favourite bookstore or punching those details into the search bar at Amazon? Zero, right?

Some have suggested that Penguin included the ISBN because it helps booksellers with their orders but that doesn’t make any sense either.  If there’s a bookseller in North America that isn’t aware of the imminent appearance of a major new book written by a major author and published by one of the biggest publishers in the world then someone somewhere isn’t doing their job and it shouldn’t take a video posted on YouTube on the day of release to alert them.

Good marketing like good writing happens when you remove all the unnecessary parts and give the reader the pure essence.

The ISBN is not a part of that pure visual essence.  It has its place and that place is not as a part of the advertising and marketing of a book.

Sean Cranbury is the Executive Editor of Books on the Radio. He's also Founder and Creative Director of the Real Vancouver Writers' Series. Sean is General Manager at the legendary Storm Crow Tavern and consults with literary arts organizations on digital communications strategies.


  • Reply August 8, 2009


    I’ve spent a ridiculous amount of time thinking about this since you first mentioned it in another post, and can’t come up with a single (good) reason why the isbn is included in the name of the pynchon clip – this is the kind of thing that drives me nuts. Someone made a decision to include it and I want to know what the reasoning was! I even want to know if it was just a cut and paste job gone long. Thanks for giving me yet another thing to be unreasonably obsessed with sean!

  • Reply March 14, 2010


    The ISBN is unique but ten digits and not 13? This is relative to the aggregate sum of ten digits multiplied by the numbers one to ten consecutively which must be divisible by 11.
    This is why you cannot order the wrong book. The computer will not let you.


    • Reply March 15, 2010

      Sean Cranbury

      Thanks, Barry!

      I always enjoy poking a little fun at the ISBN and publisher’s need to put it everywhere in their print advertising and elsewhere.

      I understand its specificity. Thanks for the comment.

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