ISBNs unique?

I’ve never really paid much attention to ISBNs — I don’t even know what that acronym stands for — but I’ve always thought they were a unique match to a book. No two are the same, and all that. The signature of a book, in a way. This makes sense to me.

However, I’ve apparently found a glitch in that system, either that or I’m starting to learn that it’s not much of a system at all:

My husband decided he wanted to read the Father Brown stories of G.K. Chesterton. Not just a small selection, though; he wanted the complete works. So he goes to Amazon in the early-morning hours, discovers that the store itself is temporarily out of the Complete Works. Not to fret, though, since it’s available from several other reputable sellers, still through the clearinghouse.

Well, the book arrives, and it’s surprising. The complete works, according to the Amazon profile, is 800-some pages. This was in the 200-page range. Oh, and it said Selected Stories on the front cover. A bit of a tip off?

He went through the process of letting the seller know of the mistake. This took awhile. Then he had to take it up with Amazon, because the seller didn’t respond. Finally, they refunded the money.

Then he ordered another used copy, from another affiliate seller. When this one arrived, it was 411 pages (Did it morph in the mail? What?) It also has a telltale plaque printed on the front: SELECTED STORIES. While he was filing this complaint with the seller, we noticed that the ISBN on each of these two books we received as well as that on The Complete Father Brown Stories (again, according to the Amazon profile for this book; we haven’t actually seen it yet) was the same. Identical! We also checked the ASIN (whatever that is), but those, likewise, matched.

Once he finished filing the complaint with the seller, he immediately placed an order for the temporarily out of stock version directly from Amazon. Hopefully it’s the right book, whenever it comes.

One more thing: Each of the books had different copyright dates: The first was published in 1994 (I think. I don’t have this book anymore). The second in 1992. The one we want: in 1998.

So, anyone have some expertise to share with me? What’s the deal with these ISBNs? If they’re not really unique to the book, what’s the point of having them in the first place? Is there a better way to track the books? Help, please!


3 responses to “ISBNs unique?

  1. I just stumbled across Word Lily whilst trying too find a list of some unusual vocabulary in No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (hoping not to have to re-read it as I didn’t have a dictionary to hand when I found 2 very unusual words; but I digress…). You site looks very diverting, and I look forward to returning in the future – for now, I just wanted to share the following link with you regarding International Standard Book Numbers (as I believe the acronym for ISBN):

    By the way, this took me about 3 seconds to find on-line, so I (politely) wonder why you didn’t try the same search as me before posting …

    By the way, I too believed that ISBNs were intended to be unique. (I haven’t read the above FAQ page myself yet, though, which may explain all!) It is a possibility that the same text has been reprinted by the same publisher in completely different formats – larger print, smaller pages, which could cause dramatic increases in page number, but I have to say this seems to be stretching credulity somewhat.

    Idle Fact regarding ISBNs – in the 60’s, if you were middle-class in the UK, you quite possibly joined the Puffin Club ( created by Kaye Webb, I believe) and one of their quarterly competitions used ISBN maths to sum two of their books and obtain a third – which you had to guess / identify to win the competition.

    Kind regards, Andrew

  2. Andrew —

    Actually, that ISBN page doesn’t answer my question at all. It merely affirms that ISBNs are intended as unique: “The International Standard Book Number (ISBN) is a 10-digit number that uniquely identifies books and book-like products published internationally.”

  3. Pingback: Resurrecting an old habit (and words!) « Word Lily

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