I also learned something lovely about ISBN-13s. These longer numbers were just coming in as I was leaving the bookstore world, and it always puzzled me that the first three digits were invariably 978. If ISBNs were increased from nine to thirteen numbers because of demand, why didn’t the prefixes vary more, like they do on toll-free phone numbers? (Remember when toll-free numbers always started with 800?) Were the powers that be going to run out of 978 numbers and eventually graduate to 979, or something crazy like 999?
Actually it’s not that at all. According to Bowker, who should know, the standard bar code for a book is called an EAN Bookland barcode. EAN stands for European Article Number, used by most of the world (interesting discussion of literary colonialism to be had there?). Instead of a country, however, the place designated by the prefix 978 is “Bookland.”