After 30 years, the ISBN might be getting a facelift.

The updated International Standard Book Number being proposed by a standards organization will increase the number of titles computer systems can track.

It could also require publishers to spend millions on software upgrades. The reason: The proposal expands the ISBN to 13 digits, breaking computer programs designed to use the original 10-digit standard.

The update is being developed by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). The group has overseen the standard since 1972.

The ISBN is used by publishers, distributors, and retailers to identify books in 160 countries. The new standard could be in place by 2004.

Supporters of the change say the update is needed to avoid running out of ISBN numbers, and to make ISBN compatible with Europe 's standard. The 13-digit European Article Numbering/Uniform Code Council, or EAN.UCC, is used by 900,000 companies.

"There's a shift under way at the retailer level, and the entire U.S. marketplace is moving to a 13-digit ISBN," says Pat Harris, executive director of the National Information Standards Organization (NISO), a nonprofit association that develops technical standards, in Bethesda , Md. "Small publishers may be faced with a capacity issue in the next few years. We want to be prepared."

Preparation means software at publishers, printers, distributors, retailers, and libraries will require potentially costly updates to expand 10-digit ISBN codes to 13.

It's not unlike the Y2K situation, where databases with 2-digit years had to be updated to 4 digits, Harris says. "Across the publishing house and the supply chain, the 10-digit ISBN is likely to be embedded in a lot of different department [computer] programs and operations. Those will have to be updated."

COSTS STUDIED

Some members of the ISO committee say upgrade fees won't become a major expense for publishers. However, the committee plans to consider the issue.

"The ISBN number mostly impacts communication with the retail sector, and it could be that internal operations won't be affected," says Ed Ramsey, director of corporate application services, Random House, Westminster , Md. "But this is something we need to examine closely."

The Association of American Publishers (AAP), a trade group representing book publishers, is challenging the proposed change.

"We are still evaluating whether and when there is a need to change over to a 13-digit system," says Ed McCoyd, director of digital policy with the AAP, in New York . "We think there is an abundant supply [of ISBN numbers]. We also think the cost to change over will be significant, and one that publishing managers will have to be convinced is worth engaging in."

McCoyd agrees aligning the ISBN with the EAN.UCC would help publishers, distributors, and global book retailers. "It will enable U.S. publishers to more easily sell their products abroad, because most major booksellers are already equipped to accept the 13-digit bar code," he says.

However, most U.S. and Canadian supermarkets and other book retailers today accept only a 12-digit Universal Product Code (UPC) at checkout, McCoyd says. Those systems would also require computer updates.

The first ISO committee draft of the proposed revised standard will be released this year, followed by a three month ballot and comment period. Barring any show stopping delays, the 13-digit ISBN would then be on track for global implementation by 2004.