It’s been some time since my post about Amazon, Lori Jareo, and Princess and Wolf—probably my most-trafficked journal entry ever—came out, and it occurs to me that I really owe what little readership I have left a follow-up. Not on the Jareo thing per se—as there’s really not much to follow up on there—but on the Princess and Wolf affair.

Not too long after I wrote that entry, I went down to my local college library and sat down with their Books in Print terminal. I entered the ISBN from Princess and Wolf, 5558607068, and got this:

Search Results: No match found.
ISBN/UPC: 5558607068; Status: In Print, Forthcoming; Format: Book

Then I looked up the prefix—5-558, the part of the ISBN that identifies publisher—and got a surprise. Just when I’d thought the saga of the the book whose alleged author had never heard of it couldn’t get any weirder, it turned out that the ISBN belonged to a Soviet publishing house who had only ever published one book.

Title: Signs of the Times – PPD
Author: Roger E. Herman
Publication Date: August 1998
Publisher: Sigma-F
Market: United States
ISBN: 5-558-49909-5
ISBN 13: 978-5-558-49909-4
Binding Format: Paper Text

Publisher/Distributor Information


ISBN Prefix(s): 5-558
Type of Company: Publisher
Status: ACTIVE

Editorial Mailing Address:
Abramcevskaja, 3-165
Moskva, 127576 RUS

Not long afterward, the copy of Princess and Wolf I had ordered from Amazon arrived, and it turned out to be, as I had expected, The Princess and the Wolf, a romance novel by Karen Kay. And I made another discovery. The ISBN inside the book itself was 0-7394-4227-9, the book’s original number. The 5-558 number was printed on a label that was pasted over the ISBN bar code on the book’s dust jacket. And things started becoming clearer.

You see, ISBNs are expensive, but you can only purchase them from the source in huge blocks. I forget just how many numbers are in a block (100? 500?), but there are substantially more than any small publisher will ever need—especially if they’ve only ever published one book. What is a small publisher to do with the rest? Resell them to other people who only need a few ISBNs.

Given the paste-over label and the cheap price of the book, it occurred to me that the most likely explanation was that a bunch of overstocked copies (copies that bookstores are able to return and publishers are contractually obligated to buy back) were bought by an overstock vendor, who also bought excess ISBNs from Sigma to paste on so that the book could be sold without confusing it with its more expensive non-overstock self in bookstores’ inventory tracking systems. Somewhere along the way, someone mis-entered author and title information, and the error propagated from the source to all the e-tailers who based their catalogs on the source. We’ll probably never know for sure exactly what happened, but it seems like a reasonable supposition.

Not long after the earlier journal entry, Amazon corrected its page for the book to have the correct information. I went ahead and used Amazon’s return option to return the book unread, citing the incorrect information to get free shipping back. And that’s the story.