By Porter Ander­son | @Porter_Anderson

From November 20, 2012

An excerpt from my series of columns on pub­lish­ing, Ether for Authors, appear­ing Tuesdays at Here is the full version of this column.


Can We See You?

Just how many e-books are there?

Care to take a guess? Because that’s the best we can do: a guess. Nobody knows. Because it’s impossible to “see” so many of them.

Did you know that? Neither did a group of editors I spoke with recently. They had asked me for an article about e-books vs. print books, and were shocked when I had to explain to them that we don’t know how many e-books have been published.

We don’t know how many e-books are being published today or tomorrow, either.


Print books? — we have a pretty good count.

E-books? — we really don’t know.

Laura Dawson

Laura Dawson is product manager in the “identifiers” division of Bowker, one of the key companies we look to in publishing for major market research. In fact, it’s thanks to Dawson and Bowker that we know these daunting numbers:

  • In 1998, there were 900,000 titles counted as active;
  • In 2012, Bowker “sees” 32.8 million titles.

This past summer, when Dawson began circulating those numbers about the increase in active titles (they show a jump of more than 6,000 percent in 14 years), she built in some caveats immediately about their limitations. Here she is, for example, in a blog post in July, A matter of scale:

I keep citing this massive growth that Books in Print has experienced over the last 14 years. As insane as that is, it’s worth noting also that there are many, many books which never get listed in Books in Print – Kindle originals, for example, or self-published books. Or documentation that’s written for a specific purpose but which becomes useful to many people. That sort of thing almost never gets an ISBN.


What’s more, writes Dawson, there’s a US emphasis on those numbers:

It’s also worth noting that this is just in the US. It’s not a question of whether or not publication rates worldwide have experienced exponential growth; it’s merely a question of by what factor. We could be looking at nearly a billion books.

But those “titles,” captured by Bowker’s Books in Print survey, are primarily what the title suggests — “in print.” To include e-books in them — and thus make those numbers represent something like, say, “Books Published in All Formats,” we’d first have to be able to “see” all those books published in all formats — we’d have to be able to track them.

And we can’t. We can’t see them. We may not be able to see your book. You may not be counted. Dawson:

If anyone is giving you numbers, I guarantee they are incomplete…We have ZERO idea of the total pool of e-books out there. We only know the % of e-books vs print within the set of ISBN assignments.

An ISBN code / Wikipedia

Dawson’s comments there are from her latest “#ISBNhour” on Twitter Friday. Once a week on Friday at noon Eastern time (1700 GMT), she likes to take a topic that relates to her specialty in publishing metadata and field questions from anyone who’d like to follow along.

I’ve created an Epilogger record of Friday’s #ISBNhour you can go over, if you like: E-books, Like Print Books, Need ISBNs.

Authors are always welcome to look in on #ISBNhour on Fridays, and I encourage this because the more entrepreneurial our writers become, the better served they are by such experts in the field as Dawson. She’s probably the key speaker on issues of metadata at publishing conferences and the kind of soul who doesn’t mind a rather basic question from someone trying to learn more about this fundamental element of publishing in the digital age — the metadata by which a book is tracked by professionals and discovered in searches by potential readers.


Which brings me back to our titular question today: Can we see you?

One of Dawson’s points on Friday in #ISBNhour was that many authors, particularly self-publishing authors, don’t realize how important it is to have their work identified by ISBN, which stands for International Standard Book Number.

Your publishing platform may not require or even encourage you to to obtain an ISBN. But if you don’t, then the tracking services — Bowker in the States, for example, Nielsen in the UK, and so on — won’t be able to “see” your book and count it in the great, growing tally of published material. I did ask Dawson, journalist that I am, whether there is a platform she knows of anywhere that might actually discourage the use of ISBNs.

No, there’s no platform that discourages them. The book supply chain, in all its complexity, loves ISBNs. Amazon’s delighted when a book has one.

The reason you see “our friends in Seattle” come up in her comment there is that Amazon does not require a self-publisher who uses its platform to produce a book to obtain an ISBN for it. Dawson is quite rightly making the point that we cannot say Amazon is anti-ISBN. It just may not chase you down the street reminding you to get one. I’ve asked Dawson to give us some added perspective beyond what she can offer 140 characters at a time in #ISBNhour on the issue. And I’d like to point out that while I urge every author to obtain an ISBN for every format of every book she or he publishes, this is not a commercial appeal on behalf of Bowker, which simply is the official ISBN agency in the U.S.

In fact, let me offer you this link to the International ISBN Agency. There, you’ll find your national agency — or one of several — and be able to obtain your ISBNs. If you’re outside the US, in fact, you may not have to buy your ISBNs, as American authors do. In some countries, Dawson tells us, ISBNs are paid for as a government service.

“ISBN agencies don’t compete” from nation to nation, Dawson tells me. And, the ISBN is the same everywhere, as far as an author’s or publisher’s use of it. There are distinctions, though, in how the ISBN is configured, so it supplies specified information to the amazing Dawsons of the world, who can keep such details as these in their heads:

There is a country prefix. (Or, in some cases, language prefix.) So US/UK/Canadian ISBNs begin with 9780/9781/9790/9791. The 978 or 979 designates it as a product for the book supply chain. The 0 or 1 designates it as being from the US/UK/Canada. (I believe the Russian prefix is 4. But don’t hold me to that.) This is all followed by the publisher prefix, and then the ID for the item itself.

I know, and I apologize. I had to take an aspirin after that bit of info, too. And to think, she was an English major in college, don’t ask me how she manages to thrive as she does in a 13-digit world, what a trooper.

And here are some specific points for authors I’d like to share, courtesy of Dawson. I hope these might get ahead of some of the natural questions you may have if you’re wondering about getting ISBNs applied to your books.

From Laura Dawson’s NISO Conference presentation – one ISBN per format.

How many ISBNs do I need? 
You want an ISBN for each format of your book. So if you publish your new novel in mobi, ePUB, PDF, audio, and print, you need five ISBNs. In the States, in fact, Bowker’s rates strongly favor your buying a pack of 10 ISBNs at a time, not one, and not because they expect you to write 10 books but because you need each format to have its own.

But won’t my formats be tracked as multiple books if I have an ISBN for each format?
No, you will report as you assign your ISBNs which of your titles each one pertains to. Tracking services will link them up as all being part of one “work” for proper counting. In the US, for example, ISBN owners use a dashboard to indicate how their formats match up as one “work.”

What if I’ve already published and didn’t know to get ISBNs?
No problem. You can assign them after the fact.

Are all the major publishers properly using ISBNs? 
Dawson: “Most major publishers are good about this, yes. That wasn’t the case even a year ago, but it has gotten much much better thanks to the realities of the supply chain. Apple requires a separate ISBN, for example. And the bigger publishers (have begun) to realize that it’s actually harder to juggle their workflows if each edition doesn’t have an ISBN.”

So my appeal to authors is that you please consider ISBNs on each format of your published work a necessity. As our writers become more deeply empowered in the digital dynamic, this is a responsibility they need to take for their work, not least because we need to be able to get a better look than we have now at “what’s out there.”

And yes, to be honest, a lot of material has been published in the busy self-publishing sector now without ISBNs, a good bit of which might never be counted. Dawson is sanguine on the matter, noting that in any transition there’s material that gets lost. She’s right, but I regret that we won’t be able to picture just how sharply this production spiked during these years of right-angle disruption.

Still, Dawson notes, work that’s important can be “retrofitted” with ISBNs: “That leaves work for grad students.”


Join us for the rest of this column at Publishing Perspectives.
Ether for Authors: Can We See You? 

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