Ether for Authors: Rumors of the ISBN's Demise

From March 18, 2013

An excerpt from my series of Ether for Authors columns on pub­lish­ing at Publishing Perspectives, appear­ing Mondays.


Rumors of the ISBN’s Demise

The International Standard Book Number (ISBN), invented in Britain in 1965, took off rapidly as an international system for classifying books, with 150 agencies (one per country, with two for bilingual Canada) now issuing the codes. Set up by retailers to ease their distribution and sales, it increasingly hampers new, small and individual publishers. Yet digital publishing is weakening its monopoly.

Those lines caught a lot of folks by surprise when published earlier this month in The Economist.

(I can’t credit the author of the piece, of course, because of The Economist‘s long-standing and rightly derided policy that asserts the news is more important than its reporters. Anyone in the industry! the industry! of publishing will reject this tradition of not bylining journalists as a shameful denial of the essential centricity of writers.)

The story in question, headlined Book-keeping: Digital publishing may doom yet another analogue standard, points out that in the UK, Nielsen, the ISBN agency there, charges about $190 for 10 ISBNs. It then writes, “Americans can pay $125 for a one-off number to R.R. Bowker, another data provider, but subsequent editions require another fee.” What’s left out is the fact that Bowker sells 10 ISBNs for $250–$25 each.

In November, here at Publishing Perspectives, Ether for Authors led with a point that we don’t actually know how many ebooks there are, in fact, because ISBNs aren’t used consistently enough.

In Can We See You?, I looked at what can’t be looked at — without ISBNs going onto ebooks, they’re rendered invisible to statistical tracking. While Bowker Research can count some 32.8 million titles in its Books in Print scan, we know that this figure can’t take into account many, many ebooks that have been published—often self-published—without the industry-standard tracking device on them, the ISBN.

The Economist‘s writer gets awfully close to this problem of untracked books without seeing it:

Self-published writers are booming; sales of their books increased by a third in America in 2011. Digital self-publishing was up by 129%. This ends the distinction between publisher, distributor and bookshop, making ISBNs less necessary.

Contrary to what our anonymous journalist thinks, we don’t actually know how much sales of self-publishers’ books went up, again because we can’t track all the books or all the sales, in part because the ISBN isn’t used in many instances. What’s more, sales figures aren’t reported by certain retailers — I’m looking at you, Seattle — so we have anything but the clear picture of an upturn in 2011.

As an aside, I should add that I have yet to meet a self-published writer who is “booming.” Some are bellowing, of course. But I think our byline-less author here meant that self-publication, not its authors, are booming. Good writing is never the wrong choice, you know.

Boom all you like, without the universal code that establishes a book’s presence (and each format needs its own ISBN), then we’re looking at what appears to be an empty shelf.

What should be the primary interest of our industry? Producing literature and serving its readership, of course. Our artists and their readers are the key points. But is there something inherently wrong — or somehow too determinedly journalistic — in wanting to be able to quantify, categorize, and track the progress of the industry through the “tagging” of its output?

When The Economist piece came out, Publishing Perspectives Editor-in-Chief Edward Nawotka wrote it  up and asked readers for their responses to a simple, quick vote on the ISBN system’s effectiveness.

Nawotka asked it this way in Survey: Is It Time to Get Rid of the ISBN?:

Is it now time for the system, a legacy largely tied to print, to end? Or should it be revised and updated to reflect new digital, financial and political realities? Take our survey and let us know what you think in the comments.

Oddly, The Economist‘s story writer seems to think that several proprietary tags might take the place of the long-established ISBN:

Amazon has introduced the Amazon Standard Identification Number (ASIN). Digital Object Identifiers (DOI) tag articles in academic journals. Walmart, an American supermarket chain, has a Universal Product Code (UPC) for everything it stocks — including books. Humans are also getting labels: the Open Researcher and Contributor ID system (ORCID) identifies academics by codes, not their names. And ISBNs are not mandatory at Google Books.

Michael Cairns

Among the first to respond to The Economist‘s piece is Michael Cairns. He leads off the comments on the story with the succinct overview, “This is a curious article: In some cases, it misses the point and, in others, it misinforms the reader about how the publishing industry currently works.”

He repeats his comments in full at his Personanondata column. In MediaWeek (V7, N9): ISBNs, Books & Commuting, Course Guides, Music Money + More, addressing the unnamed writer of the piece:

It is hard to agree with your statement that the ISBN hampers small publishers when the past ten years have seen the most significant growth in small- and medium-sized publishers in history. Both Bowker and Nielsen report these numbers each year for the US and UK markets. One circumstance you allude to is that in ‘olden times’–when we had more than two significant bookstore chains (in the US)–there was no question as to whether to obtain an ISBN; however, a publisher today could make a perfectly valid decision not to acquire an ISBN and simply sell their book or eBook through Amazon . . . and they could do okay with that. But why would any publisher with a book offering legitimate sales potential want to exclude all other retailers? That would be hard to understand.

Mick Rooney

By the time Mick Rooney, a leader in the international self-publishing community and publisher in Ireland of The Independent Publishing Magazine, joins the responses, you have to wonder if The Economist‘s enforced anonymity isn’t merciful in this case. Rooney writes:

Some articles on publishing from the mainstream media are just dumb. This is one of them. While the whole ISBN system for books has been under review for a couple of years, and has its limitations in view of digital publishing, the writer of this article in The Economist clearly knows Jack Shit about how the publishing and bookselling industries work.

A frequent commenter on the publishing scene, our Canadian colleague Thad McIlroy also gets into the discussion at The Economist. His intent is to deepen the discussion, developing a point indicated but not clearly landed by The Economist:

To remain within the spirit and the practice of the ISBN system, each digital permutation should be awarded a unique identifier. It’s at this moment that the ISBN system collapses. Assuming a publisher even wanted to assign an ISBN to each permutation the cost would be prohibitive (particularly for self-published authors and smaller general trade or academic publishers).

Laura Dawson

But Bowker’s chief of identifiers, Laura Dawson, who leads the Friday “ISBN Hour” on Twitter and who was my interviewee in the November piece, has a deeply experienced and dramatically different view.

In The ISBN still has a place in the digital world, Dawson is interviewed by Jenn Webb at the O’Reilly Media Tools of Change blog and Radar series,

Dawson tells Webb:

ISBNs are necessary if the self-published author intends to sell her books using the traditional book supply chain. If the author is selling direct from her own website, or solely through Amazon (which doesn’t require ISBNs), then no ISBN is necessary. But if the author is distributing her books through a third-party distributor (such as Ingram, or Bookmasters, etc.), then an ISBN will be required. If the author is placing books at Barnes & Noble or Books-A-Million or Hastings, an ISBN will be required.

Jenn Webb

And here’s one of the most compelling reasons Dawson offers for entrepreneurial authors to be sure to get ISBNs—control of a book’s data:

If an author insists on not getting her own ISBNs for her books, then they will be assigned for her by the trading partners who need them to do business. Then it becomes a question of ownership and control. The organization that maintains the ISBN data (the title of the book, the suggested retail price, the descriptions, cover image, etc.) will have more influence over how the book appears on websites and where it gets shelved in stores simply because industry systems operate on that data. If I were a self-publisher, I would want to have as much influence as possible in these areas, rather than passively allowing my trading partners to make those decisions for me.

What about Amazon’s ASIN and other identifiers, Webb asks? Dawson:

The ASIN is a great identifier — if you’re within Amazon’s “walled garden.” Outside of Amazon’s environment, it’s a fairly meaningless number.

In her interview with Webb, Dawson also explains the relation to the ISBN of the UPC (the bar code standard) and the EAN, formerly the European Article Number, “an ISO number that forms the backbone of global trade of both physical and digital items.”

Ian Lamont

Still, Rooney balances his own commentary on The Economist‘s story, with a view that prevails among some authors, in a guest post from Ian Lamont headlined Guest Post: How Bowker uses its U.S. ISBN monopoly to rip off new authors.

Lamont asserts that Bowker “enjoyed multi-million dollar profits on the backs of new and independent authors and small publishers” — but he doesn’t have this information from the company. Instead, he extrapolates it from reports of small-press self-published titles. He concedes that Bowker “did not respond to my March 5 email about ISBN pricing.”

He also seems to equate Bowker’s recommendation that each format of a book have an ISBN with saying that books must have ISBNs. He writes:

Even though ISBNs are not necessary for ebooks, Bowker urges new authors to buy ISBNs “for each format of your book…ISBNs may be used for either print or digital versions” while admitting to the publishing establishment that “no ISBN is necessary” for authors using Amazon.

Lamont refers in his piece to The Economist‘s article, and repeatedly asserts in his story what is already known to be true, that some ebook publishing platforms don’t require authors to use ISBNs.


But while Bowker doesn’t, to my knowledge, falsely assert that an ebook absolutely must have an ISBN, the company’s Laura Dawson tells Jenn Webb:

In the digital realm, the number that a publisher gives a book is even more important! How else will a search find it? You can search by title and author, but how will you know — without some kind of number differentiating it — whether it’s a PDF or an EPUB? A hardcover or a paperback? The ISBN is the machine’s shorthand for these formats, and without it, searches are much more ambiguous.

And Cairns’ reply to the unknown writer at The Economist rounds out the response of those who think ISBNs have a lot of usefulness ahead. He writes:

Even if a book can be easily downloaded and paid for, someone still has to do the accounting and make sure the right publisher gets the right payment so they can the pay the author and contributors their share. Individuals and small publishers could possibly do without an ISBN but, in doing so, they may only be limiting their opportunities.


Join us for the rest of this column at Publishing Perspectives.

Ether for Authors: Rumors of the ISBN’s Demise

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