At Frankfurt Book Fair: 'You gave me unlucky ISBN numbers'

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“Prices should allow ready participation in ISBN…by all types of publishers” Ironically, that clarification of the mandate from the International ISBN Agency runs right into this comment in the United States:

I wouldn’t be allowed to answer a question about, ‘Are you making a profit or aren’t you making a profit?’

That’s Beat Barblan, Bowker’s director of identifiers and the chief of the ISBN agency in the United States. What he’s describing is the stance of ProQuest, as the parent company of Bowker, on what’s appropriate and what isn’t for public comment.

Beat Barblan

Barblan — among the most affable, personable people in the industry — is explaining that he’s constrained in defining what the controversial cost of ISBNs means to the company’s coffers.

But I can give him that helpful comment from the International ISBN Agency head Stella Griffiths.

She describes what one of her organisation’s appointed national agencies for the issuance and administration of the ISBN can do financially under the world body’s regulations this way:

Any charges that are levied [for an ISBN] are to cover the direct costs of providing the service and may also include some element for overheads. As far as ISBN is concerned, prices should allow ready participation in the standard (and, even more importantly, access to the supply chain) by all types of publishers in line with average incomes/living costs in the respective countries.

As we’re reporting today in The Bookseller’s Frankfurt Book Fair Show Daily and at Thought Catalog in New York City, the United Kingdom’s ISBN Agency, Nielsen, will open an online ISBN-buying service for UK writers in February.

That move is about a lot more than convenience: the ISBN is fighting to stay relevant. And so far, it’s losing the battle.

In the United States, Barblan reminds us that Bowker has had its own Web commerce facility for six years, while in the UK authors have had to procure ISBNs by telephone or in email exchanges. Can the relative convenience of online access in the UK give the 49-year-old International Standard Book Number (ISBN) new traction? Can it help slow the venerable identifier’s slow fade as what once was a powerful tool for “counting the industry”?

The ISBN still can identify a book as a unique work described by its metadata very well. But it no longer can tell us the size and contours of the publishing marketplace because thousands upon thousands of works are being produced without ISBNs attached.

As The Bookseller editor Philip Jones has put it, we’re left studying our own marketplace “by candlelight.”


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By Porter Ander­son | @Porter_Anderson

The FutureBook: At Frankfurt Book Fair: “You Gave Me Unlucky ISBN Numbers”

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