The winter of our discontent with the ISBN

Image - iStockphoto: benmm
Image – iStockphoto: benmm

ISBN: Not much more traction than the first snowfall on London

I’m just glad Amazon & B&N do reveal overall sales ranks so we can measure their mix of sales that way. Other retailers, including Apple, do not, limiting us to only estimating the very top books in a limited number of categories on those channels.

That’s the technologist known as Data Guy, whose research and calculations are the stuff that the author Hugh Howey’sAuthorEarnings reports are made on. Data Guy joined us as@AuthorEarnings during an unusually busy #FutureChat on Friday. We’d started with the newest quarterly AuthorEarnings report which has as its centerpiece, the headline:

When It Comes To Tracking Digital Books, The ISBN Is Officially Dead — It Just Hasn’t Been Buried Yet.

In our walkup to The FutureBook digital publishing community’s #FutureChat, I had written that the analysis, while declaring the staggered International Standard Book Number (ISBN) a goner, had failed to call out Amazon for not reporting its majority share of ebook sales (estimated at 67 percent in the US market) so that the industry-at-large can “see” and quantify itself.

Philip Jones
Philip Jones

We are left, as I never tire of quoting The Bookseller’s Philip Jones as writing, studying our own industry “by candlelight” because the overwhelming number of ebook sales transactions — those conducted by the major online retailers, Amazon chief among them — are withheld from the public as proprietary information. Amazon does, to be clear, report the sales of physical books to Nielsen.

And following our #FutureChat, some engaging commentary was exchanged on that walkup.

For example, Data Guy (who, though unnamed by choice, is a well-spoken and cordial correspondent, it turns out) is in general agreement with many who lament that Seattle can’t see its way clear to help this challenged industry quantify and analyse itself, writing in a comment well worth reviewing:

Like you, I would love to see Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other ebook vendors release title-level sales data. Or, barring that, at least share aggregate market data by genre, publishing segment, and the like. But I get why they don’t.

David Gaughran
David Gaughran

And the high-profile self-publishing author David Gaughran was particularly astute in a comment there, in describing the mixed feelings many in the independent writers’ sector bring to the issue:

On one hand I would like to have an accurate picture of the industry. It would be great if all the effort spent arguing about data could be spent analysing universally accepted data instead. I understand why that’s important. On the other hand, I don’t think ISBNs are the answer – not anymore, and I can’t see a way forward for them. I also suspect that the fog of war that currently shrouds the marketplace probably benefits self-publishers more than the big publishers. And Penguin Random House don’t care about me, so why should I care about them? “The industry” doesn’t respect writers, and self-publishers in particular, so why should I go out of my way to help “the industry” get better data?

Jane Steen
Jane Steen

The author Jane Steen is particularly clear in her comment on the need for independent authors to understand themselves as professional members of the industry rather than as renegades:

I agree that pricing (of any service) is always going to be a huge factor for indies. Even that $27 cost makes a difference when you’re publishing on a shoestring. But I do think that indies need to start thinking of themselves as an industry sector and acting accordingly. That’s what Hugh Howey and Data Guy are doing by issuing these reports (Amazon’s reluctance to help out notwithstanding) and I thank them for it. Any data that helps indies to start thinking long-term is good for us.

And Data Guy is ready to come along on that one:

I agree also with your and Jane’s comment that indies need to start thinking of themselves as an industry sector. We’ve outgrown the “counterculture” phase now. We’re an established part of the business landscape, and if we want to help reshape the industry and level the playing field to our advantage, we need to “stand up and be counted.” But at the same time, it’s harder to make a case to indies that they should play by the industry’s established “rules,” when doing so imposes asymmetrical business costs on them while providing no measurable near-term business benefit. It’s a classic tragedy of the commons.

And before we get to some selected highlights of #FutureChat’s tweeterie, it’s worth noting this singularly placed observer’s enumeration of three points that independent sector wants to see from an acceptable ISBN (or other book tracking “identifier”):

Any solution we propose is guaranteed to fail unless:

1) ISBNs are available for free, both singly and in small batches.

2) ISBNs are somehow retroactively applied to the existing books in the “shadow industry”

3) ISBNs demonstrably provide some business advantage to indies and micropresses

Indeed, what becomes obvious in any discussion of the ISBN and/or other identifiers is that there are two interests, sometimes running parallel to each other. One interest is in discoverability, and many authors say they see no benefit from the ISBN in that regard. The other is the quantification and understanding of the size and scope of publishing, which can be accomplished only by counting industry output — which cannot be done without some form of identifier, a tag. This dual view was evident, for example, in one exchange you’ll see below in an exchange between Steen in Chicago and Steffen Meier in Dortmund.

And in a reflection of how prominent the “self” in “self-publishing” can seem to be at times, there’s a moment from the #FutureChat discussion when Jones responds to the “what’s in it for me?” objections of the independent sector, tweeting:

This is a trade built on collaboration. The ISBN was invented in the ’60s to help booksellers, publishers, and authors sell more.

As we turn to a brief selection of tweets, I’ll reiterate a couple of key points about the ISBN that — no matter how many times I and others write this story — never seem to reach a lot of the beleaguered identifier’s critics:

  • Bowker in the US and Nielsen in the UK — designated by the International ISBN Agency as those countries’ ISBN administrators — are not allowed to profit from the ISBN, by charter. The prices they charge are meant to cover costs, and no more.
  • The ISBN, while flailing in the  glowy light of ebooks, is still quite actively used in many bookstore and library settings.
  • The ASIN is Amazon’s internal stock-tracking number only. It is not interchangeable with the ISBN, nor a substitute for it.
  • The pricing structure does place a different per-number burden of cost on independents. Best 10-pack prices currently offer US writers an ISBN for $27 ($275 for 10) and UK writers an ISBN for about £14.40 or $21 (£144.00 for 10, VAT included). Large publishers buy in bulk — usually 1,000 ISBNs for $1,000. And the agencies’ explanation for the imbalance in cost is that the creation and administration of thousands of small individual accounts makes covering costs impossible without these charges.

One of  the most interesting moments in #FutureChat arrived when I asked whether independent authors would utilise the ISBN if it were free. With a single exception, the answer was yes.

Here, then, are a few highlights of the convo, the entirety of which can be seen at #FutureChat, of course. See you Friday for another round of digital publishing discussion.

Read More

By Porter Ander­son

The FutureBook: The winter of our discontent with the ISBN: #FutureChat recap

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