The ISBN still has a place in the digital world

The Economist may think ISBNs are doomed, but Bowker's Laura Dawson has a different take.

A recent post at The Economist declared the International Standard Book Number (ISBN) an analog relic that “increasingly hampers new, small and individual publishers,” and an industry shift toward digital is “weakening its monopoly.” The post stated:

“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. … in the digital realm what matters is not the number that a publisher gives a book, but how easily it can be downloaded and for how much.”

I reached out to Laura Dawson (@ljndawson), product manager for identifiers at Bowker, to find out if the ISBN is indeed on its way out. Our interview follows.

Is the post at The Economist onto something? Are ISBNs becoming less necessary?

Laura DawsonLaura Dawson: 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.

The caveat is that 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.

I wouldn’t say that ISBNs are becoming less necessary. What’s clear is that there are alternative outlets (Amazon, selling direct to consumer) where an ISBN isn’t required. It’s not a zero-sum game. If anything, there’s an abundance of ways to sell your book, some of which will require an ISBN, and others of which will not.

Is this trend toward alternatives dangerous for publishers, authors and readers?

Laura Dawson: I’d say it’s more a trend in theory than it is in reality. At Bowker, the number of self-published authors applying for ISBNs has been rising dramatically, and consistently, for the last few years. The authors who don’t see the need for them are a vocal minority doing brisk business on their own platforms — and that’s working for them. It doesn’t work for most self-published authors, who need to operate within the larger book supply chain — to place their books in environments, digital or physical, where people are already shopping for books.

In truth, there aren’t many viable alternatives to the ISBN in the book industry. There’s the ASIN [Amazon Standard Identification Number], which only functions meaningfully within Amazon’s marketplace, and the EAN [International Article Number], which is a superset of the ISBN and fully compatible with it. So, I don’t envision an immediate, or even semi-distant, future where book identification is chaotic. Believe me, the number of self-published authors applying for Digital Object Identifiers (DOIs) for their titles is approximately zero.

The Economist post noted several alternative identifying standards — the ASIN you mentioned, along with DOIs, and even Universal Product Codes (UPC). Could they replace the ISBN?

Laura Dawson: There are a lot of factors at work with these identifiers. 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. The DOI just hasn’t gotten a lot of use in the book industry; it works wonders for journals, but book-industry pickup has been very slow, probably because there is still a lot of physical inventory in the supply chain (and while the DOI can in fact identify physical objects, it isn’t normally used that way).

The UPC is an interesting case and is related to why ISBNs changed from 10 to 13 digits. UPCs are a U.S. bar code standard. Many books used to carry both a UPC and an ISBN bar code (paperbacks, for example, would have the UPC on the back cover and the ISBN bar code on the inside front cover). U.S. trade began moving to the EAN (which used to stand for European Article Number) instead of the UPC in the early 2000s. An opportunity arose to convert ISBNs into EANs, making overseas sales of books, and imports of books, much easier. The ISBN is now a subset of EAN, which can be assigned to any article of trade. So is the UPC — just like the ISBN, it was brought into line with the EAN standard in the early 2000s.

Given how hard it is to migrate database platforms and change standards, I wouldn’t expect to replace the ISBN, simply because it is also an EAN, which is an ISO standard that forms the backbone of global trade of both physical and digital items. There are a lot of middlemen, even in self-publishing. They require standards in order to communicate with one another.

The post at The Economist stated, “… in the digital realm what matters is not the number that a publisher gives a book, but how easily it can be downloaded and for how much.” Are digital book sales that much different than physical book sales? Don’t we need some kind of identifying number regardless of format?

Laura Dawson: I actually laughed out loud when I read that phrase. 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. The digital world runs on numbers — the ISBN was invented in the late 1960s when warehouses first began using computers. Digital is why ISBNs exist in the first place!

This interview was edited and condensed.

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