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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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Comments: 5

  1. At the risk of stating the obvious… Bowker is a for profit company which sells ISBNs. If ISBNs cease to be relevant, Ms. Dawson’s job is at risk. I’m not sure I have much faith in such a biased opinion on the topic.

    Right now, about 40-50% of ebooks sold in the US were self published. Not 40-50% of titles published (about 2/3 of ebook titles released in 2012 were traditionally published), but not counting free books, over 40% of ebook units sold were self published.

    That’s not a theoretical trend.

    As for the question of whether an ISBN is necessary for a digital book: the answer is no. ISBNs are necessary for physical books before retailers still require them. ISBNs are no longer necessary for (most) digital books because retailers no longer require them. (Apple was the last holdout, and stopped requiring ISBNs late last year).

    Ms. Dawson basically missed the point, on the other questions. She talks about how ASINs and similar numbers will not “replace” ISBNs for ebooks. But they already have. Amazon allows you to link an ISBN to an ebook, but does not do tracking or accounting by ISBN. They don’t release sales data, like print bookstores do, so their sales are not tracked by Bookscan. An ISBN on an Amazon ebook does NOTHING unless the consumer actually searches for the ebook by ISBN.

    Which almost nobody does.

    That’s the other thing she missed on: readers don’t search using ISBN. Not for most books. Oh, there are exceptions, such as college textbooks where you have to be sure to have the right version (although with automated versioning, even that is pointless with ebooks!). But in general, readers don’t use ISBN. At all. It’s an industry tool, used by retailers, distributors, and publishers, which adds nothing to the user experience of the ebook.

    So if distributors and retailers stop using it, the only reason remaining to use one is…if the publisher feels it is essential.

    Increasingly, that is not the case.

    • A few reactions to this comment: Within the context of a retailers particular system, an ISBN isn’t needed or necessary.  And if a publisher (any publisher be it self-published or mid-sized) chooses to work with a single distribution partner, then an ISBN might not be necessary.  However, if you want to move outisde of one’s own walled garden, be that Amazon, Apple, or your own “retail store” out of the trunk of your car, than you DO need an ISBN.  It is the coin of the realm to identify a book product. 

      Similarly for ebooks, if you want to partner with Amazon (or any other single channel sales outlet), than not having an ISBN might make sense. The question is why would you?  Are you so confident that there are not readers interested in your text that do not use Amazon for their ebooks?  No one served by the library community?  No one using Kobo or Nooks?  I won’t bother getting into the real-world back office functionality supported by ebooks in the supply chain, but those efficiencies are there too. 
      Additionally, a self-published author similarly doesn’t need to supply metadata to to the community for discovery purposes.  The fact is, however, that without an ISBN and its associated metadata, the chances your work will be discovered decrease rapidly toward zero in the context of a larger economic exchange environment.  There are not readers wandering about the stacks of digital libraries, or virtual bookstores.  The only way that readers will connect with content is via well structured metadata.  Now, ISBN metadata is not the only method of structuring and distributing this information.  However, it is the best system that the book selling community has for transmitting this information and almost the entire book selling world has adopted it.  If you’re a self-published author, do you think you’ll have more success operating within that system or outside of it?This is true regardless of whether the book is published in the US and the ISBN is registered with Bowker (for a fee) or it is published in the UK and registered with Nielsen (for a fee), or if it is published in India and registered by the Indian Ministry of Human Resource Development (for free).  The strength of the ISBN system is that it supports a world-wide supply chain of content.  Whether one ISBN agency is charging fees or not is irrelevant to the functional role that ISBN plays in our community.

      • I would like to second Todd’s position here as well as Laura’s which I think is a very measured position stating the obvious – if you want your book to be discovered anywhere but Amazon then give it a universally accepted and used identifier. I think it is absolutely irresponsible for people to counsel self-published authors to avoid using ISBNs unless of course you only want to see Amazon succeeed as the sole distributor of e-books in the world.

        By the way just a brief note as to the reason why Bowker, a for profit company issues ISBNs in the US. Unlike other national ISBN agencies which are taxpayer supported and therefore ‘free’ the US has no such support for ISBNs therefore the cost of ISBNs and their issuance must be borne by private enterprise not a government agency.

  2. I agree with all the comments about the importance of the ISBNs but wanted to clarify some points about DOIs. There are ten DOI Registration Agencies (including Bowker) that all offer different services so talking about “DOIs” in a generic sense glosses over a lot of important details.  In addition, in the case of CrossRef the statement “The DOI just hasn’t gotten a lot of use in the book industry; it works wonders for journals…” isn’t entirely accurate. This is true for trade books but CrossRef has assigned DOIs to 362,000 scholarly book titles – most at the chapter level so there are over 6.2 million CrossRef book DOIs – and we require ISBNs in the metadata publishers deposit with us. CrossRef’s value is based persistent citation linking and this definitely includes books in addition to journals. 

    Outside of scholarly titles, DOI use for books is non-existent because no RA offers services for non-scholarly books.

  3. Retail book stores are going to cease to exist in the future just like video stores largely have. The future marketplaces for digital content are going to be amazon, barnes and noble, kobo, apple and other content libraries attached to devices – none of which require isbn to sell or find that content. Other then that, self published authors might choose to sell on their own websites direct, which again requires no isbn. So ISBN has no place in the future. It’s a dieing standard based on a dieing retail system.

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