Yesterday the AAP's Digital Working Group hosted a meeting where Phil Madans of Hachette, Angela Bole of BISG, and I talked about ISBNs and identifying digital content. This came on the heels of Mark Bide's webinar for BISG yesterday on the same subject.
We broke the topic down into three discrete parts: ISBNs and ebooks, ISBNs and chapters, and ISBNs and "chunks". I stopped the presentation after each slide so we could discuss each part before moving on to the next one. And some interesting findings emerged.
The primary objection (even more than cost - but of course these were larger publishers who can buy identifiers in bulk at a discount) to assigning an ISBN to each format of ebook is having to track the metadata on each record. Databases begin to bloat with products that are identical except for format, and managing the metadata becomes both repetitive and confusing.
Furthermore, it became apparent that publishers are not particularly using ISBNs to track royalties and sales - they are using SEVERAL fields, and the ISBN is not even necessarily the most important among them. So the ISBN International Agency's argument that the ISBN is an essential tool for tracking these things falls by the wayside.
We talked a bit about the prospect of third parties assigning ISBNs to different ebook formats - most publishers seem to just want to produce an EPUB file, assign an ISBN to that one, and then send it "into the wild" (as Bide says) for conversion and distribution. The distributors and retailers are primarily book-related and their databases are generally keyed off an ISBN, so those third parties would have to assign ISBNs to whatever formats they are distributing and selling. But the publishers at this meeting did not seem particularly worried about that prospect.
One publisher also stressed that by supporting more than one format, they're contributing to format proliferation and they would prefer very much not to do that.
However, the downside to allowing third parties to assign ISBNs to digital products on an as-needed basis becomes problematic when there are changes to the metadata. If a pub date shifts, if a price goes up, if there are corrections to author names, additions to synopses and reviews - any time you have to edit the metadata on a title, if you've got third parties with their OWN editions of that title, you can't be sure the edited/corrected metadata will reach those editions.
ISBNs and Chapters
Even less popular than the one-ISBN-per-format model is the one-ISBN-per-chapter idea. This expands the metadata bloat exponentially. At present, most publishers who are offering chapters for sale are doing so from their own websites, so ISBNs are not such an issue. However, once retailers begin offering individual chapters of books, the industry will face the same problems it does with different ebook formats. Multiplied by however many chapters are in a given book.
In addition to identification of chapters for the purposes of trading with third parties, there is the issue of tracking royalties. With textbook authors, this is problematic - many authors contribute to textbooks, and determining who wrote which chapters can be daunting. It was generally agreed that without significant market demand, identifying chapters for the purposes of trade is not a high priority.
ISBNs and "Chunks"
First there was the objection to the term "chunks". Which I agree with! It's nasty. But Anna Wintour said the same thing about the word "blog"...and look where that got her! It seems "chunk" is the term we're stuck with, and I am heartily sorry about that.
Second, everyone at the meeting pretty much agreed that this is a vastly esoteric subject and not likely to become a pressing issue anytime soon. Even Amazon does not sell sub-chapter-level content. Licensing content to third parties (such as websites) will likely mean putting together discrete digital assets into various packages, but there seems to be no trade reason right now for ISBNs to be attached to those packages. This may change as the market changes.
We ended with a "watch this space" message, and are now putting together a survey which looks at some of the assumptions behind past ISBN-use recommendations.