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Mythbusting the ISBN

It’s probably not healthy to keep thinking about this. It certainly makes me a lousy conversationalist. Because in all the ruminating and talking and (if you must know) mad nattering to myself (luckily, I spend LARGE portions of my day alone), I keep coming back to the ISBN.

Bear with me. (I have already investigated, and there is no rehab facility that deals in identifier addiction problems, so that’s out.)

Last month, the AAP’s Digital Initiatives Working Group and BISAC’s Identifiers Committee conducted a survey among members to determine what publishers’ views actually are on the ISBN. Publishers have been told what to think, repeatedly – and we know how much publishers like being told what to think – so we thought we’d turn the conversation around and ask them what they thought. The results are not yet finalized, and when they are I will talk about them.

But I worry. Because as we expand book distribution from merely a paper-with-occasional-ebook business to an all-kinds-of-paper-and-lots-of-different-ebooks-plus-vooks-plus-promotional-packages-plus-print-on-demand-plus-subscriptions-to-book-content-plus-downloadable-audio – well, you can see where this is going, and it’s messy.

And I have been in more than one meeting where I have heard these exact words (and I am not making this up), “If only we had some kind of system to deal with this, some way of identifying content…”


So, first, some mythbusting.

ISBNs are expensive.

Actually, no they are not! The new My Identifiers site will offer new pricing in January. A single ISBN will cost an author or publisher $125. Ten ISBNs are $250, or $25 per ISBN. A hundred ISBNs are $575. This is cheap!

An ISBN is just a bar code for a book, and if my books are digital, I don’t need ISBNs.

Not so! In using an ISBN for a digital book (or any book), a publisher creates an automatic web page for that book, which is populated by the bibliographic data in Books in Print (and can be edited or added to by the publisher). Bowker hosts that web page, and the hosting price is included in the purchase of the ISBN. Publishers can choose which booksellers will sell their titles on that page – or direct traffic specifically to the publisher itself.
br /> The price of the ISBNs also includes a widget for each title, to put on your own website or to share – you can choose to display as much or as little of each book as you want.

Amazon doesn’t use ISBNs, so I don’t need them.

Wrong again! It is true that Amazon doesn’t depend on ISBNs – but when they have them, they do use them to create their ASINs. ISBNs are the foundation of Bowker's Books in Print, which in fact licenses data to Amazon. Also to Barnes & Noble – the website and the physical stores. Also to ebooks.com, Abebooks.com, Indigo, and almost every single public and institutional library in the US.

So if your book is listed in Books in Print (and if it has an ISBN, it will be), it is automatically available to book buyers – consumers, librarians, and the people who stock books in physical bookstores. If your book is NOT in Books in Print, it might be available on Amazon - but unless you approach all these other outlets yourself (and many will require an ISBN to sell your product anyway), Amazon will be the ONLY place it is listed.

Consumers don’t search using ISBNs.

Again, not true! College students have learned that the best way to find the textbooks they need is to search by ISBN. This way, they can be sure that they are getting the latest edition, the used version, the ebook - whatever they want - at the best price possible. (Almost two years ago, the Harvard Coop arrested students who were jotting down ISBNs to take home and search online to see if they could find better prices.)

These students will graduate. And by then they will be used to finding their books online by searching for the ISBN.

More importantly – search engines use ISBNs. Books in Print licenses its database to “the top 3 search engines” (they are not allowed to name names, but we know who they are). BIP is also searchable on the open web. Search engines crawl that database as well. ISBNs are, in fact, the cornerstone of book search on the web – even though most people don’t realize it. Books – whether digital, print, or audio – are very nearly not findable without an ISBN; publishers are really testing the odds by not using them.

And now…some confirmation of suspicions. The more ISBNs I have, the more metadata I have to keep track of.

Absolutely true. If you have a lot of products, they all need to be described. This is not an argument for fewer ISBNs, however. It may be an argument for fewer products. It may be an argument for the ISTC, which would allow publishers to group ISBNs together and repurpose much of the same metadata among them, streamlining databases everywhere. But not using ISBNs will not ever solve your metadata problems.

We only produce a single EPUB file, which has a single ISBN. We don’t care what it gets converted to once we send it to our distributors. They can assign more ISBNs for the different formats they create from our EPUB file.

And that makes a lot of sense. Until you need to change the metadata on that file – if, for example, you’ve accidentally misspelled the author’s name. Or if the price changes. Or if your hung-over intern has assigned a BISAC category of “Juvenile – Ducks” to a romance novel. Once metadata is being assigned to an ISBN you did not create, you have no control over that data. None. Even though it’s your product. So the metadata associated with that EPUB file better be pristine before it leaves your house, or you’ll be in a massive game of catch-up.

Publishers in other countries don’t have to pay for ISBNs.

This is true – except for the UK. ISBN agencies are subsidized by taxes, ultimately, in many other countries. (Somehow I don’t see politicians being able to put that one across here. Call me cynical, but I just don’t think we have such powerful lobbyists in the book industry.) But the money that publishers pay does actually go somewhere. It funds the web pages for each ISBN. It funds the widgets. It funds manual editing of a publisher’s metadata when there are typos or misspellings or other errors. It funds the title maintenance software, the data hosting, and the teams of programmers and editors who manage Books in Print.

The very fact that I know all of this disturbs me deeply. But what disturbs me still more is that so many publishers do not know it. Yet.

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