Beyond the ISBN

The ISBN is the product identifier for a book or related product. For a third of a century, ISBNs in numeric and bar-code forms have been obligatory for any book sold to the public. Now that run is about to end.

The specific crisis in the ISBN has to do with e-book editions. The current standard calls for a separate ISBN for every e-book edition, and a recent clarification to the standard indicates that every e-book format has to be considered a separate edition.

You immediately see the problem on the horizon, and it affects not just e-books but the closely related print-on-demand books, which within a matter of years will come to dominate the market as printing technology improves faster than shipping technology. A print-on-demand book is essentially an e-book printed and bound, so many of the concerns we have about e-books also potentially affect print-on-demand books. How many editions of a book could there be? It is easy to imagine a scenario, three years from now, in which a single book title is released in 100 simultaneous editions. These editions might be annotated, condensed, large print, pocket-sized, color, high-resolution, etc., each in a variety of languages and digital formats. Inventory is not a concern for e-books, so there is no reason why a book should not exist in as many forms as the market will bear, or more.

ISBN cannot possibly handle this proliferation of products. It was created for mass marketing of tangible products and, for U.S. publishers, has the capacity to identify fewer than one billion distinct products. As soon as the industry recognizes the value of multiple e-book editions, all the available numbers could be used up in less than one year. Even if book publishers show considerable restraint in creating new products, the number of products will exceed the number of identifiers possible in the current bar code standard (the 13-digit EAN) just a few years from now.

And why should publishers exercise a newfound restraint in creating new products? Realistically, the opposite is what is likely to occur. Already, most e-books are created completely outside of the traditional book publishing framework; the publishing industry has no way to even find out about them. When print-on-demand gets going, many or possibly all of these e-books will also be available as printed books. Will the half-million new publishers (in the U.S. alone) of these printed books abide by the accepted norms of the book distribution system? Some will, of course, but others do not even care that there is a book distribution system.

The ISBN is forced on the book industry by bookstores and book wholesalers, which uniformly refuse to carry any product that lacks an ISBN. If you want to get your book in a bookstore or a book warehouse, you go get an ISBN and a bar code to match. But these restrictions, which fundamentally have to do with inventory control, have no effect on e-book platforms. As Personanondata has pointed out, Amazon’s indifference to ISBNs has had little impact on its e-book or printed book business. Print-on-demand operations similarly cannot afford to be limited by the ISBN if there is money to be made on a book title.

Part of the issue, too, is the amount of money to be made. Buying into the ISBN system starts at $250, if you are in the United States. The cost is nothing if you are a major book publisher printing 10,000 copies of a book to place in bookstores, but for an author publishing just one book it is their only large upfront cost and would often exceed their entire first-year revenue. If the ISBN is to be an obstacle to publishing, people will simply bypass it, even if that means bypassing the bookstores — indeed, that is what most new book publishers are doing already.

ISBNs and their bar codes remain necessary for bookstores and wholesalers, and even without the issues of e-books and print-on-demand, that part of the system will fall apart in ten years or less. The right course of action, then, is to completely stop assigning ISBNs to e-books and print-on-demand books, where they are not needed, and reserve them for tangible products with bar codes that are likely to be found in bookstore inventories, where they really are needed. And then the book industry needs to set about creating a more flexible product identifier.

Fortunately, there is not much to create. Good standards for identifiers already exist, particularly on the Internet:

And I don’t just pick these standards as examples out of a hat; these are the key standards that, when combined, serve to identify podcasts. They work remarkably well. There is a long history of confusion in identifying books using ISBNs: the same ISBN being assigned to multiple publishers, multiple ISBNs being assigned to the same product, disagreement over the ISBN to use for a product, disagreement over the cataloging information associated with an ISBN, and so on. Podcasts, with their simpler identifying scheme, have not shared in any of that confusion. When compared to the podcasting system, the ISBN system is horrifically expensive, unduly complicated, and prone to breaking down periodically as it is doing now. It is nearly time to replace it with something more robust, something that will not act as a financial barrier and that will work for more than a few years, and the podcasting system would be a good model to imitate.

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