BISG Announces ISBN Recommendations - Problems

The Book Industry Study Group (BISG) announced last week a new document describing their idea for best practices in ISBN use for publishing today, specifically addressing digital publishing. Some excepts from the press release:  

New York, NY (December 7, 2011) -- The Book Industry Study Group (BISG) announced today the publication of a new Policy Statement detailing best practices for assigning ISBNs to digital products. Developed over the past 18 months within BISG's Identification Committee, BISG Policy Statement POL-1101 addresses the critical need to reduce product identification confusion in the market place in order to provide the best possible consumer-level purchasing experience.

BISG encourages all member companies and other industry stakeholders to download the Policy Statement online at http://www.bisg.org/what-we-do-cat-4-policy-statements.php and work toward adopting the suggested guidelines as soon as practical, with a target for new product introductions of no later than March 2012. The best practices are applicable to content intended for distribution to the general public in North America, but could be applied elsewhere as well.

The Policy Statement has been endorsed by BookNet Canada, a not-for-profit agency dedicated to innovation in the Canadian book supply chain, theNational Information Standards Organization (NISO), where content publishers, libraries, and software developers turn for information industry standards that allow them to work together, and IBPA, the Independent Book Publishers Association.

In the spring of 2010, BISG's Identification Committee created a Working Group to research and gather data around the practice of assigning identifiers to digital content throughout the US supply chain. "The specific mandate of the Working Group was to gather a true picture of how the US book supply chain was handling ISBN assignments, and then formulate best practice recommendations based on this pragmatic understanding," said Angela Bole, BISG's Deputy Executive Director. "Around 60 unique individuals and 40 unique companies participated in the effort. It was a truly collaborative learning process."

Noted Phil Madans, Director of Publishing Standards and Practices for Hachette Book Group and Chair of the Committee in charge of developing the Policy Statement, "It was quite a challenge to bring some measure of consistency and clarity to what our research revealed to be so chaotic and confused that some even reported thinking ISBN assignment should be optional--a 'nice to have'. This, clearly, would not work."

The full Policy Statement includes level-setting definitions for Physical Book, Digital Book and Consumer as well as general rules of ISBN assignment and particular best practices for identifying digital products in the supply network. In addition, the Statement includes eight examples intended to provide guidance on how to assign ISBNs to Digital Books in real life situations based on specific use cases.

... 

The following excerpt starts on page 6 of the 12-page Policy Statement:

"Separate ISBNs should be assigned to all unique Digital Books for ordering, listing, delivery and sales tracking purposes. In general, there are three major factors that determine the need to assign unique ISBNs to Digital Books.

-- Content If two digital books are created, one an exact textual reproduction of a Physical Book and the other an enhanced version that includes video, audio, etc., then the two Digital Books are unique and different products, and each requires a unique ISBN.

-- Format If an EPUB format, a PDF format and a Mobi format (among others) are created, each format should be assigned a unique ISBN. This is similar to creating a hardcover and paperback edition of a Physical Book and should follow the same rules regarding ISBN assignment.

 

Rest of the press release available here.

 

Let's face facts - this is a lot of hot air with no substance behind it.

ISBNs are a great system. I'm all for keeping it around, if it were made a fair and consistent system across all publishers. In Canada, for instance, it's easy to agree to the BISG recommendations (as they noted in their press release) - because Canadians get ISBNs for free.

In the US, ISBNs range from $1 each (very reasonable - I'd pay that) to over $100, depending upon the number of them purchased. This is a leftover from the era when encouraging the purchase of multiples made sense, because it was easier to manage. In the era of computers, it's not relevant anymore - and the $125 price tag for individual ISBNs is now simply a weapon to hurt smaller publishers. This is a large expense - sometimes the biggest single expense - for self publishers producing ebooks, and it's especially damaging for people writing and publishing short works of both fiction and nonfiction.

Once upon a time, you needed an ISBN to get books into retail chains. Still true, for print books most of the time. With ebooks? Neither Amazon or B&N require ISBNs, which means over 90% of the US ebook market is open to books without the numbers. Mr. Madan's comments above about people believing ISBNs "should be optional--a 'nice to have'" are ironic - because in the publishing of ebooks, that's precisely what they are today. They are not essential; therefore they are optional. They're an optional element which adds very little value to author-publishers, and a great deal of expense. So they're an option which is often skipped.

In October, I personally surveyed the top 200 ebooks on Amazon in romance, mystery, thriller, fantasy, science fiction, mystery, and horror genres. Across the board, in every one of those genres, over 50% of the top 200 ebooks were self published. Virtually none of those self published books used ISBNs.

The ebook medium is already dominated by books without ISBNs. BISG is trying to play catch-up, at this point, and encourage folks to use the numbering system before it falls apart entirely.

And if they really want to make that work, here's a clue about what they need to do:

Get Bowker to make every ISBN purchase cost $1 or less. Even if bought one at a time.

Anything short of that spells the end of the ISBN system. And honestly, even that might not save ISBNs at this point - the system might simply be doomed.

Which would be a shame. It's a nice system, and there are some advantages to having it around. But it's not going to survive if there is a severe economic disadvantage to most publishers (small ones) using the system, and it's not going to survive if the system continues to unfairly favor large publishers.