The ISBN as E-book Identifier: Confusion and Concerns

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June 2011
by Linda Carlson

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“E-book sales outdo print” . . . “Print is dead” . . . “E-books may kill real books”:  With hype like this—and given the costs of printing and shipping and the risk of returns—it’s no wonder that publishers large and small are creating digital versions of at least some of their publications.

But with the ever-increasing number of possible digital versions—PDF, Kindle, Nook, Mobipocket, Microsoft Reader, and EPUB, among many others—publishers have to confront the issue of differentiating one from another. The established standard is the ISBN (remember, “S” stands for “standard” in International Standard Book Number), but assigning one to each version of a title, and to each excerpt being sold as a standalone piece, can get complicated.

Some small publishers simply opt out. Evan Ratcliff, editor of a Brooklyn startup, The Atavist, is among them. “We have gone without ISBNs until recently. Since we are digital only, and the platforms we originally launched on—Apple, through our own app, Kindle, and Nook—made them optional, we decided to forgo them and spare the expense.”

Now that his company is seeking more sales channels for its publications, which are longer than stories but shorter than most books, Ratcliff has found himself forced to purchase ISBNs. “Regardless of the efficacy of ISBNs for purely digital e-books, having to pay the same amount for an ISBN for my 12,000-word e-book as I’d have to pay for a 120,000-word one makes no sense to me at all. At the very least,” he declares, “the fees should be pro-rated.”

If significant sales of each version of a digital publication could be expected, the relatively high fees Bowker charges smaller publishers for ISBNs would be insignificant. But without the exposure that books get in libraries and on bookstore shelves, some e-titles sell only a few dozen copies. If they’re priced at a couple of dollars and sales revenue is split with Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, or another online retailer or wholesaler, the publisher’s income may never cover the cost of the book’s ISBN (not to mention the cost of having text converted for each e-format).

The result? While many publishers—large and small—do follow the International ISBN Agency guidelines (isbn-international.org/news/view/31) and assign a different ISBN to each electronic format and each book excerpt, others are using a single ISBN for the generic digital text of a publication, regardless of the device on which it’ll be used. And some are creating internal identifiers—or skipping identifiers altogether.

Even well-established publishers may skip ISBNs for publications sold only on their own Web sites. At Seattle’s Parenting Press, for instance, the 32-page books sold as PDFs each carry an ISBN, but two-page information sheets are identified only by title, and three-page teacher guides have internally generated codes to meet state education department requirements for identifiers, but don’t have ISBNs.

Which means “it’s pretty chaotic out there,” Scott Lubeck sighs. Lubeck, executive director of the Book Industry Study Group, fears that within a few years, the misuse of the ISBN will erode its credibility and lead to the elimination of any standard identifier, so consumers won’t know what edition of a title they’re getting when they order online or pick up a book in a library or bookstore.

Confusing Conditions

Bowker points to another issue: A title will not be listed in Books in Print if it has no ISBN, and because Books in Print is licensed to search engines—including Google—a book without an ISBN may not show up in an online search. And Bowker adds that when parts of books are sold separately, each of those parts must have an ISBN to be listed in Books in Print and thus in search engine results.

As Lubeck notes, librarians are among those frustrated by the inconsistency in identification; they are concerned that they may unknowingly repeat the purchase of the same content. James LaRue, director of Colorado’s Douglas County Libraries , points out that libraries need a complete bibliographic description if they don’t have ISBNs that distinguish editions: “Is this e-book the same as the edition published in another year? Or is it unique, containing updates, new foreword, and so forth? That kind of thing matters to some folks, scholars, collectors, or authors.”

Another issue for librarians: how to share information with other libraries if there’s no unique identifier. As LaRue continues, “When we add a catalog record to our system, we share it with the global OCLC [Online Computer Library Center] system. Suppose somebody finds the e-book in our catalog and that person want to buy it. The ISBN makes that easier.”

For some libraries, there’s also an internal identification issue. Many electronic library catalogs automatically create purchase alerts when a certain number of patrons are on the waiting list for a title. In some cases, the ISBN is the identifier the purchase alert system uses.

Through its Identification Committee (see bisg.org), BISG is monitoring, reviewing, and developing best practices for the use of identifier standards in the book industry.

Concerns to Consider

Here are some of the concerns BISG is working to address:

Many industry systems for acquisition, inventory, and fulfillment are built around identifiers like the

ISBN, and changing these systems will be difficult.

Many such systems are limited in size and will have difficulty accommodating an ISBN for every different format and/or excerpt.

Smaller publishers, especially those selling excerpts or corollary publications such as teacher guides, don’t want to pay what Bowker charges them for an ISBN for each product.

Retailers such as Amazon are assigning their own identifiers for proprietary formats (Kindle, for example) instead of using ISBNs.

“BISG’s role is to define the basic terms, such as what is a format, and what is a product,” Lubeck says, “and then to educate the industry about systems and identifiers.”

For instance, on the key question, “What is a product?”

Is a format—as for a Kindle—a product? That’s how it was in the pre-digital era, when a book might be released in hardback, library, paperback, large print, abridged, and audio versions.

Or is the content the product? Many large publishers are, in effect, saying so, Lubeck explains, because they are assigning an ISBN for the generic digital file of a book’s content (usually either .epub or .pdf), and then allowing individual intermediaries in the value chain to add or substitute their own identifiers.

This, he points out, means that the permutations can be “endless,” increasing the risk of confusion. As the International ISBN Agency states, when publishers issue ISBNs only for a single format, and others add identifiers, “different formats may share the same ISBNs. . . . Downstream users often do not know whether or not an ISBN uniquely identifies the version they require.” Moreover, with some wholesalers and retailers assigning their own ISBN-like proprietary identifiers, some identifiers “have been found to duplicate other publishers’ existing ISBNs.”

The rapidly changing marketplace complicates the situation further, with what seems almost constant introduction of new reader devices, many of them closed systems like the Kindle that accommodate only publications in a proprietary format. These titles, the ISBN agency has said, need not carry ISBNs because they are available only through a single sales channel.

Within a month or two, Lubeck hopes, BISG will announce new guidelines on how to apply ISBNs. We’ll keep you posted.


Linda Carlson (lindacarlson.com) writes for the Independent from Seattle. She is the author of a dozen books, all with ISBNs.


Understanding the Librarian’s Perspective

To better understand what librarians want in e-books, Library Journal suggests you take a look at a new book edited by Sue Polanka, whom LJ has named a “mover and shaker” for 2011. And watch for two forthcoming publications, too.

The book is No Shelf Required: E-Books in Libraries, just published by the American Library Association’s ALA Editions. Polanka also edited E-Reference Context and Discoverability in Libraries: Issues and Concepts, IGI Global, due out in 2012, and No Shelf Required II: The Use and Management of E-Books (no publication date announced).

Library Journal describes the first No Shelf Required (which takes its name from a blog created by Polanka, who is head of reference and instruction for the Wayne State University libraries) as “required reading for all librarians” considering e-books. It also says, “Discussions on technological features, interfaces, e-book readers, and data standards are detailed and easy to grasp. Acquisition methods, marketing strategies for different users, budgetary planning, and preservation issues are all covered. VERDICT: If you have limited or no knowledge of e-books, read this volume.”

In its review, Booklist confirms what baffles many in the industry as well as book buyers: “One frustrating problem is that there are no—or rather, there are too many—standards in the ways e-books are currently delivered, introduced, and hosted, and one chapter explores the various standards that now exist and what changes need to be made.”

A footnote: The slides from Polanka’s January ALA presentation, “Integrating E-Books and E-Readers into Your Library,” are available online at slideshare.net/ALATechSource/sue-polanka-purchasing-ebooks-for-your-library. In her presentation she identified what she perceives as advantages and disadvantages of buying direct from publishers. She has also compiled information on the three major distributors of e-books to libraries. Her article “Off the Shelf: E-book Distributors for the Public and School Library Markets” appeared in Booklist and can be accessed at booklistonline.com/ProductInfo.aspx?pid=3070294&Aspx.

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