BTB #212: For E-Books, an ISBN Dilemma

Michael CairnsNot so long ago, a book was an unmistakable object. Then someone came along and started digitizing content, and very soon, books were something else, something much more than ink on dead trees. That transformation, indeed the redefinition of books, matters enormously to readers and publishers, as well as retailers and librarians. Without a way to identify “books” as they are published, information and creativity could be orphaned.

To discuss this challenge, CCC’s Chris Kenneally recently spoke with publishing consultant Michael Cairns who had just completed a report for the Book Industry Study Group examining practices in the identification of e-books in all their vast variety. The research turned up several surprising findings, as well as revealed a tension between US publishers and their counterparts around the world.

“We’re in this transition between the sale of a physical book to one that’s a digital book, and in that transition, some aspects of the ISBN number are not being upheld as they were in the physical world,” notes Cairns, who is a highly-regarded blogger at PersonaNonData. “And when there’s a breakdown, that starts to increase the likelihood that the supply chain does not operate as efficiently as perhaps it should or could. And so that’s a real issue.”

3 Responses to “BTB #212: For E-Books, an ISBN Dilemma”

  1. Kevin O. McLaughlin February 17, 2011 at 1:32 pm #


    1) Management of a different ISBN for each version, as mentioned in the interview, is already very difficult and likely to become impossible. In addition to hardcover, trade paperback, and paperback ISBNs, one would be required for Kindle, Google, Apple, B&N, Borders/Kobo, Sony, Smashwords, and every other up and coming ebook distributor? That’s fairly ridiculous, to be honest. More sensible would be a goal where each specific format of ebook (at present, basically this is epub and mobi/AMZ) is given a unique identifier.

    2) There is a great deal of author-level backlash against Bowker right now, due mostly to their favoritism to larger publishers. Most presses in the USA are small presses, and within a couple of years, most “publishers” in the USA will likely be individuals. There’s a great deal of negative feeling from both indie and small presses toward the slant of ISBN fees for larger businesses. My recommendation would be to set all ISBN purchases at a flat $1 rate – the same rate for every business, regardless of number purchased. This would go a long way toward reducing negative feelings, I think.

    3) One core issue is that the two largest ebook retailers (Amazon and B&N), representing together over 90% of all consumer ebooks sold in the USA, do not use ISBNs for their ebooks. When you have 90% of your industry not using a standardized tracking number, it’s not a standard anymore. I’m not sure how this can be fixed, to be honest. I’m not even convinced it *needs* to be fixed. But the only way it’s likely to happen is if the retailers are convinced it is in their economic interest to change their systems, which at the moment seems unlikely.


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