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SURVEY: Is It Time to Get Rid of the ISBN?

[poll id=82]

ISBNs date back to the 1960s, but many think the system is costly, untenable and no longer reflects the realities of the digital age.

An ISBN code / Wikipedia

By Edward Nawotka, Editor-in-Chief

When I was a bookseller in the late ’80s, we had to punch in the International Standard Book Number for every book purchase. I did it so often, I had the ISBNs for several bestsellers and big publisher’s three digit codes memorized. When we got hand barcode scanners is it was a big advance in efficiency.

The ISBN was created in the UK in 1965 and since 1970 has been the standard book identifier around the world. More than 150 agencies in different countries issue them. Some, such Canada, Hungary and Croatia, issue them for free. Other countries such as the US and Britain charge hefty fees: in the US, Bowker will sell you one for $125, in the UK, Nielsen will give you a package of ten for £126.

This week, The Economist looked at the current state of the ISBN and suggests that the end may be nigh.

“Many people resent the control ISBN agencies have over the system.”

Initially, ISBNs were implemented as an international system for classifying and tracking books. But they have been put to other uses. In China, for example, ISBNs are controlled issued by GAPP, which uses them as a tool for controlling what can be legally published.

The magazine suggests that the explosion in self-publishing is making the use of the ISBN untenable (something Bowker has tried to streamline, in particular with its new “one-stop” conversion partnership with DCL).

But digital publishing has confused the matter even more. Do we need, for example, separate ISBNs for different formats? And what of “chunking” — does each snippet or chapter or piece of content need an individual ISBN? This issue has been prevalent since as far back as 2010, when it was pointed out that the ISBN mess “needs sorting out.”

Let’s not also forget that, as The Economist points out, “Alternatives are appearing, too. Amazon has introduced the Amazon Standard Identification Number (ASIN). Digital Object Identifiers (DOI) tag articles in academic journals. Walmart, an American supermarket chain, has a Universal Product Code (UPC) for everything it stocks, including books. Humans are also getting labels: the Open Researcher and Contributor ID system (ORCID) identifies academics by codes, not their names. And ISBNs are not mandatory at Google Books.” And let’s not forget the ISNI, which is coming online now to help people track rights attributions.

The fact is, many people resent the control ISBN agencies have over the system, which many have criticized as an unfair monopoly. And if you’re a self publisher, do you really feel the need to purchase an ISBN for a hundred dollars or more for a book you might only sell for $1.99?

Is it now time for the system, a legacy largely tied to print, to end? Or should it be revised and updated to reflect new digital, financial and political realities? Take our survey and let us know what you think in the comments.

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  1. Tibocut
    Posted March 4, 2013 at 5:34 am | Permalink

    ISBN is an obsolete metric. Let’s get rid of it. It doesn’t have any value.
    Could you imagine an internet where every page must have a registered *paid* number before publishing anything ?
    In France you can get ISBN for free. It doesn’t change anything : it’s still obsolete.
    Is ISBN help having a unique reference ? No. URLs do that job better.
    Is ISBN ever allowed creating a free directory ? No. Google and Amazon did a better job that public libraries reuse!
    Did it ever help indexing efficiently ? No. Metadata are better.
    Is this poll going to show us once more an industry refusing to change, promoting immobilism?

    Maybe we should start stop calling a book a book, or an e-book. If they can only exist digitally, be seen on a screen, why calling this container a book or electronic book ? Call it Z, that’ll do it and will be less confusing.

  2. Quillpower
    Posted March 4, 2013 at 8:02 am | Permalink

    I believe the price of an ISBN in the US is far higher than in Australia. Here we can get a block of 10 for $80. I’m not advocating that we move to the US model, but one has to ask the reason for the difference.
    What’s missing from a vote like this is the background to the ISBN. It has a purpose, and because there is no copyright on book titles it is a useful reference.
    Individuals with no commercial experience are now able to publish anything on the internet and call it a book. They’re paddling in the publisher’s pond and suddenly find themselves out of their intellectual or financial depth when they come up against the regulations. That’s not a reason to undermine a cataloguing system that was introduced for industrial efficiency, rather than revenue. That would be like taking the numbers off the bus routes or saying we can all act like taxis just because we have cars that can do the same thing in a smaller way. We pay to travel, but revenue is not the reason for the bus route numbers, or for the numbering system on taxis.
    If the ISBN is flawed, librarians should tell us what could be done about it. They know how useful the ISBN is today and whether that will change as libraries continue to be starved of funds as well as, no doubt in time to come, of print books.

  3. Posted March 16, 2013 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    In the U.S., Bowker’s control over ISBNs has led to price gouging ($125 per single-sale ISBNs, compared to $1 or less for publishers who buy in lots of 1000) and other mercenary upsells ($120 social media widgets!).

    I believe the FTC or other federal agencies should investigate Bowker and its owner/affiliate ProQuest. Old-school monopolies that rip off new authors and small publishers deserve regulatory scrutiny. If they have broken consumer protection or antitrust laws, reform and/or penalties are in order.

    Ian Lamont (@ilamont)
    Founder, In 30 Minutes™ guides

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