“E-book ISBN Mess Needs Sorting Out,” Say UK Publishers

In Digital, Resources by Liz Bury

ISBNs for Dummies

By Liz Bury

LONDON: The subject of how book digitization is affecting the future of the ISBN may not be as sexy as say pricing or sequencing issues, but it is just as important. Right now, publishers around the globe are taking different approaches to assigning ISBNs to e-books, that is if they are assigning them at all. The situation is like it was back in the 1960s, in the pre-ISBN days of printed books: a bit of a mess.

On March 3, a group of publishers focused their minds on the challenge at a meeting in London organized by the UK Publisher’s Association and tried to answer the following question: Should publishers assign a different ISBN to each e-book format, or will a single ISBN suffice?

HarperCollins UK gives one ISBN to its e-books in epub format, which is the only format it sells. Says Graham Bell, head of publishing systems at HCUK: “We sell an epub to Amazon, and they sell it on to the consumer in a lightly modified version. Because Amazon sells the Kindle version exclusively, there’s no need for a different ISBN. We know that an Amazon sale is a Kindle sale.” The same will be true of iBooks sold by Apple.

But if different retailers were to sell the same modified epub version, or other formats, separate ISBNs would be desirable. “In that case, if you didn’t have an ISBN per format, you’d lose the ability to analyze sales by format. In an immature market, the last thing we want is to reduce the granularity of sales reporting,” says Bell.

With epub being the only commercially significant format at present, most publishers rely on a single ISBN. In the US, Random House uses a single ISBN for e-books, although Hachette assigns different ISBNs for different e-book formats.

At the London event, Brian Green, director of the International ISBN Agency, shared the results of a straw poll of 228 book professionals worldwide. Green found that booksellers and wholesalers favor a different ISBN for each format, while most publishers prefer a single identifier.

In some cases, conversion houses, wholesalers or retailers assign their own identifier for internal use; these have been known to inadvertently leak into the open market with confusing results. To help solve this, the International ISBN Agency and standards body EDItEUR hope to develop a web service whereby supply chain partners can easily request and receive format-level ISBNs from publishers.

The fear is that by hanging back and allowing others to assign identifiers, publishers could lose control over the supply chain. A “release identifier” is another possible solution. It would mimic the music industry’s Global Release Identifier (GRid), which identifies the master recording, which can then be sold in different ways. The generic e-book supplied by the publisher could be seen as equivalent to the master recording.

However, Bell points out that since international retailers and distributors do not support local pricing, the need for separate ISBNs by region may force the issue. “We could end up with an ISBN that’s market specific. A straight currency conversion doesn’t work; books are much cheaper in the US, and are relatively more expensive in the UK and Australia. It’s a very live issue in Australia,” he says.

The unpredictability of the e-book market means that publishers could be left watching others set precedents for them, if they dither. Green says: “We need to act fast to agree on standards.”

Since you’ve read this far without eyes glazing over, you may consider further reading. Try the position paper on e-books and ISBNs from the International ISBN Agency. If you can stay awake long enough, that is.

DISCUSS: Do we need separate ISBNs per e-book per format per region?

About the Author

Liz Bury


Liz Bury has been a writer and editor for 20 years, covering books, design and business risk. Her work has appeared in the Guardian, Building Design and The Bookseller, among other publications. She can be found tweeting rarely @lizziebbrown and on LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/in/liz-bury-88356a16.