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

In Discussion by Edward Nawotka

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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.

About the Author

Edward Nawotka

A widely published critic and essayist, Edward Nawotka serves as a speaker, educator and consultant for institutions and businesses involved in the global publishing and content industries. He was also editor-in-chief of Publishing Perspectives since the launch of the publication in 2009 until January 2016.