The Book Industry Study Group held a meeting last week where they looked into whether publishers, retailers, and content creators are using ISBNs the way they’re supposed to. FYI: An ISBN is basically a serial number for an ebook or paper book.
The short answer is that a lot of companies are going their own way. Publishers and distributors regularly use the wrong ISBN, and while retailers should reject a title because of this they usually don’t. they’re more interested in getting the ebook on the market.
You can find the slides from the meeting here (PDF). Here is the executive summary:
All publishing supply-chain participants want clarity and consistency in applying ISBNs to eBooks and all would like the solution to be defined and agreed by the relevant parties. The ISBN agency is virtually irrelevant to participants and most interviewees – including sophisticated players – do not understand or acknowledge important aspects of the ISBN standard. These aspects include the international community of ISBN countries, the ratification by ISO of the standard and important standard definitions contained in the standard. Many interviewees referred to the ISBN policies and procedures as “recommendations” or “best practices” and without correction each of these issues encourages misinterpretation of the ISBN standard policies.
“Bad practice” is common and enabled at all levels within the supply chain. For example, retailers have the power to reject improperly applied title-level ISBNs but pragmatically create ‘work-arounds’ in order to make the products available for sale in the shortest possible time.
One major retailer has been ‘allowed’ to reject the ISBN almost entirely (although this pre-dates the issues with respect to eBooks). It is our view that many instances of these ‘bad practices’ are so embedded they will be difficult to dislodge.
Supply chain participants self-define important terms such as ‘product’ and ‘format’ and an industry thesaurus is suggested to alleviate this practice. Without a generally accepted thesaurus, participants are able to use terms as they please to support their arguments. All participants in the supply chain would benefit from better messaging and communication that addresses standards generally and the ISBN issues specifically. Interviewees – particularly medium and small players – repeatedly requested more information and education about standards (and related) issues. In particular, all participants would like an unambiguous eBook policy that is consistently and uniformly adopted.
With particular reference to the above, most of the interviewees failed to understand or recognize the ‘business case’ for applying ISBNs to the ultimate or purchased manifestation of the product.
Arguments regarding metadata control, data analysis or ‘discovery’ have failed to make any impact in convincing participants that the ISBN policy is one they should adopt. To publishers, these arguments sound ‘theoretical’ without any practical relevance.
While the definition of a ‘product’ is problematic (as noted above) there is a more pragmatic challenge faced by ISBN. Not only are publishers combining different content elements (in addition to text) into ‘books,’ they are beginning to redefine how books are created. Publishers contemplate gathering disaggregated content into collections that are ‘published’ specific to a customer’s requirements. As a consequence, some publishers openly question the need for an ISBN as their future publishing programs develop.
While the publisher > distributor > retailer supply chain has adequately accommodated eBooks, the library market faces some unique challenges. In particular, titles available from multiple vendors and in multiple pricing packages create significant challenges to vendors operating in this segment. As eBooks become more prevalent in the library community, these issues will continue to exacerbate what is an incomplete solution to eBook identification.
The quality of meta data provided by publishers was universally derided by all downstream supply partners. In particular, very few publishers are making an effort to combine print and electronic metadata in the first instance and secondly to ensure over time that the metadata attributable to print and electronic versions of the same titles remains in sync. Repeatedly, supply chain partners referred to incomplete and inconsistent eBook metadata files and data rot in electronic metadata files over time.
Metadata quality remains an important issue and, setting aside a revision of the ISBN policies and procedures, improving metadata would be the single most important and beneficial activity publishers could undertake to improve the effectiveness of the print and electronic book supply chain.
Conclusion: There is wide interpretation and varying implementations of the ISBN eBook standard; however, all participants agree a normalized approach supported by all key participants would create significant benefits and should be a goal of all parties.
Achieving that goal will require closer and more active communication among all concerned parties and potential changes in ISBN policies and procedures. Enforcement of any eventual agreed policy will require commitment from all parties; otherwise, no solution will be effective and, to that end, it would be practical to gain this commitment in advance of defining solutions.
Any activity will ultimately prove irrelevant if the larger question regarding the identification of electronic (book) content in an online-dominated supply chain (where traditional processes and procedures mutate, fracture and are replaced) is not addressed. In short, the current inconsistency in applying standards policy to the use of ISBNs will ultimately be subsumed as books lose structure, vendors proliferate and content is atomized.