Book publishing. And everything else.

Archive for the tag “ebooks”

Today’s #ISBNhour transcript

Can be found here, thanks to Porter Anderson!


To The Guys Snickering About Women Reading 50 Shades

So I have just about had it with the somewhat hysterical male response (particularly from, but not limited to, Men Of A Certain Generation) to the fact that ZOMG 50 Shades of Grey is a bestseller and that means a LOT of women are reading it quite possibly even my sister, wife, mother, grandmother, aunt, daughter, girlfriend, GREAT-grandmother…and that means THEY ARE THINKING ABOUT SEX AND I AM SURROUNDED BY WOMEN THINKING ABOUT SEX!

Calm yourself while I point out certain things:

1. Strip clubs

2. Lap dances

3. Prostitutes

4. Escort services

5. Internet porn

In the spirit of my last post, let me point out the relationships between these things.



And men’s delicate sensibilities are sent a-quiver because women are…reading? Reading erotica at such a rate that the books have launched onto the bestseller lists, pushing off presumably better-quality titles? (Say, for example, anything involving a Sigma Force or a Delta Force, which include their own sex scenes, most of which are so badly written as to bring the storyline to a cringing screeching halt while simultaneously nauseating the reader?)

I just had a Twitter exchange with @bsandusky about my reading habits – which are decidedly arcane these days, ranging from poetry to philosophy to technical manuals. In terms of style, E. L. James’s work would probably be a disappointment when compared to my usual reading. But after spending the better part of an afternoon being mansplained to on a listserv by industry gurus (and while this listserv is pretty equally divided between men and women, it’s primarily the men doing the talking) about how unfortunate it is that 50 Shades is taking up attention span that could be more productively spent reading other things, I am going to do the subversive* – download that shit and read it tonight. So yes, I will be thinking about sex.

*The fact that downloading books that are bestsellers can (even sarcastically) be considered subversive is an indication of how ridiculous this whole situation is.

I Can’t Even

Today the BBC brings us the news that Richard Russo is releasing Interventions only on paper and not for sale online:

[A] collection of four volumes, [it]is a “tribute to the printed book” and would not be made available online.

The author, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2002 with Empire Falls, said he wanted to encourage people to buy from local bookstores.

“Readers can’t survive on e-books alone,” he told the Associated Press.

“The rapid rise of e-books and online sales of printed books pose threats to bookstores, the book publishing industry and the rise of new authors,” he continued.

The idea that an author would refuse to sell his book in a certain manner – which would prevent many people from buying his book altogether – strikes me as…utterly meaningless. A waste.

Granted, the book itself (or books, rather, as it’s four volumes) is quite beautiful. There’s no question that its ideal format is in print rather than ePub.

But I think about those who cannot get hold of the print – those overseas, for example, who cannot afford the shipping fees and for whom digital reading is a great alternative because it allows for greater access to many, many books. I think of those who live in rural or underserved areas where bookstores are few and far between – not selling this book online (in any format!) deprives these readers as well.

The fact is, online is increasingly becoming an essential part of how books get bought. Russo’s love for independent bookstores is fantastic, and I would never dispute what a gorgeous phenomenon a well-run independent bookstore is. But for many, many places all over the world, it’s just that – a phenomenon. Not a reality.   These are communities who cannot sustain such a store – and railing against the reasons for this doesn’t stop it from happening. Releasing a book that can only be bought in places that don’t exist in most towns all over the world

Russo could’ve saved the paper. It’s a vanity project. Plus, the pirated version will be available shortly if it’s not already, given that most of the pirating happens inside the publishing house. If, in fact, it’s a book worth pirating. If it’s not…one has to ask why it’s being published at all.


First, let’s talk about the rain. There have been BEAs where we are baking like captive muffins in the glass oven that is Javits. This was not that kind of day. Limp, bedraggled, in some cases sopping wet, we dragged ourselves into Section E for pre-BEA conferences. I was attending the IDPF conference (and doing a table talk later on metadata).

It goes on tomorrow too. Today there were great presentations from Richard Nash, Liza Daly, and Liz Castro. There was a rather weird “surprise keynote” from Paul Aiken of the Author’s Guild, placed interestingly right before a demo of Google Play. Otis Chandler had some stellar graphics (I so hope these get posted somewhere).

As usual, the backchannel talk was an added dimension. Anyone not on Twitter, not following hashtags, misses out on a good deal of information.

I will be at Booth 3504. Come say hi.

Let the Identifier Identify; Let the Metadata Describe

I have a sign above my desk:

Yesterday, I mentioned that in 1998, there were 900,000 books in print. In 2012 – fourteen years later – there are over 32 million.

This is a massive disruption. Not only are the established publishing houses churning out more titles year after year, there are lots of new companies starting up, or authors self-publishing. There are a lot of new entrants into the market. And things that veterans have long taken for granted – the ISBN, for example – are being called into question by these newcomers.

It constantly amazes me that this number can wreak so much havoc, but for the last several years I’ve managed to devote an hour a week, virtually every week (except for a several-month hiatus due to work), on Twitter to troubleshooting and mythbusting around the ISBN. Yes…#ISBNhour has been going on for years. I can’t believe it myself. But somewhere, to someone, the principles of this standard (which has been in existence since the 1970s!) is always still news.

And that’s just a single identifier! Granted, it’s the most basic, most fundamental number in our business – without this number, there generally isn’t much in the way of sales – but there are others! But the ISBN looms so large – and teaching people how to use it is so critical – that the other identifiers get short shrift.

I’ll hype those other numbers in a different post. But what I’ve seen over the years is that people tend to confused identifiers with metadata – and this is the primary trouble around the ISBN. And I want to untangle that – in a way that everyone can refer back to.

George Wright III, who runs a company called PiPS, is a member of BISG. And I’ll never forget one meeting where we were discussing ISBNs and ebooks, and the possibility of appending a suffix onto the ISBN to distinctly identify ebooks (yes, we already thought of that). George promptly interjected – in his inimitable gravely voice – “Let the identifier identify; let the metadata describe.”

In other words, the job of an identifier is to distinguish one thing from the next. “This thing is not that thing.” That is all an identifier does. It’s really so simple it’s almost unbelievable. But think about your social security number. It just tells the government you are not any one of the other 300 million people in the country. Or your driver’s license number – which tells the state that you are 158 256 789 and not 159 233 467. That’s all it tells anyone. The rest – your name, your address, your date of birth – is metadata. But none of that metadata is embedded in the driver’s license number. It’s just a number.

But sometimes, with identifiers, we ascribe meaning to them; we interpret them. Area codes are a good example – because these, too, are in the midst of great disruption now. In 1999, there were so many phone numbers in Manhattan that a new area code needed to be established. The borough was in an uproar – 212 was “prestigious” and meant the real Manhattan (and hence the real New York), but 646 was an upstart.

Now there are so many area codes all across the country that we’re constantly looking them up to find out where people are calling from. And even that doesn’t tell us everything – I have many acquaintances with cell phones from one part of the country but who have moved elsewhere and taken their phone numbers with them. (I myself have had the same cell phone number since 1998.) So our phone numbers don’t necessarily have anything to do with location anymore. Phone numbers are rapidly becoming dumb numbers – a string of digits that carries no intrinsic meaning. But in your contacts file – a database, in other words – that phone number is unique. It’s distinct. It allows you to build a record around it – where you can put the metadata about the person: name, email address, etc. The identifier identifies – it sets one thing apart from another; the metadata describes.

Now let’s go back to ISBNs. Those of us who’ve been in the business for decades have come to see ISBNs as “smart” numbers. There’s a prefix – 978 or 979 – which designates the product as being in the book supply chain. There’s another prefix – of varying length – that designates the publisher. There’s the identifier of the book itself, which is supposed to be a dumb number. And there’s a check digit, which is the result of a formula that ensures that the entire number is valid.

Here’s where we get in trouble: the publisher prefix. That bit, which comes after the 978 or 979, ultimately comes to be regarded as sort of a vanity license plate for a publisher. Just as desirable Manhattan phone numbers began with 212, so desirable ISBN prefixes began with 0385 (Doubleday).

But what happens when Random House buys Doubleday and eventually puts it out of business? What happens to all of Doubleday’s books – do they all now get Random House ISBNs? What happens to the backlog of unassigned ISBNs at Doubleday – do they evaporate?


Doubleday’s books – so long as they remain in print – continue with their existing ISBNs. And Doubleday’s outstanding ISBN pool – those that haven’t already been assigned to books – get merged with Random House’s. So, in essence, Random House has several publisher prefixes. You can’t tell one from another. And the more companies that Random House buys, the more prefixes it has available to use. If it sells off a division, those ISBNs become property of the purchasing publisher. In an age of 32 million ISBNs, and over half a million prefixes, the ISBN can no longer “mean” anything, any more than an area code does.

Which brings us to…the eISBN.

Just as a publisher prefix cannot “mean” anything anymore, the ISBN is not meant to describe the format of a book. Again, that’s the job of the metadata. The ISBN identifies any trade-able product in the book supply chain. The ISBN only says “this thing is not that thing”. The metadata describes what it is, what format it comes in, how long it is, how much it costs, and everything else.

Calendars are sold in the book supply chain. Calendars get ISBNs. They don’t get cISBNs.

There is no such thing as an eISBN. Ebooks get ISBNs. And those ISBNs mean nothing in themselves, except that this ebook is not that ebook. The metadata – which includes the format – describes what kind of book it is. Attempting to divine meaning from the ISBN as it applies to ebooks is only marginally more reliable than divining your future from the lines of your palm.

There are vendors who ask publishers for eISBNs. Don’t be confused. There is no such thing. They are asking for the ISBNs of your ebooks. (And those vendors should know better, and we are talking.) There are periodicals that publish reviews with eISBNs. Again, there is no such thing. They are publishing the ISBNs of the ebooks. (And these periodicals should know better, and we are talking.)

When Books in Print registers information about ebooks, it doesn’t discriminate. An ISBN is an ISBN is an ISBN – whether it belongs to an ebook, a print book, or a calendar.

And if you can’t stop saying “eISBN” for yourself, do it for the kittens.

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