The Work

Another Thought About ISBNs (and Amazon)

Even back in the 1970s, when the ISBN was invented, bookselling happened person-to-person. People had to walk into stores and find books, and chances are a bookseller helped them.

The ISBN was invented to handle issues that arose from the installation of mainframe computers – in warehouses, bookstores, and publishing offices. These communications were pretty simplistic. “Is this book available?” “Yes.” “I would like to order 20.”

By 1998, when development on ONIX started, communications had gotten more complex because computers were interacting over networks, and the book information was ultimately being viewed (and used) by the consumer. ISBNs were critical then, even though Amazon did not require them, because of the rapid changes in the market – an ISO standard gave publishers a number on which to hang ONIX data, and they could be reasonably assured that because it was attached to a standard, that data would be accepted anywhere.

15 years later, communications amongst computers and networks have not gotten any simpler. They are more reliant on identifiers and metadata than ever before. In 1998, we had 900,000 books to communicate about. In 2013, we have 28 or 32 million (depending on how you count them, and I’m only supposed to use the 28 million number publicly) that we know of, and many more that we don’t know of. And when was the last time you walked into a bookstore and a bookseller helped you? (When was the last time you walked into a bookstore?)

Dozens of millions of books, over many many networks, are ultimately viewed by more consumers than ever before. And yet there is a vocal group arguing that standardization of information (and the ISBN in particular) is antiquated. “Print-related.”

The ISBN was invented because of digitization. To argue its demise due to ebooks is short-sighted. The media environment – books, newspapers, movies, television, radio and the music industry – is volatile right now. Companies are merging, and strange, inexplicable acquisitions are being made.

A movement away from standards – particularly standards that were created to deal with digitization – may be bucking the system. But the system isn’t always going to look like it does now. Standards at least give some continuity in a shifting market.

17 thoughts on “Another Thought About ISBNs (and Amazon)

  1. Fascinating post. Can you say more about the POV behind “this vocal group arguing that standardization of information is antiquated.” It seems like a difficult stance to make much sense of given the landscape.

    1. I think it comes out of short-sightedness, and the fact that ISBNs are not free to the publisher in the US, UK and Germany. There’s some feeling that there’s an “ISBN monopoly” (meaning “racket”). The standard itself defines its administration as a single organization in each country. In most countries, that’s the national library (meaning ISBN allocation is subsidized by taxpayers); in the US, UK and Germany, private companies have stepped in where national libraries have not.

      But many self-published authors – and their advisors – don’t know this history and are just convinced that certain ISBN agencies are advocating for ISBN use to line their own pockets.

      No one can make anyone use a standard if they don’t want to, but the downside to not using standards is that you become dependent on how the market is acting at a particular time. When the market shifts (as it inevitably will), standards help with transitions. They may not mean much to the end-user, but they certainly mean a lot to the engineers!

      When I hear self-publishing gurus advise authors to “spend money elsewhere”, I think, “what better investment than future-proofing your book?”

      1. “[Standards] may not mean much to the end-user, but they certainly mean a lot to the engineers!” I would have thought that identifying standards do mean a lot to the end user–that is if by “end user” one means the readers and authors–only they don’t know it, or at least it seems that way. Without standards for identifiers–as you know all too well–finding, selling, and buying print and digital content is made all the more difficult.

  2. Well said in the main post & your additional comment reply. The same might be said for XML (& its variants) and the different levels of its adoption over the years. As you quite rightly say “Standards at least give some continuity in a shifting market”.

    1. Yes, my argument is that an ISBN has more value than an ASIN or other proprietary identifiers, wholly dependent on a particular platform. Publishers – especially self-published authors – who are not using ISBNs are tying the discoverability of their titles to the longevity of a platform. And while it may seem like Amazon’s indestructible, things do change.

      1. Completely true. It’s very dangerous to rely solely on something. Just see how many people panicked when Google Reader closed down, because they hadn’t even given the chance that it might a thought.

      2. It’s the same for all those self-published authors who use the KDP Select program and only have their books available on Amazon. They’re going to have some serious problems if Amazon suddenly closes down their self-publishing part…

  3. I wonder what part of this problem is due to the fact that for the simple short-term purpose of selling a book on Amazon and only Amazon, you don’t actually need an ISBN number. Your point about “future-proofing” is, of course, absolutely correct. And you probably need the ISBN right now if you want to sell across ebook platforms. But if you were only selling on Amazon and you weren’t much concerned about the future, then “not so much”. Right?

    1. Yes, that is correct – and that is the biggest argument for not using them. But, as I note in the post, it’s short-sighted. And it doesn’t take the value of identifiers on the open web (search) into account – which is also short-sighted.

      I’ve been banging this drum long before my employment at Bowker. 😉

      1. Never doubted your good intentions!

        But the problem is that you have a population of self-published authors who don’t even think getting Nook, Kobo, Smashwords etc. are worth the trouble for the incremental sales. And I believe there are royalty incentives at Kindle to keep them exclusive to that platform. So perceptions of immediate self-interest work against what you’re advocating. Seems like the core of the argument needs to be around achieving success NOW, not the “threat” that Amazon will disappear or abandon self-publishing.

        One argument could be around bestseller status. DBW’s list doesn’t make it impossible to make it on Amazon sales alone (a book did that recently), but it makes it a lot harder. So you’re much more likely to make that list if your book is broadly distributed, which requires an ISBN.

        I know you’re right that the individual author/book and the system as a whole benefit from universal ISBN use. The problem is that Amazon doesn’t (necessarily) and they can put their thumb on the scale in ways that discourage others.

      2. That is INDEED the problem.

        I recently published my own book on Amazon. The royalty incentives to be exclusive to Amazon are not that great – I’m getting a 70% royalty while able to distribute to BN, Kobo, and Apple, which I regard as pretty sweet. One thing you’re right about is the trouble part – setting yourself up as the vendor of record at all these places involves a lot of filling out forms. And none of those outlets requires an ISBN either.

        And in the face of no requirement, many self-published authors won’t spend the money on ISBNs. I can’t really blame them. But I can explore the benefits of ISBNs with them, and see if perhaps a larger value proposition can be made outside of strict trading requirements.

  4. It seems like the best argument in favor of ISBNs is its relevance to discovery and anything that can be done to shore up that connection is the future of such paid-for identifiers.

  5. 1) To go the multichannel way is no more so difficult for selfpublishers, thanks to platforms like Smashwords or (disclosure: I am CEO at the company owning

    2) It is not only about Amazon, it’s also Apple: “To offer your book on iBooks, an International Stantard Book Number (ISBN) is recommended but not required. Etc…”

    3) A full disclosure about the Author and her job could have been more elegant.

    4) I think ISBN ha no more sense for digital publishing. Maybe we need a new standard (maybe): no more ISBN for sure (I’ll try to justify my argument in my blog in the next few days).

    1. I would argue that BECAUSE distribution to multiple proprietary platforms is so easy, standardized identifiers are critical to create links to all those platforms on the open web. In fact, I am arguing that in a white paper that Bowker is going to release soon. Walled gardens mean that standard identifiers, such as those published by ISO, are more critical, not less, to the discovery process.

      Regarding disclosures – my occupation is on my “About” page, in my LinkedIn profile, in my Twitter profile, and in many online biographies. Perhaps I assumed a level of familiarity – with the fact of my employment with Bowker – that I should not have. As I stated in my comment on this post, I have been emphasizing the ISBN’s importance in the digital environment for many years, long before I came to Bowker.

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