Time to bury the ISBN?
This is a guest post from Ricardo Fayet. Ricardo is an avid reader and startup enthusiast who has been studying the publishing industry with interest for several years. He co-founded Reedsy, to help authors collaborate with publishing professionals.
The latest AuthorEarnings reports from indie author Hugh Howey and his collaborator “data guy” unleashed a new debate in the publishing industry, this time focused on ISBNs for eBooks. “30% of the ebooks being purchased in the U.S. do not use ISBN numbers,” writes Howey–a statistic that forces us to question the validity of all data that comes out of ISBN tracking. He goes on to say that “the ISBN is dead. It’s just not buried yet.” Is it really time for each of us to grab a shovel?
Pulling the plug on the main source of data income in the publishing industry isn’t as easy as sweeping it under the rug (or underground). This data tracked by ISBNs serves publishers, publishing-related companies, bookstores, journalists, etc. The problem is that most of this “data”, for the sales of electronic formats, comes from one company, Amazon, which is not going to reveal it any time soon. Though AuthorEarnings offers a glimpse of what’s happening at the book sales behemoth, the reports are generated by a two-man, highly unofficial initiative. Howey & Co. basically “crawl” Amazon’s bestsellers lists with an algorithm (to determine what book is in which position) then use comparatives to estimate each book’s sales according to its ranking. I think it’s genius, and pretty accurate at that, but there’s no statistical way to guarantee a variance on these estimates.
Obviously, a system that directly tracks the sale of each ebook (like the ISBN) is much more accurate, as long as all books sold have such a tracker. But an ISBN is not required to publish an ebook on Amazon, and authors or publishers have to pay if they want their titles to have one. The result is that a lot of independent authors and publishers just don’t bother–and why would they? The ISBN doesn’t impact their sales in any way, and as entities, some publishers are too small to care about global data on book sales.
The fact is, there’s a tremendous discrepancy between the people who benefit from ISBNs and those paying for them. But Bowker and Nielsen, the two agencies in charge of ISBN generation and distribution in the US and the UK (respectively), are not allowed to “profit from the ISBN”. This is stipulated by the International ISBN Agency, which appoints national agencies like Bowker or Nielsen. So everything these agencies “charge” for the tracking of ebooks is only meant to cover their costs.
The business model seems fairly straightforward: ISBN agencies determine their costs and pass them along to author or publishers. Problem is, the eruption of independent publishing has made this model obsolete. Perhaps if these agencies had the freedom to profit directly from the ISBN, they’d have found a more “intelligent” business model already. For example: collecting the data for free, then selling it to those who want it (publishers, businesses, media outlets, etc.).
To those who opine that data should be free, I say no, it certainly shouldn’t be. Gathering data is neither costless nor effortless. It’s a “job”, and the people doing it should be rewarded for it properly. However, France and Canada provide interesting case studies here. In both these countries, ISBNs are free…and government subsidized. It makes sense; harnessing data on a wide-reaching industry is actually something of public interest.
The US and UK governments don’t think so, which is certainly understandable, and let’s not get too political – however, the current model just doesn’t make sense. So instead of discussing whether ISBNs should be buried, we should be putting our efforts into building another system, and putting the currently outdated model to rest.