How important are ISBNs?

How important are ISBNs?

This is a guest post by Karina Luke. Karina was appointed as BIC’s Executive Director in February 2012 and has been instrumental in its restructure, which has seen the creation of an agile members organisation focused on driving and delivering meaningful change and education across all sectors of the book industry. You can follow Karina on Twitter @KarinaLuke.

Periodically I am asked the question, “How important are ISBNs?” and I always reply “Incredibly important, now more than ever.”

With the ever increasing number of books published each year, it is vital to have a unique identifier assigned to them in order to identify, track, manage and monitor books through the increasingly complex supply chain. Used in over 200 countries and territories, the ISBN is crucial in ensuring accurate and efficient communications between trading partners, representation of accurate information to readers and buyers, aiding discoverability, the compilation and management of sales records which in turn may affect the correct assignment of royalties to the right authors etc. It’s a recognised, reliable standard used by all industry stakeholders: publishers, booksellers, distributors, printers, libraries, wholesalers, data aggregators, readers and many more.

In order to ensure each ISBN is and remains unique, it is important that anyone wishing to obtain one, only does so via official agencies. Unfortunately, recent years have seen an emergence of rogue ISBN suppliers selling “second hand” ISBNs – a practice which clearly undermines the principles and benefits of having a unique identifier per product. A full list of official national ISBN agencies can be found on the International ISBN Agency’s website here: BIC strongly advises anyone wishing to obtain an ISBN, to use only the agencies listed here.

Without the ISBN the book industry’s supply and information chains would become unmanageable – how else would we be able to manage and/or report on product identification and discovery, ownership, behaviour and bibliographic information? How would we accurately know which book was to be reprinted, or delivered to a customer, not to mention stock and inventory management.

The book industry without ISBNs would become confusing, and costly for all stakeholders. In order to successfully and efficiently identify, manage and follow a book (digital and/or printed) through its entire lifecycle it will always need a unique number, or identifier, assigned to it. The ISBN is this unique number. To quote the International ISBN Agency:

“The purpose of the international standard is to coordinate and standardise the international use of ISBNs to identify uniquely one publication or edition of a publication published by one specific publisher in one specific format”

Without the ISBN, the book industry would quite simply be unable to do this, and if we’re not able to do this, the ramifications are potentially huge.

The 13-digits of the ISBN themselves impart a lot of information as follows:

  1. i) The country, geographical region or language grouping of publishers participating in the ISBN system
    ii) Who the publisher (or imprint) of the book is
    iii) The specific edition of the publication in a specific format

Self-published authors often query their need of the ISBN. In my opinion, and on balance, I think that any self-published author not buying an ISBN is being adversely affected. However, having said that, I think it depends on the author’s overall plans (both short and long term) for their book and their writing career. If they are happy to be selling through only one channel, then perhaps one might argue they could forego the ISBN, although I wouldn’t advocate this.

In my opinion if they are not using an ISBN, they are missing a (big) trick. I would always advise and encourage self-published authors and micro-publishers to buy an ISBN (and more if they are publishing in different formats print/digital etc.). If they want to reach, and be sold on, more than one platform, avoid the pitfalls of potential identification mistakes (many books have the same title, many authors have the same or similar names) then the ISBN is definitely the best way for them to be able to get their book to a wider audience effectively and efficiently.

Data agencies will be able to work with them and distribute bibliographic information about their book(s) to a wide range of potential customers, and bibliographic catalogues, which will greater discoverability, and help maximise sales potential. Not to mention the requirements of other stakeholders in the book chain they may want to reach and work with i.e. distributors, printers, retailers and other organisations.

Self-published authors should also bear in mind that it is easier to identify and deal with plagiarism (by which I mean in this case, someone taking the entire Work of another self-published author then releasing and selling it as their own on ebook platforms) if the author’s work has an ISBN and is listed with data aggregators. Self-published authors would benefit greatly in terms of provenance and tracking by registering their work with an ISBN.

So to sum up, I’ll return to the start of this piece and repeat, that now more than ever, the ISBN is a massively important standard, without which, our book industry would be a very different place.

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