Thursday, June 26, 2008

ISBN's On All Formats

According to ISBN official standards, each format of an e-book should be given its own ISBN. This means if a book is sold in mobi-pocket and Adobe formats each would be given a separate (unique) number by the publisher even if the content is exactly the same. During the revision process for the current standard, this point received intense discussion mostly focused on the burden that applying what could amount to several hundred ISBNs to a single work would have on publishers' processes. We resolved this issue for the standard with judicious use of words such as 'shall' and 'should' but the issue was raised again recently when the ISBN board released a 'policy statement' reaffirming the need for separate ISBN's on each format of an eb0ok.

The reasons for this action is simple. Downstream supply chain business such as wholesalers, distributors and retailers require a unique reference to all products that pass through their operations. If one doesn't exist these businesses tend to apply their own numbers. In actuality, the practice of downstream partners applying their own numbers has been going on since the establishment of ISBN and isn't unique to e-books, but the issue is coalescing now around the obligations of a publisher to 'correctly apply' the ISBN standard to e-books.

At a meeting this week at AAP NYC a number of publishers expressed doubts about the need for this requirement. As a participant in the revision of the standard my view was simple. A publisher should want to manage and control the meta-data associated with all their products and enabling - by omission - the need for someone else to apply their own information never seemed prudent to me. Secondly, the veracity of the ISBN system is brought into question if more than one entity applies separate numbers to the same content. This occurs if B&N and Amazon sell the same e-book in the same format but in the absence of a publisher number they apply their own identifier.

At least one major publisher at the AAP meeting is not following the standard and after several years of distributing e-books and applying one ISBN irrespective of format (.epub for example) they are seeing no issues with confusion or misuse of their meta data. This is a powerful argument and comes from a publisher that is highly protective of their bibliographic information. If reflective of a general consensus the ISBN board should reconsider the wording of there directive. For example, simply changing the wording by inserting the words 'publishers may apply ISBNs to separate formats' would give enough latitude to those publishers that see a need to apply separate ISBNs and those that do not.

There are several qualifications (and others may raise more). Firstly, the issue of downstream partners which need identifiers for their internal process requirements must be governed. For example, in those cases where a publisher expects detailed sell-thru data they may provide ISBN's. If a downstream partner can only use a 13 digit identifier in their systems the publisher may require the partner to use an ISBN provided by the publisher. If the partner can use a non-ISBN (but NOT a dummy ISBN/13 digit id) such as letters and numbers the publisher may see no need to apply ISBN's. Secondly, the danger that rogue ISBNs that are intended to operate only within the operating systems of specific partners (wholesalers, vendors, etc.) escape into the supply chain causing confusion and much remediation is a real one and should be recognised. Currently, there aren't that many e-books and there aren't that many publishers working outside the recommendations of the standard. As e-books explode in distribution, data integrity problems that are virtually non-existent today may become very relevant issues very quickly.

Lastly, in a supply chain world where suppliers and retailers are racing (admittedly not a sprint more a marathon) to apply unique identifiers on individual items via RFID, this discussion runs counter to the logic other more sophisticated industries are following. Quite rightly, with volumes as small as they are, it may not be interesting to know which e-book versions seem to perform better, or get less customer service/help desk calls, or which package of products seem to show up on what platform or which segment of buyers seems to have what behavioral characteristics, or which partner seems to sell what types of products or formats, or which formats tend to be pirated more or less, and on and on and on. As the chain becomes flatter - as it is - publishers are going to want to know this stuff and tying a user to a format may be critical to all aspects of what they do.


Elizabeth Burton said...

The idea that each and every ebook format should have an individual ISBN has one major flaw: as the number of ebook formats proliferates, which it clearly is doing, the cost of this would become prohibitive unless the publisher limits themselves to only a relative few of those formats.

Which is counterintuitive if one's goal is to maximize the market.

The difference between an ebook in Mobipocket format and one in MS Reader format isn't the same as the difference between a hardcover and a mass market paperback. In the latter case, having separate identification numbers is logical, and those of us who do both print and ebook faithfully give each format its own number.

When the product, however, is "shelved" digitally, a product ID number secondary to the main ISBN is all that's required. It's the equivalent of a retail store assigning an SKU to incoming stock, and has worked for decades.

Andy Weissberg said...

At the U.S. ISBN Agency, we appreciate and understand the expressed concerns of publishers when it comes to assigning ISBNs to individual e-book formats, and we continue to allocate a fair amount of resources towards listening to these concerns and driving best practices recommendations and policy changes at the standards level that suit the needs of the supply chain as a whole, as well as the consumers we all collectively serve.

For now, I’d like to shift the conversation away from what the standard says and/or should say, and focus on solutions to key issues and concerns so that solutions and best practices are sought and implemented. In my post here, I also want those engaged in reading this blog to consider the interests of the consumer as a downstream entity that is compromised by format-specific titles not being identified by an ISBN.

As stated in the original blog post, “downstream supply chain business such as wholesalers, distributors and retailers require a unique reference to all products that pass through their operations.” So do consumers. At the most functionally granular level, that “unique reference” is an ISBN. In addition to most retailer inventory management systems, e-tailer content management systems, online shopping carts, search engine catalogues and their respective indexing algorithms and URL structures, and library cataloguing systems leverage ISBN numbers to distinguish and differentiate e-book formats for their consumers and patrons.

We fully appreciate how the .ePUB file format has enabled a simplified distribution framework for publishers and their trading partners, and that the function of “extracting” and creating and outputting a single e-reader format or multiplicity of formats is now typically the responsibility of the wholesaler, distributor or digital asset manager, with some publishers doing this work themselves. We heard the AAP group loud and clear that providing wholesalers and distributors with the ability to assign ISBN numbers themselves to the individual formats as rendered following .ePUB file extractions, represents potential conflicts of interest and enterprise data management and analytics on various levels.

If, in fact, publishers are concerned about losing “control” of their products or are concerned about having to reconcile ISBN numbers to which they did not originally assign themselves when sales are reported back to them by their trading partners (wholesalers, distributors and/or digital asset managers), it would make seemingly obvious sense that publishers assign their own ISBN numbers to each format and communicate those assignments within their meta data structures that they distribute to their trading partners. This way, they can keep control and can reconcile against ISBN numbers within their own respective ERP and workflow systems.

Within the recently announced guidelines from the International ISBN Agency regarding, publishers have the right to “opt-out” of wholesaler/distributor ISBN assignments to their works and assign their own numbers if they so prefer, with their own assignments replacing those made by the wholesalers/distributors. Again, these issues would be avoided completely if publishers would simply assign their own ISBN numbers to those works within their catalogued meta-data which, in ONIX, can be structured accordingly. If not, wholesalers and distributors have the alternative flexibility they need in order to make differentiated formats available to the consumer in the capacity to which their own retail customers require.

It is not a fair assumption that .ePUB will be supported by every e-book reader device in the marketplace going forward and anytime soon. And, while Elizabeth’s commentary that “The difference between an ebook in Mobipocket format and one in MS Reader format isn't the same as the difference between a hardcover and a mass market paperback” may be true, it is far-fetched to ignore that in the coming years, new proprietary reading devices with proprietary features will indeed deliver differentiated types of book products to which the consumer will need to discover and purchase at format-specific levels in order to meet the requirements of the devices they own. Multiple channels will likely make these devices and e-book formats available. Nokia or Samsung, for example, will not limit their OEM relationships with one carrier or one supermarket chain. Many more online retail channels beyond Amazon will emerge, let alone traditional retailers will expand their online storefronts to provide diversified availability format-specific e-book products. Libraries, too, will need to differentiate products within their discoverability platforms. So, inevitably, whether assigned by the publisher or their wholesaler/distributor trading partners, these products will need to be appropriately and individually identified. Universally, today, and taking into account the systematic, indexing and cataloguing structures as described above the ISBN provides for a supply chain standardized solution in this regard.

We also can appreciate how there may be budgetary concerns for those publishers that have limited inventories of ISBNs available for assignment. Among the publishers who participated in the AAP meeting, based on the US ISBN Agency’s records, this is not a matter of having enough ISBN numbers that they already own within their own inventories to assign. Most, if not all of the publishers represented still maintain hundreds of thousands of ISBN numbers within their respectively assigned ISBN prefixes. So, to counterpoint Elizabeth’s commentary regarding ISBN assignments to a proliferating level of e-book formats being “cost-prohibitive,” my statement is that most, if not all of the publishers who participated in the meeting should revisit their ISBN respective inventories. You will find you have enough numbers available to last you for at least another decade. For those publishers who find they do not have enough ISBNs to accommodate these e-book assignments, the US ISBN Agency has deeply discounted ISBN purchases of 100,000 numbers or more to as little as $0.10 per number (quantity permitting) – again, discounted pricing is exclusive to the assignment of ISBNs to digital formats, chapters and fragments to which publishers will agree to during these purchases.

We can appreciate how assigning ISBNs to each e-book format would require database structural changes on numerous levels within the publishing enterprise, and how this proliferation would really stress the need for a linking solution to effectively manage the collections of manifestations at an enterprise reporting level. The International Standard Text Code (ISTC) is a newly approved ISO standardized identifier which will provide a solution.

Bowker is a founding member of the International Standard Text Code (ISTC) Consortium and will announce its formation as an ISTC registration agency in the near future. To address these linkage issues at practical workflow levels, Bowker is developing a title-linking capability and online interface which leverages the newly established ISTC for ONIX file framework that will enable the efficient assignment, exchange and management of ISTC-appended catalogue records. In the near term, publishers will be able to submit ONIX records to Bowker and receive back these records in a title-linked capacity with ISTC assignments. Publishers will also be able to manage their ISTC assignments using Bowker’s new platform, whereby they will be able to append, modify and download ONIX files that they can further import into their bibliographic databases, ERP and workflow systems. Publishers that are interested in leveraging ISTC as a solution, as well as seeing a demo of Bowker’s capabilities, should contact me directly and we will arrange an appointment to do so.

The ISBN standard has worked for decades in the traditional supply chain. In the emerging digital supply chain, while new identifiers like digital object identifiers (DOI) and the ISTC accommodate enhanced discovery, and workflow file formats like .ePUB may simply workflows, they do not accommodate format-specific trading and discoverability requirements downstream in the capacity to which the ISBN does. Attempting to leverage an alternative identifier such as the EAN or proprietary identifiers will only complicate and compromise the end customer’s ability to find and purchase or access the e-book products they want and need.

As industry leaders, we can continue to collaborate on best practices and work together to develop solutions that meet the needs of the publishing and trading lifecycle. Databases today are more than capable of being expanded, with the data contained within them being more than capable of being made relational and interoperable. New formats and consumer preferences towards an expanded number of options based on their device requirements should be considered as cornerstone assumptions within every level of the publishing lifecycle today and moving forward. Until the entire supply chain comes up with an alternative to the ISBN as an appropriate cataloging solution and conduit towards accurate discoverability, we should leverage its capabilities and legacy in our everyday practices.

Elizabeth Burton said...

With all due respect, Andy, book consumers only even know what an ISBN is if they're also associated with the publishing industry.

The fact of the matter is that the independent ebook industry has been functioning perfectly well for more than a decade applying only one ISBN to each ebook and listing all formats under that one number. The vendors of same have done likewise, also with no apparent problem; they simply, as I noted, assign a product number to each format. Sales are reported using both numbers or by simply listing the format sold, if there's more than one.

Ebook consumers don't buy using the ISBN. They buy according to the format they want. In point of fact, adding a 13-digit number to the mix is more likely to confuse them, which is a really, really, really bad idea. I don't even use the ISBN as a search parameter when I'm ordering books from my printer--or for that matter when I'm accessing them at BowkerLink.

There are even ebook vendors who don't require an ISBN--and they are the only ones who do need a unique ID number for each format.

Remember all that hubbub over Amazon requiring POD-using publishers sign up with Booksurge. I can guarantee that if any attempt were made to require each ebook format be assigned a unique ISBN, the resulting uproar would make that look like a hiccup.

Major publishers are content to limit their offerings to a few formats. Independent publishers, especially those who are primarily ebook-oriented, want to offer their wares in as many formats as possible. They do not have the resources to pay for the number of ISBNs that would enable them to do that if they were compelled to use one for each format.

The problem is that as has been the case all along, everyone is acting as if the major publishers are the only ones involved in this matter, and that isn't even close to the facts. There was a vigorous industry in ebook publishing years before the majors stuck their toes in the water, and it has continued to expand. And they are thoroughly fed up with having decisions made in which they had no part.

Marty Brooks said...

The fact is that in their internal e-commerce systems, there is an ID associated to each of those different e-book versions and as long as there is an ID, instead of being an internal ID, it might as well be a standard ID, and the ISBN works as well as anything else.

The same applies in publisher systems, especially if they have to report separately on each of those formats, either for royalty or internal finance purposes.

If one doesn't want consumers to see those ISBNs, that's fine, but there is tremendous industry advantage to everyone using the same number to identify the same thing especially when there is any exchange of data at any level.

It doesn't matter if it's an ISBN, an ISBN + some extension or some other identifier, but it should be a standard.

I don't see how there would be any additional cost to a publisher to assign a different number to each version of an eBook, but I see plenty of potential additional costs if they don't.

In fact, I have always felt that it was highly inefficient for a retail store to assign an SKU to incoming stock. And in a short-margin business, this made a big difference. I think this was done more because the in-store checkout systems were designed to work with UPC coding than any advantage to working with a different number.

Rob Preece/ said...

I agree with Elizabeth that a single ISBN works effectively for eBooks. Most of the books I sell are 'multiformat,' meaning I, or my distributor, Fictionwise, offers customers the right to download a single book in multiple formats. I truly don't know how multiple ISBNs would even apply.

As far as ISBN numbers being cheap, for many small publishers, like, 100,000 ISBN numbers at $0.10 each still represents $10,000--which is a lot of money for me.

Currently the ISBN registration allows registration of multiple eBook formats with a single ISBN number. Allowing ISBNs to be permissable for each format, but not requiring it, seems to meet the needs of publishers, the ISBN authority, and distributors (as Elizabeth points out, some distributors do not require ISBNs at all and none that I am aware of require distinct ISBNs for each format).

Rob Preece

Andy Weissberg said...

Elizabeth - i wasn't suggesting that consumers use ISBNs as a means of finding books, although if you are familiar with some of the newer social networking platforms like Reading Social on Facebook, you can search that way...

I was suggesting that ISBNs still represent a standard identifier that is commonly used within cataloguing systems to identify the work, with the multiple formats of that work available as distinct product options which all require a unique identifier in the cataloging scheme.

Do a book search in Google by title, "Eat Pray Love" or within Amazon. The URL scheme leverages an ISBN. Perform that same search on ISBN is front and center.

I should also point out that most of the rest of the industry, including small and mid-size publishers are indeed following the standard and using it to their advantage, assigning ISBNs to each format. Penguin and Simon & Schuster are among the larger publishers who are consistently following the standard.

Yes, major publishers, today, are committing to few formats, and smaller publishers are extending to many. I am of the belief that the major publishers will change as newer devices emerge, and as they track purchases and reader behaviors on these devices, they'll publish for delivery formats that make the most money, but until that happens, it would be foolish to abandon a standard that has worked for decades.

Yes, Fictionwise allows for multi-format downloads - but many other channels do not, so why compromise the consumer who may trust another channel to pinpoint the format that meets their needs.

On the subject of cost and small publishers, if a small publisher purchases an ISBN prefix of 10 numbers, it costs them $400.00 or $40 per ISBN. This cost represents a small fraction of the money needed to invest in marketing, search engine optimization, let alone the publishing process as a whole. That $40 per title ensures them listings in thousands of catalogues and search engine channels. If small publishers will try 5-7 formats on average, even a prefix of 10 numbers is a rather nominal investment that more than accomodates their title and format interests.

Mark Majurey said...

My own initial reaction to the "ISBN for every format" issue was one of concern, but I'm now not so sure that there is such a big issue here. The principle of requiring an ISBN for every tradeable product is a valid one and has existed for years in the physical world. Extending this to digital products is not such a great leap -- technically it is feasible (the ISBN standard is scaleable), the various ISBN agencies have suggested price can drop in order to prevent a jump in ISBN costs for publishers, and publishers' own databases should be able to support this easily. Combine this with the imminent emergence of the ISTC to unite all types of product under a single work ID, and this starts to look quite robust and straightforward to implement.

There is also the real possibility of a consolidation of formats in future, or at least an attempt to move to an industry standard (such as ePUB) as opposed to a proprietary format for every device. I believe that the new Sony Reader will work with native ePUB files, and they will be dropping the BBeB format as a result.

The concern over burgeoning ISBNs doesn't really apply therefore to ebook formats. Instead, we should look beyond this and worry about how the principle will extend to chunks of content we sell. With the disaggregation and reaggregation of digital content, we are now able to sell individual chapters. Even paragraphs. Each of these are separately tradeable and would therefore require a unique ISBN. For a 20-chapter book available in 2 print formats and 4 ebook formats, that would mean we're approaching 100 ISBNs required per title.

And we have yet to consider the effect this proposal has on custom products, such as the O'Reilly model. As we allow customers to put together their own 'book' made up of chapters from other titles across many publishers, those custom titles may become separately tradeable. For example, a student who puts together their own mashed-up textbook on Java programming (through safariu, perhaps?)... the potential here is for that platform to publish this paricular collection of content which other like-minded students may wish to buy. The logical conclusion here is mind boggling -- in time, millions of chapters (or chunks) will be available to buy, and the permutations of those chapters will lead to immeasurable custom products which may or may not have the potential to be separately tradeable.

Under those conditions (which can't be too long away), we may well find the principle of "one ISBN per tradeable object" to be severely challenged!

MH Media Online said...

... the major publishers will change as newer devices emerge, and as they track purchases and reader behaviors on these devices, they'll publish for delivery formats that make the most money, but until that happens, it would be foolish to abandon a standard that has worked for decades.

I agree, and without an individual ISBN for each type, how would one track them? Elizabeth Burton's inward-looking attiutude is fine if you're just selling to Mom and Pop but if you seriously intend to conquer the marketplace then you need to identify what you're selling! Once you've done that, you can then stop producing the unpopular formats and concentrate on what really works.