Five years ago, I participated in the once-a-decade ISO ISBN revision process that resulted in the current ISBN standard. (Michael Healy ran this two year process on behalf of ISO). That revision included the expansion from 10 to 13 digits, but this was tame compared to the contentious issue of separate ISBNs for every eBook format. I support this position (although I did not have a vote in the revision) and agreed with others who viewed assigning separate ISBNs as consistent with the way ISBNs had historically been assigned to other title formats. Despite the passage of time, this issue continues to generate significant comment and has become (to me) one of several indications that the ISBN in its current form may not be sufficient to support the migration to a digital world.
A second problem the ISBN faces is driven by some down-stream suppliers who don't see the ISBN as relevant. The most prominent (egregious - pick your label) of these has been Amazon - and this is not just because no Kindle title carries an ISBN. Amazon has long been disdainful of the ISBN and, almost from the opening of the bookstore, they assigned "ASINs" to books. In his defining Web 2.0 article, Tim O'Reilly used the example of Amazon's ASIN as an indicator of Amazon's application of the principles of Web 2.0. At the time (while I was at Bowker in 2005), I took a more sanguine view in an email:
Amazon’s ASIN creation was built out of expediency. If they received a title from a publisher that (for whatever reason) had no ISBN, they assigned a number just so they could get it in their system. (Don’t laugh, we get frantic calls from publishers who are at their printer and don’t have a number). At first they were designating these as “ISBN”s which we had them change. There was never an intention to take ISBN and make something better and different. So while I would agree on your point about extending the bibliographic content, in the case of ASINs Amazon were not looking to create additional value or take the identifier to some other more valuable place: they needed 10 digits to identify a SKU. Now they have polluted the supply chain with these numbers. No other vendor has seen a requirement to create their own SKUs; there has never been a need, because the ISBN has been the most effective product identifier ever established.Hence, at Amazon, the lack of ISBNs on Kindle titles isn't really new; although it was a fairly rare occurrence (albeit from a very large player). Others now new to the supply chain (including suppliers of print-on-demand titles) have decided not to use ISBNs. Some of these suppliers are using the Google Book settlement titles as their 'inventory' and thus, by definition, this issue becomes a significant challenge to the ubiquity of the ISBN.
A third issue concerns the rapid influx of new titles as a result of digitization programs. At this point, it's unknown whether any of these titles will be subsequently broken down into parts, (although this seems inevitable,) but that further compounds the issue of how ISBNs - or other identifiers - will identify this content.
Some may argue that, as the supply chain compacts the connection between producer and supplier becomes tighter and a specific item identifier isn't required. Maybe that's true; however, I believe it's far too early in the transition to digital content to make this judgment. Unfortunately, if we shrug our collective shoulders to these issues, this non-action will set a precedent from which we as a publishing industry will be unable to recover.
The ISBN standard united the industry from author royalty statement to store shelf and, while I emphasize the ISBN is far from dead, there are sufficient warning signs to suggest that the ISBN may be unable to thrive in the 21st century as it has over the past 40 yrs. As a community, we need to recognize that the ISBN may not be meeting its intended market need and that the future may make this deficiency even more stark. From an international perspective, ISO could help by reconvening a partial (or full) revision of the standard; it seems incompatible with the speed at which all industry changes that we can continue to live with a 10 year revision cycle. In my view, ISBN could benefit from an accelerated revision cycle while the result of non-action could be increasing irrelevance.
Into this mix I would also add that ISBN can no longer stand generally independent of other identifiers, such as a work ID or party ID. For example, while assigning ISBNs to pre-1970 titles may make an ISBN agency's revenues bulge, it may not be the most effective proposal for the supply chain. A more appropriate approach may be a combination of work ID, party ID and ISBN and, for this, we require a cohesive methodology and possibly a 'merging' of these standards in a more formal way.
This commentary naturally leads into a discussion of the construction of bibliographic databases, which I hope to present in the future.