Forty years ago something remarkable happened in the UK publishing world. The Standard Book Number (SBN) was defined on the basis that it was better to cooperate across the supply chain than not. That booksellers, wholesalers, publishers and associated agencies all came together in agreement on something so mundane and wonky seems anachronistic, yet these UK visionaries established one of the most successful standards implementations in any industry.
The primary business driver of this effort was explained in the original paper written by Professor F.G. Foster, specifying the requirements of the SBN:
“By a Standard Number for a book title is meant a number which is made known to, and may be used by, all concerned with order processing operations involving that title. The number is then an identifying code for that title throughout its life, and it does not change. The Standard Number can be used, for example, by wholesalers or institutional suppliers in all their operations. Publishers will appreciate the advantages in arranging that their titles have Standard Numbers so that orders involving these titles can be processed more quickly and efficiently.
The general adoption of Standard Numbering by U.K. publishers will mean that instead of the trade having to cope with a proliferation of incompatibly numbered publishers' lists (with the possibility of the same number appearing on different lists to indicate different titles) there will be created a single register of all titles, and their Standard Numbers will be made readily available to all who require to use them.”
So imperative did the UK industry believe to be the SBN implementation that they initially forsook international acceptance. In the UK, the bibliographic agency John Whitaker & Sons was given the task of administering the SBN and, in the early 1970s, the US agency R.R. Bowker was invited to join in an international implementation of the standard. Thus, the International Standard Book Number (ISBN) was born.
In the intervening 40 years, the ISBN has served us exceptionally well. Most publishing operations from book ordering to royalty processing to best-seller lists, couldn’t function today without the ISBN. The objective of managing operations efficiently across the supply chain from agents to publishers to booksellers has been achieved and, while this success is exemplary and has been achieved with a very light hand by the international agency that manages the standard, the publishing industry is now undergoing such change that even the ISBN may be straining to adapt.
As the publishing industry migrates to an electronic content, world publishers and retailers have been asking whether ISBN can accommodate the changes in process, product and placement. In the application of ISBN numbers to eBook content the international agency has formulated a policy – applied to all ISBN countries and agencies – that requires a distinct ISBN be applied to each format of an eBook made available to the trade. This policy requires that a publisher placing a pdf, mobipocket, or ePub version of a title into the supply chain must apply separate ISBNs to each ‘product’.
In the sometimes arcane world of standards discussions can sometimes get heated and this policy has generated strong opinions on both sides of the argument. Some publishers agree in practice with the International ISBN’s requirements and some publishers do not. Those who do not are typically applying their eBook ISBN to only one file (often the ePub file).
As noted, the ISBN policy is consistent with past practice that called for the application of a separate ISBN to the hard cover, large print, library edition and so on. The specific eBook requirement dates to revision to the entire ISBN standard approximately five years ago. The Book Industry Study Group (BISG) recently commissioned a study to review current practice and opinion from supply chain partners on this eBook ISBN issue and the study is expected to be completed by the middle of November. Out of the study, BISG expects to develop a policy statement that addresses the objectives of the International ISBN community while representing the realities of the US marketplace.
As you may know I am conducting the study for BISG and I am condensing my interviews into a findings report. I've conducted over 50 interviews with more than 70 people across the supply chain and thus should have an excellent perspective on what is current practice.
 F.G. Foster: http://www.informaticsdevelopmentinstitute.net/isbn.html