New ISBN Recommendations to Lay Groundwork for Future Publishing Innovations

By Jeremy Greenfield, Editorial Director, Digital Book World, @JDGsaid

New recommendations from the Book Industry Study Group as to how publishers assign ISBN numbers to their books are intended to anticipate further innovations in publishing.

After years of debate in the industry as to how e-books, apps and other kinds of digital editions should be classified, the BISG has set guidelines for publishers and their partners as to assign separate ISBN numbers for each version of a book – hardcover, paperback, ePub, PDF, for example.

While the guidelines address the many new formats that exist today because of the proliferation of e-readers and tablets, they are also designed to address future formats that could be invented.

“This wasn’t developed in a vacuum,” said Angela Bole, deputy executive director of the BISG. “This is a moving-target document.”

The recommendations themselves are granular and potentially confusing, but the overall rule is, if it’s a different e-book format, then it gets a new ISBN number, unless the difference is “transactional,” like the addition of digital rights management to the file, according to the BISG.

As publishing analyst Thad McIlroy explains it on his blog:

1. Assign a unique ISBN to each file format for each ebook.

2. The digital ISBN must be different than any print ISBN.

3. If you submit the same EPUB, PDF or Mobi digital file (and a few other defined formats) to a different distributor, use the same ISBN.

The idea is that as future file formats proliferate or new concepts of what is a “book” evolve in the future, this division between products and transactional accoutrements will provide publishers with guidelines as to how to classify their content.

“This system lays the groundwork,” said Bole. “They begin a dialogue about the differentiation between a product and a transaction in order to see where that takes us.”

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Industry in Agreement?

Some major publishing houses and book classification governing bodies have come out in support of the new guidelines. Meanwhile, some have not.

“We wholeheartedly endorse the policy,” said Phil Madans, director of publishing standards and practices at Hachette Book Group and the chair of the committee at BISG that crafted the policy statement.

Workman Publishing and Simon & Schuster were also among the publishing houses that confirmed to Digital Book World their support of the initiative.

“Up until now, it really hasn’t been clear what the recommendations were,” said Andrea Fleck-Nesbitt, director of digital publishing at Workman. “Hopefully this will help publishers and vendors alike adhere to one standard.”

Other publishers were not able to comment before press time. Random House declined to comment.

Meanwhile, the the U.S. ISBN Agency, the National Standards Organization and BookNet Canada, the Canadian organization that administers book classification, have all endorsed the guidelines.

The International ISBN Agency has not. There are differences in BISG’s policy recommendations and those of the International ISBN agency.

“There are slight discrepancies, but they are truly very minor,” said Beat Barblan, director of identifier services at Bowker, the company that administers the U.S. ISBN system. Barblan heads that operation.

Barblan and others anticipate that BISG’s policy will spur more debate on the details of ISBN classification.


The Cost to Publishers

Many publishers, including those that spoke to Digital Book World, saw this move coming and had already been adhering to the standards. For those that have not, changing their practices could mean additional costs to their businesses.

ISBN numbers themselves are sold by Bowker and vary widely in cost, depending on how many are purchased. They are sold in batches of 1, 10, 100 and 1,000 at $125, $250, $575 and $1,000, respectively, for standard processing. That means that they range in cost from $125 to $1 per ISBN number*.

But it’s not the cost of the ISBN numbers that publishers should be concerned about.

“If you look at the cost-per-book, it ends up being nothing,” said Bablan. “The bigger issue might be making changes to internal systems.”

As publishers have learned from transitioning from solely print production to print, e-book and app production, changing internal systems can be difficult and costly.

“If people want to make system changes, that might cost money,” said Hachette’s Madans.

Fortunately for publishers, tweaking the ISBN classification system will likely cost little – and many that are already following the guidelines will not have to implement changes.

*The numbers in this sentence have been updated to reflect new Bowker pricing. We had earlier reporter the old numbers which were still on the Bowker website. We regret the error.

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