When Book Publishing Gives You ISBNs, Make ISBNade

December 7, 2011 by Thad McIlroy

The Book Industry Study Group (BISG) today published its new policy for best practices in assigning ISBNs to digital products, aka ebooks. With endorsement from BookNet Canada, the National Information Standards Organization (NISO), and IBPA, the Independent Book Publishers Association, it’s therefore applicable across North America (“but could be applied elsewhere as well”).

When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. When the legacy identification scheme for print books is ISBN, do your best to adapt a now antiquated and inadequate numbering system. Hats off to the “60 unique individuals and 40 unique companies” who endured the “truly collaborative learning process,” put their differences aside, and came up with what I agree is an optimal interim solution.

The policy adheres closely to the most recent guidelines from the International ISBN Agency, and like that document includes an assortment of qualifiers, “substantially the same,” “significantly different,” “should have,” “reduce…confusion,” “as a last resort,” and so on.

Here’s the new ISBN policy in three simple commandments:

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.

It’s easy to imagine how the ISBN system, after nearly 40 years of yeoman service, fell apart. Digital books can now be files, apps or web pages. Each version can vary, by software, browser, OS and/or device. Content and presentation often differ. Apple no longer natively supports Flash content; does content cease to exist if your device can’t play it? And so on. The International ISBN Agency published a good summary of the problems from its perspective, including the frank assessment that “current recommendations in the published standard are unhelpful, not least because they refer to obsolete file formats (and the technical file format is not necessarily the sole or even the main product differentiator).”

Yes, this is an interim solution until the development of the next grand metadata system, due to be released at my funeral. Is it perfect? No. Is it a big improvement and an important stop-gap measure? Absolutely.

Phil Madans, director of publishing standards for Hachette Book Group and committee chair for the policy group notes “as Digital Books are still evolving, we intend to continue to refine and supplement the recommendations over time, building up a practical, fluid guide to how Digital Books should be identified.” Amen.

UPDATE: BISG offered a webcast January 11 designed to help clarify meaning and expectations regarding the BISG Policy Statement. There’s more info about the webcast at Publishers Weekly and a link to the $49 instructional download.

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  • BISG ISBN Recommendations Lay Groundwork Publishing Future | Digital Book World

    Dec 8th, 2011 : 10:28 AM

    […] publishing analyst Thad McIlroy explains it on his blog: 1. Assign a unique ISBN to each file format for each […]

  • Philip Thrift

    Dec 10th, 2011 : 6:16 AM

    When you think about this, it doesn’t make much sense. It says that the EPUB and MOBI versions should have a different ISBN. But EPUB and MOBI are mostly interconvertable (basically a reformatting — the same HTML and CSS is there) and do the same things (EPUB is a superset, really). Suppose you have an Android tablet and you get an EPUB ebook. In the software of the tablet one could have a converter — like calibre http://calibre-ebook.com/ — that automatically converts the EPUB to a MOBI and you could be reading the ebook in a MOBI reader vs. an EPUB reader on the same tablet that would look the same as in a EPUB reader. Would you expect to see the MOBI ISBN or the EPUB ISBN? Only a fairly simple software transformation has been made.

    Also I just got an ebook from Smashword http://smashwords.com and you get them in a bundle of formats: MOBI, EPUB, PDF, RTF, PDB, LRF, … What this recommendation seems to be saying is that each one gets a different ISBN. This was not the case. It was the same ISBN on both the EPUB and MOBI versions, just as you would expect.

  • Thad McIlroy

    Dec 10th, 2011 : 6:54 AM

    While indeed EPUB and Mobi have similar format capabilities and are often convertable from one to the the other, the same is not at all true of, for example, PDF or RDF and these two formats. Most of what’s in a PDF or RDF file would be lost in a conversion to EPUB or Mobi. Indeed most of what can be in an EPUB 3 file would be lost. So the short-term fix is to err on the side of identifying files that are possibly quite different in their content.

    My post gave insufficient emphasis also to BISG’s necessary focus on the importance of the role of ISBN’s in enabling e-commerce. While some sites, such as Smashwords, offer multiple formats for download, the big players offer only one. In this case the ISBN becomes also simplifies sales tracking for the publisher.

    As I say, not a perfect system.

  • Philip Thrift

    Dec 10th, 2011 : 8:07 AM

    What I think in practice will happen for a e-publisher who is EPUB-based is that if they would be able to sell their ebook (.epub) in the Nook Store, iBookstore, Google Bookstore, etc. with the ISBN (eISBN) they assigned to that ebook, but when it came to putting it in the Kindle store would just let Amazon put an ASIN on it (as Amazon continues to be outside the EPUB standard).