Michael Cairns, Information Media Partners; Scott Lubeck, BISG

Data is “horrifying” and is stifling the growth of the industry. A controversial subject so decided to get some hard data by doing a large scale set of interviews.

Little support for current ISBN policy, publishers don’t think they need them for new digital products; general move to “production” format policy, look at ISBN as guideline not as something that is required; limited business case, little support for ISBN to be assigned to the smallest unit; library supply problematic; continued need for education; limitation of ISBN for future needs; metadata issues

If don’t get arms around ISBN issue is that no two trading partners will really know exactly what is being traded. In long term if don’t get this right will see a cost base rise.


  1. Some of us believe that data is rather useful and are curious to know what’s horrifying about it and why it’s stifling growth. Poor quality? Too little? Too much?

    By the way, the BISG report addressed US publishers. In countries where Kindle and i-books are less dominant, publishers seem to think that assigning ISBNs to separate e-book versions is a good idea – not least in allowing trading partners to know what they’re trading.

  2. I think the ISBN needs to grow by two digits which would give a publisher the ability to assign a format number of their choice to a book–99 formats per book would be sufficient.

    On the other hand the growth from a 10 digit to a 13 digit was a pain in the ass.

  3. Data quality is one of several key issues that both BISG and the ISBN International studies are bringing to light.

    Fundamentally, the use cases associated with metadata in the world of ebook discovery, sales, fulfillment, rights management, sales reporting — and how these are addressed, executed and managed as part of variant workflows, commercialization of enriched content types, DRM variances, dynamic business models and changing requirements all must be taken into consideration by content creators and other constituencies across the supply and demand chain.

    From a quality point of view, publishers need to consider the interests of end users, and their behaviors as part of search and discovery, their growing emphasis and demands for a more ubiquitous multi channel content experience. As such, how products are differentiated and described so that they are uniquely and accurately discovered, purchased and used across devices, applications and other digital environments should define “data quality” and how it should be approached so that the content consumer is ensured of getting what he/she needs and expects. At the same time, enhanced ebooks leveraging multimedia assets as they are contained or integrated within the ebook content structure present new types of supply chain considerations…royalty allocation to the animator, revenue Sharing as part of ad models and apps…new lending and sharing models….social networking as part of user experience.

    As such, the ISBN provides a way for publishers, intermediaries and others with a standards based mechanism to uniquely identify a content asset or variant version of that assetwhich may need to be catalogued, distributed and tracked across various systems.

    The ISBN-IA has acknowledged that format-level requirements can no longer dictate the need for a separate ISBN, and that some formats vs others can be utilized across various devices and applications. If and when that format presents a host of variant attributes that would need to be acknowledged by the consumer or trading partner (e.g HTML5 vs flash compatibility, price variances, sharing, etc), a standardized identification and product description framework which can be most easily implemented and used by all stakeholders represents a compelling to ensure data quality for all.

    As for whether any standard can adapt as quickly to the ever-changing and dynamics
    brought forth by new ebook business models, use cases, workflows which no longer are either “open” or “closed” chains is a question that will only be answered by business cases that are proven and consensus across stakeholders who share common goals and interests. Knowing that Apple, Amazon, Google, BN and other retailers make available their ebook offerings and publisher content on each others respective devices through applications, browsers and other emerging capabilities, despite their “proprietary interests, it would seemingly make sense for them to support the definition of what standards in action need to accomplish in order to satisfy common interests for efficiently selling ebooks. Until this takes shape, publishers must take ownership of data quality in ways that accomplish these objectives. This has and will continue to present diversity and complexity, and challenges any assumptions around consensus being reached. So if for any other reason, an ISBN gives them a way to track ebooks that are likely to be sold through multiple channels which may make that same product available by way of utility, feature, function or price. But when that ebook “morphs” and has the potential to influence the content and user experience, it’s arguably a new product or version.

    In the physical world, bindings distinguished versions of products which should be identified uniquely via ISBN In the digital realm, there are so many attributes to contemplate and consensus among supply chain stakeholders seems to be non-existent or limited at best. And until business cases are proven or become core to the way that stakeholders measure or apply them (workflow efficiency, better discovery, increased sales,tracking behaviors and user preferences or experiences), to expect each segment of the chain to consistently leverage one standard or not would be unrealistic. This all, however, does not suggest that a standard should be abused or misused — “fake isbns” which duplicate real ISBNs only complicates things. Attempting to identify two unique versions of an ebook which carry influential attributes as part of usability, restrictions, etc. using same ISBN will challenge some segments more than others where the ISBN is actually used by consumers to comparison shop, such as the academic market by students once they register for a class and need to acquire books as part of curriculum listings and are provided ISBNs through their school’s online registrar. An EPUB file vs PDF with variant DRM restrictions could conceptually support or restrict how the student can access or use the ebook…in class on a laptop or ebook reader…using a device on site at the library…in a collaborative online study environment using one or more browsers vs only compatible for use by a single browser. All among attribute and use case considerations that should drive product identification and description behavior.

    Hope this helps to provide meaningful and actionable context.

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