Taipei 101

I’ve only felt a strong earthquake once. I was on the second floor of an engineering building at Stanford, and as soon as the initial jolt shook the building I thought “cool, it’s an earthquake!”. Then the rolling started. It was only after the shaking was over that I started shaking myself. The feeling of solid ground beneath my feet had been wrenched out of my psyche, leaving me standing on a big bowl of jelly that could start jiggling again any moment.

Big earthquakes can cause building damage and collapse. Sometimes, it’s because a builder hasn’t followed code, and the violations are exposed by the stress of a quake. Other times, it’s because the building code didn’t properly anticipate the stresses of the earthquake. Either way, after a severe earthquake, buildings need to be inspected to assess damages and to determine if changes need to be made in the building code.

Modern technology allows buildings to soar through traditional limitations. For example, the engineers of Taipei 101, which was the worlds’ tallest building from 2004 to 2010, put a huge tuned mass damper system at the top of the tower. They made a virtue out of necessity, and the damper is now on display as a dramatic part of the Taipei 101 tourism experience, well worth the visit if you go to Taipei. (I was there in 2006.)

the tuned mass damper in Taipei 101

The Book Industry has been experiencing tectonic shifts as it moves from the solid foundation of print-based production and distribution to digital forms. The so-called “supply chain” is a long-standing edifice of the book industry being shaken by the resulting quakes. One of the strings holding the supply chain together is the ISBN, and it has proven to be reasonably robust. Still, there’s been enough “damage” to the ISBN and the supply chain it holds together that many participants in the book industry have been concerned for its integrity. (I wrote about the situation in July.)

Last Thursday, I was fortunate to be at a presentation of the Book Industry Study Group (BISG) about identification of eBooks. BISG hired Michael Cairns, the principal of Information Media Partners, to do a study of the use, issues and practice surrounding assignment of ISBNs in the US book industry. Think of him as a structural engineer hired to inspect the damage to the supply chain’s supporting infrastructure after an earthquake. Cairns conducted 55 separate interviews with a total of 75 industry experts from all facets of the industry. (I was interviewed for my expertise in the use of ISBN in library linking systems).

Cairns (@personanondata on Twitter) is an industry veteran- he’s held senior executive positions at Bowker and other companies. His presentation was clear and direct, and he quickly went to the heart of the matter. He found very little support for the policy set forth by the 2005 revision of the ISBN standard regarding when to assign a new ISBN to an ebook. Not surprisingly, he found that implementation of that policy is all over the map, with little coherence between one company and another in ISBN assignment practice. What’s more, he found that the industry is almost unable to communicate with itself due the wide variations in the practical definitions of terms such as “format”, “product”, “version” and “work”.

Despite the difficulties created by the uneven application of the standard, there’s no collective desire in the industry to “fix” the problem. Everybody has patched their systems to make them work in spite of a damaged infrastructure. The result is that poor practice has been structurally incorporated into the ebook supply chain, such that it doesn’t help any more to do things correctly. If everyone started following the rules tomorrow, the supply chain might stop working.

It’s as if an addition to a building needed to be built during an earthquake, even as things continued to shake. The framework is crooked, but that’s needed to keep the building from falling over. You shouldn’t expect such an addition to be perfect; it’s something of a miracle that it can be built at all.

One example of how supply chain tremors putting stress on the supply chain edifice was raised in the discussion after Cairn’s talk. At, they are enhancing some ebooks for the Nook. The enhanced ebooks are then offered at a different price than unenhanced ebooks. Normally, this would not affect ISBN assignment, because the modified ebooks are sold only by BN in the Nook store, and no one else would be affected. But last year, the supply chain was shaken when 5 of the big 6 publishers moved their ebooks to the “agency model“. All of a sudden, the ebooks sold in the Nook store were being set by the publisher. The publisher was now pulling price strings for each version of the ebook, and the string being used was, you guessed it, the ISBN. So the result of the shift to an agency model was that a whole bunch of ebooks suddenly needed their own ISBNs.

While everybody seems to be scraping by for now, there may be severe problems lying ahead. Cairns pointed to libraries as a supply chain participant that was already experiencing ebook ISBN dystopia, and he suggested that the experiences of libraries today may presage the sort of problems which may spread to consumer markets as the ebook industry matures.

Libraries have historically had a different relationship to metadata than  publishers and other supply chain participants. They KEEP their books. Publishers pay a lot of attention to metadatametadata. If the data rots (goes out of date), it’s not really a publisher problem. So libraries have maintained their own metadata to allow them to manage their collections.

eBook metadata is forever. Because ebooks are licensed, not sold, the licensor retains a relationship with the purchaser extending beyond the sale, and must maintain metadata surrounding the license for much longer than in the case of printed books. There are new sets of intermediaries and many more possibilities for business models. This is already playing out in library distribution channels, where ebooks are being licensed, lent, rented, printed, viewed, bundled into packages and purchased. If multiple sets of licensing terms are used for an ebook, resulting in multiple products with different prices attached, are new ISBNs needed? In the past, the answer would be a clear “no”; things like the agency model have changed that to a clear “I don’t know”.

Another issue laid out by Cairns was the low profile and negative perception of the US ISBN Agency (and by extension, ISBN International) in the ebook industry. Many of his interviewees had the impression that the assignment policies were being driven by the agency’s business model (basically, the selling of ISBNs and related databases). If only it were so simple!

Brian Green, Executive Director of ISBN International spoke briefly about a similar study his group had commissioned. Although this study (PDF, 509KB) focused less on the US situation, many of its findings were similar to those of the Cairns report. At least one recommendation in that report has been acted on- ISBN International has released an updated FAQ (PDF, 363 KB) on assignment of ISBNs to e-books. You can help with another recommendation by helping to disseminate it widely!

The BISG’s role in all of this is to serve as a place where the book industry can sit together and figure out how to function more effectively. The work of the BISG committee that sponsored the Cairns study will be to develop new consensus around practices and resources that will help to solve problems. Clearly, the committee has a lot of work do, building on the structural assessment laid out by the Cairns report. Development of a common vocabulary and set of definitions may be a very productive staring point for the group.

Perhaps the book industry will need the standards equivalent of a tuned mass damper. I can’t wait to visit that skyscraper.

Via Eric Hellman’s Go To Hellman blog


  1. Wasn’t this discussed at length only a few days ago ? The industry sees no need for ISBN but the ISBN people have to figure out a way to justify themselves pr they may lose their jobs ? No idea what all that earthquake cr@p was about.

  2. Relating this to an earthquake is excellent. We’ve had the initial shock, followed by aftershocks which will continue for a while. Right now it seems people have left the building (including Elvis) to run around in the streets declaring that the sky is falling. I don’t feel quite so panicked, so I’m not getting caught in the stampede. My only concern would be the insistence that each form of electronic formatting would require a separate ISBN. To do so would be totally unnecessary. Using one identifier would simplify listing in a catalogue.

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