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E-Content Identification: The Business Case and Rationale for Using ISBNs and Other ISO-Standardized Identifiers

by Andy Weissberg

Do e-books and books in other digital formats need ISBNs, just the way print-on-paper books do? From the perspective of some publishers, the answer to that question isn’t quite final yet, but several major players in the industry—including the International ISBN agency, the U.S. ISBN Agency (Bowker), the U.K. ISBN Agency (Nielsen), and the Book Industry Study Group (BISG)—have emphatically said Yes.

The ISBN-13 standard explicitly covers electronic publications, parts of publications, and journal articles when purchasable separately. And BISG recently published a 16-page discussion paper called “The Identification of Digital Book Content” which recommends that publishers “use ISBNs to identify all digital products which need to be traded separately” (you can find the report at bisg.org).

As the U.S. ISBN agency, Bowker has been working to solve problems some publishers see with assigning ISBNs to all digital products sold through the supply chain (e-books and other downloadables that publishers sell only on their own Web sites, and only direct to consumers, don’t need them). Because of our diversified business focuses across the publishing supply chain, we’re in a good position to understand the major problems publishers and booksellers will have to deal with if each separately traded digital product does not have a unique identifier.

In an effort to increase adoption of the ISBN for digital content, the U.S. ISBN agency has taken several steps to make ISBNs more affordable for publishers, wholesalers, distributors, and others engaged in the production and sale of large quantities of digital books, chapters, and content fragments as tradable items. ISBNs for assignment to digital content can now cost as little as 10 cents each with purchases of 50,000 or more. (These opportunities may be most attractive to higher-education publishers and the STM marketplace, although trade publishers with reduced ISBN inventory levels that are aggressively digitizing their backlists in multiple e-book formats for sale through the supply chain may also be interested in the newly discounted prices.) In addition, we have introduced single ISBNs for book publishers doing just one book or a few titles, and we have established channel partner relationships with self-publishing service providers and vendors such as Lulu, which can now bundle the sale of a single ISBN at deeply discounted rates with other services they provide.

To respond to publishers’ concerns about “database bloat and management” and other workflow-related issues stemming from the assignment of ISBNs and metadata records for every electronic product, we developed and recently launched workflow solutions and resources publishers can use to manage and track all ISBN assignments and bibliographic metadata that comprise their listings in the Books in Print® database, which is licensed by several major U.S. retailers and search engines, as well as thousands of libraries across the globe.

You are invited to check out BowkerLink (bowkerlink.com), our online platform for supplying and managing key information—publisher profiles, titles, contributors, bindings and formats, pricing, and wholesaler/distributor relationships. BowkerLink memberships are free for a year in conjunction with the purchase of ISBNs, and membership is renewable after that year for $25. Also, we have launched the beta version of MyIdentifiers.com, a new online resource that combines the purchase, assignment, and management of ISBNs and other identifiers with a host of solutions and services pertaining to discoverability, search engine optimization, and social networking marketing.

Related Identifiers Identified

You may have heard talk of alternatives to the ISBN for book-related e-products. Here’s a quick look at these identifiers.

e-ISBNs. Some publishers have assigned a single ISBN as a consolidated identifier for all their e-book formats (e.g., Adobe [PDF], Microsoft [LIT], Sony Reader [LRF], Mobipocket [PRC], and Kindle [MOBI]). This practice, which relies on the invented and problematic term eISBN, serves only to differentiate multiple e-book versions of a book from its printed version and makes it impossible for the publisher to get sales figures by vendor or by specific e-book format.

While this ePUB format provides a production “roll-up” solution for publishers, it shifts the need to identify particular format options to their trading partners (wholesalers, retailers, and others), which need to differentiate among them in their catalogs. ISBN assignments by booksellers seem unavoidable in this context, despite the fact that they are likely to complicate passage through the supply chain.

The so-called e-ISBNs make it difficult for consumers to discover and purchase e-books in formats that fit their particular e-book reader requirements.

Along with major wholesalers and retailers, we strongly advise against the creation and use of e-ISBNs, and against the use of the term eISBN.

ASIN. Some retail channels have introduced new identifiers, such as the Amazon Standard Identification Number (ASIN). It is important to understand that the ASIN is not a recognized standard outside Amazon.com and its network. The words “Amazon Standard” should therefore be read to mean “standard internal to Amazon” rather than “external standard initiated by Amazon.”

DOI. Although it has often been described as the ISBN of digital content, the Digital Object Identifier was never intended to function as a supply chain identifier for tradable content. Its value is that it can be used to point to any resource—physical or digital—via a publisher-controlled and -moderated, fully dynamic, and updatable destination on the Internet where descriptive information and a variety of content can be provided along with e-commerce options.

Book publishers may increasingly recognize the benefits of assigning a DOI—as an aid to discovery—to just about anything they wish to market or monetize, including whole books (both print and digital), chapters, and other fragments. In many cases, the DOI will work alongside and in combination with an ISBN, and publishers can include an element of intelligence in the otherwise freestyle DOI syntax by incorporating the ISBN.

As part of its new MyIdentifiers.com portal and DOI offerings, Bowker has made SEO Title Cards available. These search engine–optimized book information pages are each assigned a DOI and incorporate the title and key supporting metadata associated with a book. The DOI that is assigned incorporates the ISBN—now commonly referred to as an “Actionable ISBN”—within its syntax.

ISTC. An identifier of “textual works” designed for a range of business uses, the International Standard Text Code will be launched this year. It does not identify physical or digital products, such as books and e-books, and it plays no role in the trading of content, whether physical or digital. It is intended to facilitate the exchange of information among authors, agents, publishers, retailers, librarians, rights administrators, and other interested parties.

One important benefit of the ISTC is that it meets the need—experienced by publishers, booksellers, librarians, bibliographic data suppliers, and others—to collocate different manifestations of the same title. It is also designed to be flexible and granular. For example, it can be used to identify War and Peace as an original work (providing a collocating mechanism for all printed and digital editions, as well as manifestations in a whole range of other media), and it can also be used by publishers to collocate the various editions of a single title or to collocate all the chapters within a single title. This means that it has considerable potential value for managing contracts and royalties as well as for assisting the search processes of online retailers, among many other applications.

And Back to the ISBN

The ISBN was created to identify each separately tradable “manifestation” of a publication. Its main purposes are to facilitate the trading of books, enable and support the discovery of books in bibliographic databases and library catalogs, support the use of retail point-of-sale systems and the compilation of cross-industry sales data, and support rights management and national lending rights systems.

Accordingly, the ISBN identifier is uniquely suited to identify all book-related digital products that need to be traded separately. Best practices and processes for assigning ISBNs to digital products are broadly identical to those you use for printed products.

When a product will be resold in a different manifestation from that in which you supplied it, you need to discuss issues of identification and agree on policies with your trading partners.

Experience has shown that the ISBN is essential for facilitating sales of print-on-paper products. As we see it, the flip side of the lesson is this: A publisher that does not assign an ISBN to each of its products will compromise the ability of the supply chain, and of consumers served by the supply chain, to discover, access, and purchase what it wants to sell.

Andy Weissberg is the general manager of Identifier Services at R.R. Bowker, which operates the U.S. ISBN Agency. He can be reached at 908/219-0206 or andy.weissberg@bowker.com.



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