How to Identify E-books
by Angela Bole
To easily enable movement of your books through the supply chain, you’ve relied for decades on the ISBN, assigning a different one to each edition of a title you publish and knowing that each of your licensees will assign a unique ISBN to each of their editions. But what is the protocol for assigning ISBNs to e-books published in a variety of editions for a variety of e-reading devices?
For a long time, nobody—not even the large book wholesalers and retailers that work with publishers of all sizes—could find a way for everyone to agree about identifying e-books. Now, though, thanks to 18 months of work by more than 60 people representing more than 40 companies in the book business, guidance on best practices for identifying digital products is available.
The Book Industry Study Group’s new Policy Statement on the subject addresses the critical need to reduce product identification confusion in the marketplace in order to provide the best possible purchasing experience for consumers.
From Chaos to Consensus
To achieve consensus on best practices for identifying digital products, BISG’s Identification Committee began by gathering information about what was actually happening throughout the U.S. book supply chain.
As Phil Madans reports, this was “quite a challenge.” Madans, who chaired BISG’s Identification Committee and is director of publishing standards and practices for Hachette Book Group, explained that the challenge involved bringing “some measure of consistency and clarity to what our research revealed to be so chaotic and confused that some people even reported thinking ISBN assignment should be optional—a ‘nice to have.’ This, clearly, would not work.”
The full Policy Statement crafted by the committee and approved by the BISG board of directors includes definitions for terms such as Physical Book, Digital Book, Identifier, Consumer, and ISBN, as well as general rules of ISBN assignment and specific best practices for identifying digital products in the supply network.
In addition, the statement includes eight examples intended to provide guidance on how to assign ISBNs to digital products in real-life situations.
Best practice recommendations include:
Separate ISBNs should be assigned to all unique digital books for ordering, listing, delivery, and sales tracking purposes. In general, there are three major factors that determine the need to assign unique ISBNs to digital books.
1. Content. If two digital books are created, one an exact textual reproduction of a physical book and the other an enhanced version that includes video, audio, and so forth, then the two digital books are unique and different products, and each requires a unique ISBN.
2. Format. If an EPUB format, a PDF format, and a Mobi format (among others) are created, each format should be assigned a unique ISBN. This is similar to creating a hardcover and paperback edition of a physical book and should follow the same rules regarding ISBN assignment.
Note: When the application of DRM software is part of the transaction with the consumer (as frequently happens in the United States), it does not constitute the creation of a new format as the term is being used in this Policy Statement. In this case, DRM is not a format: it is a wrapper around a product. An EPUB file with DRM software applied is still an EPUB file, a PDF file with DRM applied is still a PDF file. In this case, DRM is not part of the product, it is part of the transaction. An ISBN is a product identifier, not a transaction identifier.
3. Usage Rights. If a digital book is made available with different usage rights in different markets (e.g., adjusting the usage settings so that printing is allowed in the version going to the education market, but not in the version going to the retail market), each version should be assigned a unique ISBN.
Note: As described in the note under “Format” above, usage rights specifically applied to a publisher’s digital book using DRM software, such as Adobe Digital Editions or Apple FairPlay, as part of the transaction between the vendor and the consumer, does not fall into the above category and does not require the assignment of a unique ISBN.
Endorsed and Ready to Use
The BISG best practices for identifying digital products have been endorsed by IBPA, BookNet Canada (the not-for-profit agency dedicated to innovation in the Canadian book supply chain), NISO (the National Information Standards Organization that publishers, libraries, and software developers turn to for information about industry standards that help them work together), Book Industry Communication (the U.K. analog of BISG, commonly known as BIC), and the U.S. ISBN Agency.
To download the best practices recommendations, go to bisg.org/what-we-do-cat-4-policy-statements.php. BISG invites publishers to implement them quickly and intends to continue to refine and supplement the recommendations so they will continually serve as a practical, fluid guide to how digital books should be identified.
Angela Bole is deputy executive director of the Book Industry Study Group. To learn more: bisg.org or email@example.com.