Tom and I called in to the BISG meeting on Thursday (January 13, 2011) where the findings of the Identification of eBooks Research Project [pdf slides] were revealed and discussed. A more comprehensive document is coming from BISG in the next few weeks and I’ll update when it is available. For now, you can read the executive summary in Michael Cairns’ blog post BISG eBook ISBN Study Findings Released.
The results of this research are pretty distressing for someone who works with standards every day, but also (sadly) not at all surprising. Here are the key findings from the report:
- “Bad Practice” structurally embedded
- Enablers at all levels
- Definitions and nomenclature inconsistently applied
- Messaging & communication lacking
- Business case unclear
- Definition of ‘product’ fluid
- ISBN relevance challenged
- Library market problematic
- Bibliographic metadata substandard
- Solution(s) not obvious
In my opinion, these really aren’t separate issues and instead are connected in a nice little web of confusion. What bothers me the most is that it doesn’t have to be confusing at all, but over the past few years we have all (yes, ALL of us) enabled it to happen. We’ve enabled partners at all levels of the ebook supply chain to get away with bad practices: workarounds, inconsistent definitions, substandard metadata, lack of communication, and improper use of identifiers.
The result of this is that use of ISBNs and bibliographic metadata for ebooks varies publisher to publisher, and requirements vary retailer to retailer.
It’s not our job to tell the industry what to do, but it is our job to provide recommendations, collect feedback, maintain standards, and disseminate this information to all players in the Canadian book industry.
So, what can we do better? We can’t provide recommendations until there is an agreed upon standard in the Canadian industry, but we can help you get there. Now that this study has been released, we’re organizing a meeting of the Canadian Bibliographic Committee at the beginning of February to discuss it in a Canadian context. If you have ideas and opinions let us know before then so we can bring it to the table. We also sit on all international committees that are related to what we do, so we can represent Canadian needs in the international scene.
Maybe we can do better when it comes to communicating standards and best practices, though. What do you think? During the review of the BISG study, one of the findings that jumped out at me was that communication is lacking and “people don’t read the standard” (referring to the ISBN standard). So I tweeted this:
If the problem is that people don’t read the standard, we should make the standard easier to read & understand #bisg #isbnhour
To me, finding that people don’t read standards is a sign that we need to revisit and revise the way these standards are communicated so they are easier to read, use, and understand. I got some negative feedback for that tweet, basically saying “the standards are there for people to read if they want” but I think that’s a lazy response. Just because something is there doesn’t mean it is useful. What do you think? Is standards documentation easy to understand? If not, how can we make it better?
Retailers need to make their requirements clear. I reviewed all the ebook retailer documentation I could find (which is extremely difficult to find, btw) and nobody is being clear about identifiers. The worst basically only says “use an ISBN 13” and the best goes slightly further to explain that EPUB is a format that requires its own ISBN.
Furthermore, if a publisher submits a file with an invalid/duplicate/print ISBN, the file should be rejected. Instead, workarounds are often created. While workarounds might seem necessary in the short term to get a book into the store, it is only creating problems down the line in tracking, discoverability, and general education.
Retailers also need to help make the business case for unique IDs by displaying them and allowing readers to search by them. Additionally, take advantage of the possibilities that ONIX allows for through related products. You could be linking various ebook formats to each other and referencing print counterparts automatically via the ONIX file, but nobody is. These print ISBNs could also be indexed for search so readers can look up ebooks based on print book ISBNs. If it becomes a possibility then publishers will see the value in providing that information, and it will create a better overall experience for your readers.
Here’s a question: What do you want out of your identifiers? We need you to make a decision and then tell us about it so that we can create a standard before we’re completely in the wild west of publishing.
- Do you want to be able to track sales of an ebook and compare retailer to retailer?
- Do you want to compare sales across ebook formats?
- Do you want to be able to compare ebook sales to print sales?
- Do you want your readers to be able to search for an ebook via an ISBN?
- Do you want your readers to be able to find an enhanced version of this ebook?
- Do you want your readers to be able to find an ebook version of a print book via the print ISBN?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, this is what needs to happen:
Unique ISBNs need to be applied to the production format of ebooks, just like we do for print books. That way, the EPUB file that gets sent to Kobo, Apple, Sony, etc. has the same ISBN and can be tracked through the separate channels. An enhanced EPUB would have a different ISBN, and a PDF a different ISBN still.
We Love Your Feedback
Even if it’s negative (let’s call it constructive). Comment here or contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org with any and all thoughts regarding ebook ISBNs and metadata for books in general. We’re bringing the Canadian Bibliographic Committee together on February 1st, so please talk to us before then so that we can bring your concerns to the table.
We all need to step up and stop enabling bad practices to happen.
[Last Updated: January 21, 2011]
- International ISBN Agency’s Guidelines for the assignment of ISBNs to e-books