ISBN Missing You for So Long

Just saying ‘ISBN’ creates an instant bond with any fellow book trade devotees in the vicinity. Whether you favour the spell out (i.s.B.n., generally with an element of slur) or the phonetic slide (IsBin), publishers, booksellers and librarians alike perk up their ears at the mention of this secret password, this shared standard, this format filer.

When does a helping hand, like the ISBN has been for the printed book, become a major pain in the behind? Opinions are split on thissome, like ISO and the US ISBN Agency, think that the ISBN will continue to serve steadfastly as the identifier for eBooks in all (and I do mean all) formats. But some small publishers like Elizabeth Burton of Zumaya Publications argue that not only is this exercise unnecessary, it’s cost-prohibitive enough to keep small presses out of the digital game.

ISBN cost isn’t an issue in Canada (thank you, CISS) but workflow shifts and labour expenditure certainly are. No one wants to expend energy on something that isn’t actually useful…so is it?

The Arguments For:

  • Each eBook format is a new edition and best practices dictate assigning identifiers to each format and…
  • If publishers don’t assign identifiers ISBNs to these formats, booksellers/wholesalers/distributors will, thus creating non-universal categorization and a heck of a lot of confusion…therefore:
  • It’s cheaper to do it now than to wait until you have to clean up the mess later. Prevention worth a pound of cure and all that jazz.

…and Against:

  • The primary sales channel for small presses is their own website so…
  • There’s little chance of downstream identifier adding (or at least not enough to cause major issues)…therefore:
  • Requiring ISBNs on all eBook formats is unreasonable as it’s not solving a real problem for small presses, but rather, creating one.

What’s your take? We’re all about the standards at BNC but only where it solves a problem. Comments welcome!