In this month's episode, we talk about ISNI, the International Standard Name Identifier. It's an identifier with potential in the supply chain for your trading partners and as a marketing tool. Tom Richardson, Bibliographic Manager at BookNet Canada and Kendra Martin, Marketing Administrator at Dundurn Press, join us to shed light on how ISNI is and isn't being used.
(Scroll down for a transcript of the conversation.)
Elizabeth Barker: Hello, I'm Elizabeth Barker, BookNet-ian, Loan Stars managarian, and now, guest host of the BookNet Canada podcast. In today's — or tonight's, not entirely sure of your listening schedule — episode, we're going to complain, sort of.
It's more, we're going to identify some "gee, I wish that was or wasn't a thing" sort of, within the confines of the publishing industry. And what's that one thing that every member of this industry comes into contact with? Identifiers.
And an identifier does exactly what it promises. It identifies a particular product or service and links it to specific information. Identifiers are not exclusive to the book industry, but we have three that more or less cover all bases of our supply chain.
The most recognizable of these is the ISBN, which for future trivia team purposes stands for International Standard Book Number. Now you can impress your friends and non-publishing friends — and some of your publishing friends at parties.
This 10- or 13-digit number has been adopted in over 160 countries, is used by everyone you know professionally, and encompasses information on the product, such as title, format, edition, etc. One of the main strengths of the ISBN is the fact that it's considered transactional.
It's a way to convey information to trading partners that is widely supported and more often than not leads to monetary gain. However, it does have its limitations. One of which is, though debatable, the fact that each individual or format or edition of a single work requires a different ISBN.
Unlike the ISTC, which stands for, okay, I'll give you two seconds to guess, yep: The International Standard Text Code. Obviously. It wasn't obvious, I had to Google it. The ISTC refers to a textual work. So, different formats can be united under a single work identifier.
And this isn't useful to retailers or distributors who are selling specific versions of a book. Usually a different price points dependant on format, not to mention territorial issues for different editions, which could lead to deep and long-lasting supply wars, which I am early-dubbing "The War of Rights." May it never come to pass.
The truth of the matter is that though keeping track of every single instance of a book by one number is a phenomenal gift in certain light, it doesn't benefit the entire supply chain. And so, though it has its merits, the ISTC never truly caught on.
But that brings us to the shining light. The identifier surging with potential: The ISNI, the International Standard Name Identifier. I made a joke once in a large meeting that got zero response, so of course, I have to make it again now. The joke was that we nicknamed the ISNI, "the ISNI," which rhymes with Disney, because it's a dream and a wish your marketing colleague makes when you're fast approaching any contributor deadline. It's a fairy tale we tell publishing students about this magical number that unites all works based on contributor.
ISNI is not exclusive to the book industry. Any actor or artist you know and love will most likely have their name registered with the ISNI International Agency. Was Chris Evans the first name I looked up? Yep. And you don't have to be a true human to even obtain an ISNI. The number identifies the persona, not necessarily the person.
Lemony Snicket, for example, who is both a pseudonym and a fictional character has his own ISNI, and that ISNI is separate, though connected to Daniel Handler, the true author of the works. And, yes, in this one instance the ISNI did kind of kill the marketing ploy.
This, of course, is this briefest of overviews. Instead of me continuing to ramble on and on and on, I thought it would be more interesting if we contacted the leading authority in regards to book standards, who is not an organization in himself, though he could be Tom Richardson. And lucky he works like fifty feet from me, so I just kind of waved him over.
Hey, Tom. Thanks for letting me pull you into this random room with a microphone. I was hoping you'd be able to share some of your insight into identifiers with our listeners.
Tom Richardson: Well, you're right about my rambling on philosophically. So I guess, yeah, fun. I liked what you said about identifiers. I mean, it's basically something that identifies something. But it's the databases in the computer networks and the interweb that provides the links between the information and the services.
So, a successful identifier is one that gets used. And something or someone has to benefit from it. And, to be successful, there also has to be enough identifiers available to be used. So, print retailers needed the ISBN to support efficiencies in their business in the 1990s. For one thing, they wanted EDI. They wanted to be able to, like just transfer orders back and forth. So they forced the publishers to begin to use ISBNs pretty much universally. I mean, I can remember when I started in the industry, there were some poetry books that you could find without a barcode on the back of them. But they were few and far between.
By the late 90s, though, the ISBN had enabled bookselling on the internet to begin. And it also had allowed the development of International Standards for Metadata. So, ISBN basically was the reason we have EDI, ONIX, and other forms of book metadata, and it is a remarkable thing what could be done if there's just enough identifier use.
Now, if you want to backstep slightly, an ISBN is just a shortcut to an entity, the publishers. And they are currently tasked to track creators, content, and format as a saleable object. I mean, that's basically the definition of a book that we have now. So, what things could we do if we had widespread use of identifiers for creators or content? Because I don't really think you can take format away from publishers...
Elizabeth: Okay, but what about the ISTC, which hasn't seen the same support as ISBN?
Tom: So, okay. ISTC represents the work. The thing the publisher gets the rights to and creates books from. So it will be invaluable on either side of the ISBN. So, useful to agents, to track, rights sold and available to publishers. And on the other side, as well, for libraries and other users after the fact. Used bookstores, bibliophiles, anybody who needs to find the equivalent content, or track all things available that were created from a work. And it would also be invaluable for publishers in the middle to just, you know, use as an identifier to help link their records together.
Anyway, so the thing might be to just think of it in those terms. How could we increase sales by enabling books and other product offers to retailers? Because it would be quite simple to link the downloadable audiobook to the print sale if they were quickly linkable.
Now, that something could be done now. There's no reason you couldn't do that, even though they might be sold to different services. An identifier might just make it simpler to do that. It might support a type of transaction that uses the content as its hinge, and it'd just make things simpler.
But, the reason publishers had trouble with the ISTC was one: Cost. And, publishers thought it would be self-defeating to enable consumers, or institutions, or anything else to find equivalent content in another market for less price across a number of things. It would just make it, make their rights sales less meaningful.
Elizabeth: Well, I guess anything in the public works would just be a nightmare. How would you make your edition stand out from anybody else's?
Tom: There, I think the ISBN works well, just because, I mean, Pride and Prejudice. Everybody's got a copy of it someplace. And you're just trying to tell them all apart as individual formatted entities.
So, getting into the big thing that you need to have is use. I mean, if you don't have widespread use, you don't have an identifier. And nobody has basically implemented ISTC as a widespread identifier.
Now, that's not entirely true because the librarians actually use work identifiers, and they use them now. So, there are identifiers out there that are performing an equivalent function but I don't...and as far as I know, rights and rights agencies must be having the same issue or must track their content.
So, I'm sure there are identifiers on either side of the ISBN that function in the same way. But I don't think that librarians get ahold of the rights ID and use it or vice versa. So, you know, in effect, we have something that could be identified — content — that we don't provide a trackable identifier onto.
And just because people refuse to use it, or one side of the fence or one side of the transaction librarians are using something that they kludge together. The other side of the fence are doing something else, so they see no advantage to combining their forces. And publishers in between them are doing nothing to help. So that's basically where ISTC sits.
Elizabeth: So then, of course, if we bring up the ISNI. Do you think it's ever going to replace the ISBN if it's more universal in a sense?
Tom: Well, no. Okay. ISBN might be replaced. And widespread use of ISNI might be a factor in helping it get replaced because, I mean, I don't think anybody at this point thinks that ISBN is the ideal identifier for use in the digital realm.
So, I mean, it was great when you had a hardcover and soft, and mass market and you know, and now, things are too fluid. So, I mean, the ONIX standard now supports a price composite that can isolate licensing arrangements. I mean, it's simply because you need to sell one ISBN more than one way.
Elizabeth: Well, we also ran into some problem digitally with ISBNs and the fact that many publishers when it first started decided that format didn't matter. So, PDF and an EPUB would share an ISBN, which was a nightmare. And then, on top of that, for certain databases, dummy ISBNs were just put in because they didn't want to create a digital ISBN. So I mean, there's all this historical sort of mess that still hasn't been cleaned up entirely.
Tom: It gives me the willies when you say digital ISBN.
Elizabeth: I know it's not a real thing. But you understand what I'm saying?
Tom: Yes, unfortunately, yeah. I mean, the separate supply chains and, I mean, in a sense having an ISTC, like something that identifies content that linked the two supply chains would work a hell of a lot better than expecting ISBNs being twisted to represent digital formats as well as print formats when they're not really the same thing. But anyway.
Elizabeth: But what about for the ISTC, something like the Harry Potter graphic novels, where technically it's based on works by J.K. Rowling, but it's usually the different book and a different illustrator. So they have different creators and different content. Would all of the...would any of these identifiers help other than the ISBN?
Tom: Okay, if we understand that an ISBN represents kind of three things, I mean, a saleable object, a format, and a linkage that's handled internally within a publisher between the content and the creator, the license and the creator. They manipulate the content to create the product that they sell in a format.
If you look at it from that point of view, and ISNI is a free forming identifier that would link things outside of the objects. So, creators create, and they license or sell their works in a variety of ways through a variety of means, but never directly.
But an ISNI provides a link between say, the sales of the digital product and the print product in a way that is separated but still linkable for discovery purposes that's quite useful. So, as a thing to drive discovery, ISNI is a much more superior vehicle than the ISBN because basically, well, you'd have to have a matching table listing 50 ISBNs to know that they represent the same thing or...
Elizabeth: It is a nightmare. I've done that.
Tom: Related product composites in ONIX will...
Elizabeth: Which are not often filled out.
Tom: Or in some cases, I mean, if you take every Robert Munsch book and you interlink each one of them, you will be looking at probably something around 5,000 ISBN entries. And that's probably more than a retailer wants to track just to track Robert Munsch.
Elizabeth: But as a reader, we want more.
Tom: Well, we want more but I mean, it could all be replaced by ISNI. That's the point, is all of Robert Munsch's books are identifiable through an ISNI. He has an ISNI. I don't know that absolutely for sure. But I can virtually guarantee it because he's published so many books that a librarian would have provided an ISNI for him by now.
And it's for the price of looking it up and throwing it in your data, you could start creating a link between records that would enable other good things to happen. I mean, everybody's excited about blockchain and its possibilities. I still don't understand what they are, myself. But if you wanted to replace the ISBN you are going to start needing to build other links between the products than just an ISBN. Because an ISBN is not a really good way to link products. Blockchain may be a really good way to enable the content to be sold with or without photographs because all the rights information could be made transactional, and you can choose the amount of transaction that you will need to pay for. So you might get the text without the illustrations. You might get the illustrations and the text, or you might just get the illustrations. And, each one of those is probably a blockchain-enabled transaction that could be done in some sort of distant future but isn't here yet. But, it would work better with an ISNI, wouldn't it? I mean, it just would have an identifier that made the content creator more stable.
Elizabeth: That's true. But I mean, not every publisher who publishes their author has all of their books in their library, so you can see where the ISBN keeps that sort of rights separate.
Tom: Well, I mean, it represents what a publisher holds. I mean, publishers are right now working to try and maintain their rights to all three of the things that they have, their relationship to the author, access to the content, and the ability to make a saleable product from it.
But if, you know, life, or something, or the creator wants to do it in a slightly different way, then they may be forced to start changing. Whereupon an ISBN becomes devalued because that's what it represents. And it's not really designed to represent anything else.
Whereas, an ISNI is just simply a discovery tool for finding the content producer. And ISTC would be a way, the same sort of thing potentially in the content. Potentially, it should be a discovery tool for finding the content.
Elizabeth: And for digital marketing, I mean, this is the ideal solution. You have not only every book written by creator at your fingertips, but you also have all of their social media handles and any sort of linkage you can put there.
Elizabeth: I mean, it's just, it's so perfect for this sort of new wave of digital marketing. It's sad that there's a further division between print and digital, but they really are two separate worlds.
Tom: Yeah. I mean, there's all these general concepts that float around for things that might change. There's discussion in the standards community about whether or not contributors should be handled distinctly from the book. I mean, it's a very logical way...it's always been a logical way to organize a database. But it would help a lot if it was done more universally in various systems. I mean, it would enable events and other things to be more stable and better presented in a more efficient way.
So there's a lot of reasons for having an identifier separated out. It can enable a lot of other systems to work better if we had it. But until we do, we're not at the point where the ISBN is at in the mid-90s were retailers had forced almost everybody to use them.
Elizabeth: Adhere to, yeah.
Tom: And we have to, because of the discovery base, there's no one entity that's going to make us. I mean, maybe Google, maybe Google will make us. I mean, it's interesting that Google and owner of YouTube invests in ISNI for YouTube content. I mean, that's how they identify it. That's how they're using it. So, Google recognizes the value of this. The question sort of is, does the publishing community benefit or not from making books more discoverable? I mean, and that where ISTC came up, we said, no.
So maybe we should say no to ISNI, but ISNI is a little more distinct from that. And it's because, it's not the content itself but a secondary attribute to the content, the writer, then, you know, maybe publishers will be willing to support it. And if they enough do, then the weight of use makes discovery better. And those more easily discovered books will sell more.
Elizabeth: So, this, of course, is the more philosophical or as I call it, anything related to Tom, the encyclopedic approach. In terms of practicality, we wanted to talk to someone in the community who was putting this identifier to practical use.
Lucky for us, the Canadian publishing, grapevine always bears fruit. And it told us Dundurn Press had started to harness the power of the standard number identifier.
Dundurn, in case you're unfamiliar, is a leading independent inclusive publisher offering Canadian books from every corner of the country, more than 2,500 books, in fact. We checked in with Kendra Martin, the Marketing Administrator at Dundurn in Toronto where she channels her passion for books and precise metadata.
Thank you so much for speaking with us. And today we're talking about ISNI or I-S-N-I. And Dundurn is one of the few publishers that are actively working to utilize this data. So can you tell us a little bit about what's going on over there and what led you to this decision?
Kendra: Sure. Well, I'd see a few presentations in the industry. I think some of them were by BookNet, some of them by BISG, just about the usefulness of the name identifier in disambiguating contributors for data recipients.
And so, about the same time as I was getting this information coming at me, I noticed that Indigo was requesting this information in their ONIX feedback reports coming up as a warning.
This was kind of like late 2016. I thought, well, why not just start adding the ISNI information as a routine part of our ONIX record set up. So, just implementing it for going forward as we're adding new books. Make sure that the contributor has that information.
I guess another part of that decision is that Dundurn really prioritizes looking into the future when preparing our ONIX data. We want to have really robust industry-leading data so that we're not playing catch up when say this data point is more broadly used, we kind of pat ourselves on the back and say, we've already implemented this.
Elizabeth: Trailblazing! So, tell us a bit about the process. So, how do you obtain an ISNI for say a debut author?
Kendra: So that's interesting. We've been impressed that quite a number of our authors, who some of them are debut authors, already have an ISNI assigned to them. So that simply going on to the website, isni.org and looking at the number in their system.
If we find a contributor who does not already have an ISNI we do not request one. And the reason is that back when I was looking at implementing this, I looked into the costs associated with setting up so similar to in the states how the ISBN process is a paid assignment. It's a paid service.
So, we just simply felt that, okay, we're not really willing to pay that cost yet, but it's certainly not something that we would be averse to in the future or doing it as a project as a group of publishers, it's sort of on the back burner, a blue sky projects for now.
Elizabeth: Have you had an author ask you to basically pay an ISNI for them?
Kendra: No. If we did, I mean, I'm sure we could do that as a marketing cost, but I've never had an author aware of that number at all.
Elizabeth: So, as a marketer, do you find it's been helpful to have this information at your fingertips?
Kendra: Well, I was thinking about that question. And, I mean, to be brutally honest, I'd say no. We don't really have a problem that we're confused about who the authors are internally. And then externally, I'm not really finding that a lot of people are using it in a significant way. So, it's kind of useful, but like I said, it's more about future proofing. I haven't found a solid used case for it.
Elizabeth: It's funny because for me because I work with sort of everybody. I dream of having an ISNI because trying to track down, if you have a very common author name, and trying to track down their social media handles...
Kendra: For sure. Well, I mean, and that's from a publisher standpoint, we are already getting all that information. We're getting full biographies and the contact information. So it's more like we want it to be available to our partners. So it's actually good that someone is using it. That is good to hear.
Elizabeth: So, if marketing's not benefiting in the same way that you would think, are there other departments that seem to have benefited after this integration?
Kendra: I think it would be most useful to sales. I haven't had any feedback from anyone that they are using it in any significant way than our organization, but it's there. So, I think sales is probably the biggest benefit to that.
Elizabeth: It's definitely frustrating because there's such potential and yet, it takes so long for everyone start supporting these sort of identifiers.
Kendra: Yes, for sure.
Elizabeth: So, I did go to your website. And, so I didn't see any of them listed. So, why have you decided not to display this to the public?
Kendra: That's an interesting question. I had never considered displaying it on the website. For one, we are going through a website redesign right now, but it's not something that I had thought of displaying on our redesigned website, but maybe I should be.
I guess we don't have the information for all of our authors. It was kind of like ISBNs. Like some people are interested in that. But it's kind of information you want to sort of, not bury but have very secondary. And so there's so much information we have that sometimes you perhaps want to make sure you can prioritize the stuff that you think people are looking for rather than bombard them with information.
I'm assuming that people that are really into our books and our data are looking at something like CataList or something a bit more...
Elizabeth: Okay. But if you could use this data for anything, what is your dream scenario?
Kendra: Yes, I have a dream scenario. So, Goodreads and also possibly, the Amazon author profile, if they could start accepting the ISNI for their author pages, because the number of times I go on Goodreads and I have to put five spaces in between the first and last name, the author, so that it's not confused to someone who's written a manual on chicken farming, and our author writes for a YA audience, and it's completely different, that would be so useful.
So that is my dream scenario. And I'm sure there are so many other applications like I said, for the Amazon author profile and other places where they're creating an author page auto-generated from our data, but not kind of doing it perfectly.
Elizabeth: Well, what I find interesting about these identifiers is that the ISBN is perfect for print. It is a barcode. It is identifying the individual product. We are good to go. But the ISNI is just ideal for digital marketing.
Kendra: Yes, I think all kinds of retailers can use it to tie together you know, the...you know, you have series information. But what about if an author has written books that are not identified in a series? Stand-alones, but related. And things like pseudonyms, Sophie Kinsella has some books that she wrote previously under her real name.
Elizabeth: Really, I didn't know that.
Kendra: Yeah. Her real name is Madeleine Wickham. They've re-released her books. It says like Sophie Kinsella writing as Madeleine Wickham, but if you've had an ISNI then...
Elizabeth: I'm sure you'd know that. Thank you so much for speaking with us. Everyone check out Dundurn's new website in the summer.
A big thank you to both Tom Richardson and Kendra Martin who were able to show me why my joke bombed. ISNI isn't a fairy tale. It's a real actionable piece of metadata that could soon be widespread thanks to early adopters, like Dundurn.
And speaking of Dundurn, here's the plug for their website. We put it in the comments below. And you should check it out, and also, you know, look at some books while you're there. As for the International Standard Number Identifier, unfortunately, we're at a "wait and see" standpoint but it means I could get to do a whole follow-up podcast to this.
Anyway, I'm Elizabeth Barker. I'm signing off. And a final thank you to the government of Canada for their financial support through the Canada Book Fund.
Aw man, I didn't talk about libraries — also, go to the library, it's amazing there. Ok, bye.