ISBNs – Vital or dying in e-publishing?

Part four of Anthony Finn's series of posts on data management which also includes
Book Metadata – an Introduction, Metadata, Customer Data and Title Management Systems
and Data Strategies in Academic Publishing.

It’s an important question for all publishers, because, let’s face it, ISBN’s are not cheap. Another post on this blog has discussed the importance of metadata of which an ISBN number is only one component.

A new, fragmented market for digital and print books has brought with it a variety of digital formats. And for non-fiction titles, particularly in academic publishing, offering individual chapter sales may further complicate things. So where is an ISBN actually useful?

•    Amazon/Kindle does not use ISBN as an identifier
•    Apple ibooks only use ISBNs for paid ebooks
•    Googleplay accepts files with or without ISBNs
•    Sony do not require ISBNs
•    Waterstones and WHSmith still use them

Nielsen recommends using ISBNs for every format, and each ebook format, while some aggregators will require one file, one ISBN.

In a world where readers are fighting their way through millions of books to find the title they want to read, the idea of a unique identifier is persuasive.  For instance Nielsen returns 32 different books with the title Rainbow’s End so here the ISBN provides real, trackable, identification.

With so many different file formats, and a cost associated with each one, it’s important to monitor the success of each ebook platform to ascertain which are contributing to profits, as well as to sales. However, to distinguish between these different  ebook sales, you need different ISBNs and these can be difficult to manage.  

From the author’s perspective there may be different royalties to be paid according to format, so again it is important to track them individually. But then when reporting sales, separate ISBNs will need to be grouped to get the full picture of the performance of a title.

So is the ISBN vital or dying? The answer, I believe, is both. In a digital world where clear, unambiguous product identification is a key to discoverability, the massive changes in publishing brought about by digital, the ever-changing delivery channels and the rise of self-publishing are just some causes of change to the established order. The ISBN is dying – long live the ISBN.


Author: Anthony Finn