The importance and function of the ISBN in the new world of “books.”
by Laura Dawson/Publishers Weekly
As the digital landscape for books increases, new entrants to the market are puzzled by its insistence on the ISBN. To many–particularly e-book–only publishers–it seems that the industry is insisting on using an antiquated standard. Why can’t the ISBN be adapted to include suffixes that describe different formats? What use is the ISBN on the Web, where there are no bar codes? And how is this 13-digit number useful in a Google-driven discovery environment?
The job of the ISBN is to identify a book. Whether that book is a paperback, hardcover, PDF file, EPub file–if it’s going to be sold in the book supply chain, it needs an ISBN to identify it.
Metadata is information about the book, such as title, author, format, edition, page count, price, publisher name. The job of metadata is to describe a book.
The ISBN is a flag; the metadata tells how to interpret that flag.
In the last two years, there has been a proliferation of e-books and e-book formats, and a tremendous increase in the number of independent publishers and self-published authors who are new to the industry. And the debate about how to use ISBNs for e-books has become surprisingly fierce. Many smaller publishers are reluctant to purchase large blocks of ISBNs to assign to each and every format of each and every e-book. It is costly; maintaining that metadata is also costly and time-consuming. Most publishers would like to see the industry standardizing around a single format of e-book.
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