Is the ISBN Still Necessary?

My inner distribution nerd was thrilled to discover (via José Afonso Furtado) Michael Carins’ recent reflections on the death of the international standard book number, or ISBN, over on his blog PersonaNondata.  The argument goes something like this.  Over the last several years there has been a noticeable movement away from the ISBN, particularly in the case of e-books.  Leading the way has been Amazon.com, which refuses to assign ISBNs to any of the Kindle books it sells.  With book digitization there has also tended to follow dis-aggregation, or the chopping up of books into smaller, component parts that can be sold separately.  How do you assign a single ISBN to what’s fast becoming an exploding whole?

Cairns clearly knows his stuff.  As a former President of Bowker, he was chin-deep in the trenches of the recent effort to rework the ISBN for the 21st century.  The result was the shift from a 10-digit to a 13-digit standard, which went into effect on January 1, 2007.  My question is this: is the ISBN still necessary?

Anyone who’s read The Late Age of Print will know that I do not ask this question lightly. I devote the better part of Chapter 3 to the ISBN’s history, and to tell you the truth, in the process of doing the research I developed something of a crush on this smart little product code.  Personally I’d be sad to see it go.  But as an historian of technology it seems clear that the ISBN has just about exhausted its usefulness.

It’s important to bear in mind what computing and online communications looked like when the ISBN was first conceived, back in the late 1960s.  Processing power was paltry by today’s standards.  Broadband was barely an inkling of an idea.  The ISBN was developed within the context of these technological constraints, as a concise and thus highly efficient way in which to convey extremely detailed information about the language, publisher, title, and edition of any given book.

Today computers are capable of processing much more complex data strings, which need not be limited to numerals or the occasional letter X.  Furthermore, broadband has resulted in much faster electronic communications and consequently obviates the need to “keep it simple” and to the point (Twitter notwithstanding).  In other words, the constraints under which the ISBN was created hardly apply today.

The ISBN was designed not only to facilitate “back-office” communications about books.  It was also designed to facilitate their distribution.  And in this respect Amazon’s move away from the ISBN with its Kindle editions is telling.  Time and again the company has shown that it, and only it, wants to control the distribution of Kindle books.  Indeed they are digitally rights managed so as to forestall their circulation beyond anyone besides the reader/customer/end-user/licensee (I’m not entirely sure what to call this person anymore).  Amazon is moving us away from an era of more or less unfettered book circulation, and its slow abandonment of the ISBN is a manifestation of this.

It’s also worth remembering that the ISBN grew up at a time when the book industry showed perhaps its sharpest division of labor.  There were authors, agents publishers, typesetters, printers, binders, distributors, booksellers, and certainly a whole host others all working in concert in disparate places on a single product.  Now consider Amazon. With Kindle the company effectively becomes an extension of the publisher, typesetter, printer, and binder, all while acting as book distributor and seller.  If Amazon has its way then we are likely to see a further breakdown in the book industry’s division of labor.  What’s the point of an industry Esperanto when centralization is fast becoming the order of the day?

Incidentally, this is precisely why the answer to my question, “Is the ISBN still necessary?” is still a “yes,” despite all that I have had to say about historical contexts and the like.  The ISBN was more than just a product code.  It was an accomplishment — a testament to an industry’s ability to achieve unity despite the pressures of competition, corporatization, and globalization.  Disturbingly, the waning of the ISBN signals the opposite trend: the growing hegemony of a single player who holds disproportionate sway over the industry as a whole.


with thanks to p.

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3 comments

  1. Horst says:

    To catalogue media, you still need a unique identifier for each item to make sure it’s clear which edition/printing/version you are referring to (cf. Dublin Core’s dc:identifier element). Why invent a new kind of identifier when the ISBN already exists and does the job perfectly?

  2. [...] Is the ISBN Still Necessary? — The Late Age of Print Over the last several years there has been a noticeable movement away from the ISBN, particularly in the case of e-books. Leading the way has been Amazon.com, which refuses to assign ISBNs to any of the Kindle books it sells. With book digitization there has also tended to follow dis-aggregation, or the chopping up of books into smaller, component parts that can be sold separately. How do you assign a single ISBN to what’s fast becoming an exploding whole? (tags: publishing isbn ebook Kindle amazon fragestellung 08/2009 2009) [...]

  3. I am assuming that Amazon has, of course, ditched UPC barcodes for their Kindle editions–so they are doing away with two unique identifiers that most print books have these days. My question is, why haven’t UPC barcodes made ISBNs redundant in the publishing world?

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