Archive for The Future of Publishing

Cheaper Textbooks (So They Say)

I don’t often write about textbook publishing, but with the start of the new school year I thought it appropriate to say a few more words on the subject. I say more because I blogged about the changing student textbook market around this time last year, exploring how the rental market in particular had started to affect the ways college students acquire and think about their course texts.

Well, that was a year ago, and paper books are soooooo 2011. The big push this year (which, admittedly, has been building over the course of several years) is for electronic course texts or, in some cases, the bundling of electronic resources with traditional paper textbooks. I can’t stop hearing about the subject both on my own campus and in the periodicals I follow, including The Chronicle of Higher Education.

To wit: this week’s Chronicle included a story entitled “With ‘Access Codes,’ Textbook Pricing Gets More Complicated Than Ever.” (Apologies in advance: you’ll have to be a subscriber to read the full text.) It focuses on a business student at the University of Maine, Luke Thomas, who, last semester, needed to buy a (paper) textbook for his introductory English course. Expensive — but so far, so good. The complication occurred when Thomas discovered that the book, published by textbook giant Cenage, came bundled with a code he would need to access supplementary materials, which were only available online. He and his wife had been planning to use the course text together, effectively cutting the net cost of the overpriced book in half. But because each code was tied to one, and only one, student, they were unable to do so — that is, unless one of them was willing to forgo participation in the class’ online element and potentially jeopardize her or his grade. You can read Thomas’ great, muckraking blog post about the incident here.

I’m sure there are myriad instances of college students confronting these types of dilemmas right now, and not only the married ones. I remember friends during my undergraduate years (this was the early 1990s) routinely buying course texts that they’d then share for the semester. I’m pretty sure I did this once myself, in a Communication course my roommate and I had both enrolled in. But what I see, in the emerging age of e-publishing, is a deliberate attempt on the part of textbook publishers, suborned either by greedy or willfully ignorant faculty, to mitigate and even eliminate these types of arrangements.

What makes this situation all the more startling is the language that’s typically used to sell e-learning materials to professors and students. Over and over again we hear how e-texts are “cheaper” than their printed, paper counterparts and how supplementary online materials add real value to them. What the marketing departments won’t tell you is that that “cheaper” isn’t an absolute term and that value-added actually comes at a cost.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that a student can buy a $50 e-version of a course text whose paper edition would cost $100 brand new. That’s a 50% savings, right? Well, not exactly. If two friends wanted to share the cost of the book together, that cost savings is already matched — bettered, actually, since there exists a robust used market for paper textbooks that would probably net the students at least a few dollars at the end of the term. (You generally can’t “sell back” an e-text, since you license rather than own the content.) As for the so-called value-added e-features, Thomas’ story makes abundantly clear how, in fact, this value isn’t added as much as paid for.

I don’t doubt that large textbook publishers like Cenage want to follow what they perceive to be industry and cultural (some might say generational) trends in making such an aggressive move into e-publishing. But it’s not only about that. It’s also about hammering away at the first-sale doctrine, which is the legal principle that allows the owner of copyrighted material to share it with or resell it to someone else without fear of legal reprisal. The move into e-publishing is also a way to effectively destroy the market for used textbooks, which, admittedly, has long been difficult to sustain given publishers’ efforts to issue “revised” editions of popular texts every few years pop over to this site.

Bottom line: if you believe in the free market, then you should be opposed many of these types of e-publishing initiatives. There’s no such thing as a free lunch — or even a cheap one, for that matter.

So with that, then, I want to bestow my first ever Late Age of Print Hero Award on Luke Thomas, for his courageous efforts to bring these important issues to public attention. Thank you, Luke.

Share

Define "Future"

First, I hope all of my readers in the United States had a wonderful Thanksgiving.  I really needed a break myself, so I took last week off from blogging in order to recharge.  Second, I want to thank everyone for the amazing response to my previous post, on e-reading and indie bookstores.  I haven’t had a post receive that much attention in a while.  All the the feedback just goes to show how urgent the situation is.aton-mebel.ru

On to matters at hand: the release of the fifth edition of the American Heritage Dictionary.  I don’t know if you’ve been following the story, but in case you haven’t, the New York Times ran a solid piece about a month ago on the marketing campaign surrounding the volume’s release.  It’s quite a blitz, and not cheap.  The publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, shelled out $300,000 to promote AHD5.  The volume retails for US$60, so the publisher will need to sell 5,000 copies just to cover the marketing, and I’d guess at least double that to cover production and distribution costs.

Thatsalottadictionary.

But even more interesting to me than the marketing is Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s decision to produce both physical and electronic editions of the AHD5.  At a time when we hear over and over again about how the future is digital — and the future is now! — the publisher has decided to take a hybrid approach.  It has released AHD5 in four different formats: a print volume; an e-book; a website; and an app.  The latter three are digital, admittedly, although the disproportion is probably a function of the proliferation of electronic platforms.

The AHD5 e-book is completely overpriced at $60, although I say that not having perused it to see its features, if any.  The app doesn’t come cheap, either, at $24.99, although you get it for free if you buy the print edition.  It’s intriguing to think about how different media can affect the perceived value of language.

The publisher’s decision to offer AHD5 in multiple formats was partly a pragmatic decision, no doubt.  These are transitional times for books and other forms print media, and no one can say for sure what the future will hold (unless you’re Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos).  But the decision was, from a historico-theoretical standpoint, unusually well thought-out, too.

Protracted periods of change — and the uncertainties that surround them — beget intense forms of partisanship, something’s that’s all too apparent right now in book culture.  You might call it, “format fundamentalism.”  On the one hand, we have those who believe print is the richest, most authentic and enduring medium of human expression.  At the opposite extreme are the digital denizens who see print media as a little more than a quaint holdover from late-medieval times.  There are many people who fall in between, of course, if not in theory then most definitely in practice, but in any case the compulsion to pick a side is a strong one.

The problem with format fundamentalism is that print and electronic media both have their strengths and weaknesses.  More to the point, the weaknesses of the one are often compensated for by the strengths of the other, such that we end up with a more robust media sphere when the two are encouraged to co-exist rather than pitted against one another.

So let’s return to the example of AHD5.  Print-on-paper dictionaries are cumbersome — something that’s also true, to greater and lesser degrees, of most such books.  And in this regard, apps and other types of e-editions provide welcome relief when it comes to the challenges of storing dictionaries and other weighty tomes.  And yet, there’s something to be said for the shear preponderance of physical books, to which their capacity to endure is surely related.  The same cannot quite be said of digital editions, hundreds and even thousands of which can be stuffed into a single Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble Nook, or Apple iPad.  The endurance of these books depends significantly on the longevity and goodwill of corporate custodians for whom preservation is a mandate only as long as it remains profitable.

I could go on, but these are issues I address at length in the preface to the paperback edition of Late Age.  The point is, it’s more useful to think about print and electronic media not as contrary but as complementary, in fact we need to begin developing policies and legislation to create a media sphere balanced around this principle.

But until then, hat’s off to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for providing an excellent model for how to proceed.

Share

The Visible College

After having spent the last five weeks blogging about about algorithmic culture, I figured both you and I deserved a change of pace.  I’d like to share some new research of mine that was just published in a free, Open Access periodical called The International Journal of Communicationberryjam.ru

My piece is called “The Visible College.”  It addresses the many ways in which the form of scholarly publications — especially that of journal articles — obscures the density of the collaboration typical of academic authorship in the humanities.  Here’s the first line: “Authorship may have died at the hands of a French philosopher drunk on Balzac, but it returned a few months later, by accident, when an American social psychologist turned people’s attention skyward.”  Intrigued?

My essay appears as part of a featured section on the politics of academic labor in the discipline of communication.  The forum is edited by my good friend and colleague, Jonathan Sterne.  His introductory essay is a must-read for anyone in the field — and, for that matter, anyone who receives a paycheck for performing academic labor.  (Well, maybe not my colleagues in the Business School….)  Indeed it’s a wonderful, programmatic piece outlining how people in universities can make substantive change there, both individually and collectively.  The section includes contributions from: Thomas A. Discenna; Toby Miller; Michael Griffin; Victor Pickard; Carol Stabile; Fernando P. Delgado; Amy Pason; Kathleen F. McConnell; Sarah Banet-Weiser and Alexandra Juhasz; Ira Wagman and Michael Z. Newman; Mark Hayward; Jayson Harsin; Kembrew McLeod; Joel Saxe; Michelle Rodino-Colocino; and two anonymous authors.  Most of the essays are on the short side, so you can enjoy the forum in tasty, snack-sized chunks.

My own piece presented me with a paradox.  Here I was, writing about how academic journal articles do a lousy job of representing all the labor that goes into them — in the form of an academic journal article!  (At least it’s a Creative Commons-licensed, Open Access one.)  Needless to say, I couldn’t leave it at that.  I decided to create a dossier of materials relating to the production of the essay, which I’ve archived on another of my websites, The Differences and Repetitions Wiki (D&RW).  The dossier includes all of my email exchanges with Jonathan Sterne, along with several early drafts of the piece.  It’s astonishing to see just how much “The Visible College” changed as a result of my dialogue with Jonathan.  It’s also astonishing to see, then, just how much of the story of academic production gets left out of that slim sliver of “thank-yous” we call the acknowledgments.

“The Visible College Dossier” is still a fairly crude instrument, admittedly.  It’s an experiment — one among several others hosted on D&RW in which I try to tinker with the form and content of scholarly writing.  I’d welcome your feedback on this or any other of my experiments, not to mention “The Visible College.”

Enjoy — and happy Halloween!  Speaking of which, if you’re looking for something book related and Halloween-y, check out my blog post from a few years ago on the topic of anthropodermic bibliopegy.

Share

The End of Publishing (Books Are Dead and Boring)


I heard about this video from the good folks over at BoingBoing and just knew I had to share it with all of you here at The Late Age of Print.  Now, I generally don’t make a habit of posting corporate promotional videos, but this one’s a gem.  Truly.

DK, a subsidiary of Penguin, originally created this ingenious short for a sales conference.  Spoiler alert: it plays upon and then completely reverses a host of misconceptions people have about so-called “digital natives.”  Be sure to watch the whole thing through, because there’s a good bit of misdirection going on in the first half.

I’m working on something BIG at the moment related to Late Age, and so I’m not going to blather on at length about the video.  Just enjoy it, and consider it a little something to tide you over.  Hopefully I’ll be able to roll out the big news in a week or so.

One other quick announcement: Columbia University Press, my publisher, is currently holding its annual spring sale. The Late Age of Print is 50% off the cover price, which is a steal.  Stock up and save!

Share

It'll Be War!

By now most of you reading this blog probably know about the latest dust-up over ebook prices.  For those of you who haven’t been following the news, here’s a brief synopsis followed by some thoughts on the history of book pricing.

A couple of weeks ago officials at Macmillan, one of the largest global book publishing firms, decided to put the screws to Amazon.com.  For over two years now the retailer has insisted that $9.99 is the decisive threshold at which consumers will begin trading reading material composed of atoms for stuff made of bits.  Reportedly it’s managed to sell three million Kindles and who-knows-how-many e-books, but still Macmillan begs to differ on the matter of pricing.  Management there believes that a more flexible scale would be preferable to Amazon’s flat-rate, with new e-titles starting at $15 and older works listing for around $6.

Well, Amazon got so miffed by Macmillan’s proposal that it temporarily suspended sales of any new books published under its imprimatur, which includes such venerable labels as Farrar, Straus & Giroux; St. Martins Press; Henry Holt; Tor Books; and others.  Macmillan responded by calling Amazon’s bluff, knowing full-well that Amazon’s decision to de-list the publisher’s capacious catalog ultimately would hurt the retailer’s bottom line more than it would help its cause of ebook pricing.  With the door now open, other presses are jumping on the higher-priced ebook bandwagon.

This is a fraught issue, to be sure.  As a frequent book buyer, I’m grateful to Amazon for doing its part to keep ebook prices low for as long as it could.  The company clearly understands the psychology behind the pricing of digital goods.  Consumers intuitively grasp that the marginal costs of producing any given copy of an ebook is next to nil, and so we’re understandably reluctant to buy up e-titles and expensive hardware when paper books can be had for a comparable enough price.  On the other hand, I recognize that the promise of advances and royalties gives professional authors incentive to continue producing new work.  Accordingly, they have a compelling interest in maximizing their return through healthy (read: inflated) prices.

We could go around and around all day about who’s right and who’s wrong here.  As someone whose paycheck comes primarily from my work as a university professor and only secondarily from my publications, selfishly, I’m inclined to side with Amazon.com.  But really there are no clear-cut good guys and bad guys here.  The whole situation reminds me of a recent dispute between physicians at my local hospital and a major health care provider, each of whom accused the other of excessive greed and bullying.  In the end, the only party who suffered was the people who, for the duration of the quarrel, had to drive 50 miles to get the health care to which they were entitled.

Anyway, this may well be the first major conflict over the price tag for ebooks, but it’s surely not the first time the book industry has gone to war over book prices.  This has happened at least a couple of times before, first in the late 19th century and then again in the 1920s/30s.  In both instances, a bunch of young, brash publishers decided to slash their prices as a strategy to gain market share.  Older, more established firms responded by digging in their heels and waging a clever PR campaign designed to convince the public that it was in their best interest to pay more than they actually needed to for books.  (You can read more about this history in chapter 1 of The Late Age of Print and in volume III of John Tebbel’s magisterial A History of Book Publishing in the United States.)

What might these earlier price wars tell us about the present situation?  Anyone looking to establish themselves as leaders in digital publishing would do well to undersell their competitors by offering electronic editions at or below the $9.99 price-point.  The goal should be to sell as many copies as possible, by finding a price so attractive that no one can resist.  It’s funny: we hear all the time about how book reading is on the decline in the United States and elsewhere.  Could it be that the falloff is attributable not only to the usual scapegoats (electronic media, waning attention spans, etc.) but also and significantly to publishers’ greediness over book pricing, electronic or otherwise?

Indeed, if history teaches us anything, then it teaches us that publishers who’ve made their mark selling low can succeed in the long run.  Just ask Simon & Schuster and Farrar & Rinehart (yes, that’s the same Farrar of Macmillan’s Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux).  They were among the upstarts of the 1920s and 30s whose decision to sell books for a buck sent the old-timers into a tizzy.

Ringing any bells, Macmillan?

Share

"The Localized Appreciation of Books Is Gone"

Sherman Alexie
www.colbertnation.com


I love it when something that you think will be good turns out to be even better than you’d hoped.  Case in point: author Sherman Alexie’s visit to The Colbert Report last Tuesday night.  I expected Alexie to chat up his latest book, War Dances. I didn’t expect to be treated to such an intelligent commentary on the future of book culture in America.

Colbert starts out by affirming the author’s decision not to allow the digital distribution of his book.  Alexie cites concerns over piracy and privacy as his motivation for doing so.  I’ve noted here on the blog how certain e-book devices can expose book lovers to all sorts incursions into their intimate reading lives.  Alexie, for his part, ups the ante.  “I’m an Indian,” he states.  “I have plenty of reasons to be worried about the U.S. government” peering over his shoulder while he e-reads.  Colbert — ever the (alleged) enemy of literacy — chimes in with his objection to digital books. “You can’t burn a Kindle.”

Alexie then notes how the revenue structure of the music industry has changed in the digital era.  Here I believe he over-reaches somewhat, but in any case his claim is that the music is no longer what primarily makes money for top recording artists.  Now, touring and performances comprise their primary revenue stream.  He fears the same may one day hold true for book authors as well, suggesting a future in which the book-as-cultural-artifact will become incidental to paid-for author appearances.  And here Alexie echoes one of Kevin Kelley’s predictions from his 2006 bombshell published in The New York Times Magazine, “Scan This Book!“, from which the late John Updike recoiled in horror.

The rest of the interview offers something of a rejoinder to this vision for the future of the book.  In a word, it is unsustainable.  Alexie recounts how the experience of the book tour has changed for him over the last decade or so.  It used to be that he would engage all sorts of local media and indy bookstores while traipsing around the country to promote his latest work.  Today, Alexie complains, “the localized appreciation of books is gone.”  Book blogs notwithstanding, what little coverage books receive in the media today mostly occurs in the national press — in exclusive forums like The New York Times and, well, The Colbert Report.  Chain bookstores, meanwhile, now play host to the vast majority of author events.  The result, he notes, is not only a diminished conversation about books at the local level, but also the elimination of untold numbers of book-related jobs that are ancillary to, yet nonetheless sustain, the book industry proper.

I can’t say that I agree with everything Alexie had to say about the past, present, and future of books in America, but his insights were provocative enough for me to air them here.  I do agree with his final point wholeheartedly, though: “White folks should be ashamed that it’s taking an Indian to save part of their culture.”  Indeed.

Share

In Medias Res

This week the blog In Medias Res, which is hosted by the Institute for the Future of the Book, has gathered together a bunch of great contributions around the theme, “Books as Screens.”  Definitely, definitely check them out.

On Monday Hollis Griffin of Northwestern University contributed a post called “Talking Heads: Books, Authors, and Television News.”  There he explores the becoming-everyday of books and authors on TV, in an era of media deregulation and convergence.  Yesterday one of his colleagues at Northwestern, Elizabeth Lenaghan, posted a provocative meditation called, “How Do you Hide Behind a Kindle?”  She asks, “Apart from our ability to snoop on fellow train riders or pass quick judgment on a person’s taste, what are the potential consequences of fewer printed books in public spaces?”  Today IMR is featuring my thoughts on “The Selling of Bookselling.”  It’s largely a riff off of the themes I develop in Chapter 2 of The Late Age of Print, which explores the politics of retail bookselling in the United States.  On Thursday we’ll see a post entitled “Possible or Probable? An Imagined Future of the Book” from Pomona College’s Kathleen Fitzpatrick.  Capping things off on Friday will be New York University’s Lisa Gitelman, whose post is called “What Are Books?

In Medias Res is an intriguing publication in that it asks contributors not to post per se but rather to briefly “curate” a film or video clip, often connected to some larger theme.  I love that the blog is hosted by the Institute for the Future of the Book, and that Hollis Griffin and Elizabeth Lenaghan finally connected the dots between books and audiovisual media to give us our theme, “Books as Screens.” Thanks, you two!  And thanks to all of you, my readers, for hopping on over to IMR to post comments.

Share

The "End" of Oprah

The philosopher Gilles Deleuze once mentioned an “eight year black hole” in his career, in which his publishing dwindled to almost nothing.  Lately I’ve been feeling as though this blog has been sucked into the same black hole, since I haven’t posted anything in over a month.  Sorry.  Teaching and a host of other responsibilities have kept me from my running commentary on the past, present, and future of book culture.  I’m back now, and hoping to sustain a pretty good push through the winter holidays.

Today I’m writing about Oprah. On Friday, November 19th, Winfrey announced that she’ll be pulling the plug on her daytime talk show in 2011, after 25 years on the air.  You can read more about the details of the announcement here, in the New York Times.

Honestly, I’m a little surprised that this struck people as news.  In 2006, I believe, Winfrey said that 2010-2011 would be the last season for Oprah. In any case, the real news — and what most likely prompted the public reminder of the talk show’s impending end — was Winfrey’s decision to launch a cable TV channel bearing her name.  As if “Oxygen” wasn’t enough!

The cable channel got me thinking about a point that I raise in the conclusion to The Late Age of Print. There I examine how Winfrey seems to have inverted the usual strategy of branding.  It used to be that products were branded as a means by which to differentiate them from other, similar products in the marketplace.  No so with Oprah, who’s spawned TV shows, magazines, films, websites — indeed, a sprawling array of media and non-media products.  As I observe in the conclusion, it’s not that Oprah products are branded; it’s more apt to say that the Oprah brand is “producted.”

The announcement of the cable TV channel’s launch made we wonder if I’d actually taken the analysis far enough.  I’m tempted now to say that the Oprah label isn’t merely a brand.  It performs far work than this.  If you’ll forgive a momentary lapse into geek-speak, it may well be that Oprah is a platform upon which to build things, including “hardware” (i.e., media infrastructure and institutions), “operating systems” (i.e., the milieu or “culture” of those institutions), and “software” (i.e., the content or programming to fill those institutions).

The announcement of the cable TV channel also made me wonder what else Winfrey may have in store for us once The Oprah Winfrey Show has wrapped.  For my purposes, I’m most interested in the fate of the Book Club, which has been hosted on the talk show since 1996.  I seriously doubt that Winfrey will abandon books come 2011, given how much notoriety her bibliophilia has brought her.  But perhaps, rather than simply recommending books, she’ll venture into publishing them herself.  Isn’t that the next logical step?  After all, people already routinely refer to the books she recommends as “Oprah books.”  Who’s paying the actual publishers any mind — other than, of course, other publishers?

For more than a decade Winfrey has been the darling of the book publishing industry.  In the coming age of the Oprah platform, what would it mean for the established publishers suddenly to become her…competitors?

Share

A Big Week for Books (Week in Review)

I’ve been racking my brain for the last several days trying to figure out what to post next here on The Late Age of Print. The problem isn’t there there’s a lack of material to write about.  If anything, there’s almost too much of it.  And the fact that there is so much reveals one simple truth about books today: however much they may be changing, they’re hardly a moribund medium.

Consider, for example, Wednesday’s debate in the New York Times, Does the Brain Like E-books?”  The forum brought together writers and academics from a variety of disciplines (English, Child Development, Religious Studies, Neuroscience), asking them to weigh in on the question.  Most intriguing to me is Professor Alan Liu’s contribution, in which he distinguishes between “focal” and “peripheral” attention.  E-books, it seems, dispose readers toward the latter type of engagement.

In some ways the distinction Liu draws harkens back to the difference between “intensive” and “extensive” reading.  The intensive mode refers to the deep reading of a small amount of texts, often multiple times, while the extensive mode designates a more cursory type of engagement with a significantly larger amount of texts.  The claim among book historians is that the coming of print ushered in a new age of extensive reading, which in turn  set in motion a mindful, but ultimately thinner, relationship to books and other types of printed artifacts.  Could it be that in emphasizing “peripheral” attention,  e-books are not breaking with but rather carrying on the legacy ushered in by print?

Next, Fast Company reports from the Frankfurt Book Fair on Google’s latest big announcement.  The search engine giant (it seems silly to even call the company that anymore) will be launching an online e-book store called Google Editions, beginning in early 2010.  What’s great about the service is that the e-titles won’t be device-specific, as in those created for the Amazon Kindle.  The initial launch will include a half-million e-books, and presumably more will be added as the months and years go by.

I’m still trying to determine whether the the texts that Google will make available via Editions will include those that the company has scanned for its Google Books project.  If that’s the case, then talk about the privatization of a public resource — practically all of the volumes having been housed originally in public libraries!  And even if that’s not the case, isn’t it strange that the company will essentially be subsidizing its book scanning efforts by hocking electronic texts published by the very same outfits who are suing them for scanning?

Finally, we have an intriguing post from Nigel Beale over at Nota Bene Books: Authors Claim Google’s Ability to Track Readers Puts Privacy at Risk.”  Evidently the Electronic Frontier Foundation is contesting the proposed Google Book settlement, on the grounds that the search engine giant cannot protect the privacy of individuals who choose to read e-books through its burgeoning service.

I’ve been raising similar concerns recently in my speech about the Amazon Kindle. The device automatically archives detailed, even intimate, information about what and more importantly how people read on the Amazon server cloud.  This kind of information is subject not 4th Amendment/search warrant protections but can instead be subpoenaed by prosecutors who are anxious to dig up dirt on suspects.  The question I raise in the speech, and the question that also seems to emerge in the case of Google Books and the coming Editions service, is, what happens to a society when privacy is no longer the default setting for reading?

Whew.  What a week for books indeed!

Share

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.

Share