Bowker’s Andy Weissberg on ISBNs and the Future of the Book

by | May 19, 2010


Today I’m pleased to have an interview with Andy Weissberg of R. R. Bowker. Bowker is a central player in the entire book industry due to the company’s status as the U.S. Agency of the International Standard Book Numbering Convention, as approved by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). ISBN was created in the early 1970s and is now in use in almost 150 countries. It creates a unique identifier that allows any book with an ISBN assigned to be tracked virtually anywhere.

In addition, R.R. Bowker also serves as the SAN Agency (Standard Address Number for publishing industry shipping addresses), the ISMN Agency (International Standard Music Number for sheet music), and the DOI Registration Agency (Digital Object Identifier). Bowker also collects and maintains bibliographic information on books published in the U.S. and maintains the Books in Print database.

Andy is Vice President of Identifier Services and Corporate Marketing for Bowker, and is instrumental in working on new identifier services, which we’ll talk about near the end of the interview.

I conducted this interview by email over the past week.

Andy, a lot of new self-publishers, coming into this side of the business for the first time, are surprised at the cost of ISBNs for their books. It’s been pointed out that the spread between the high price—1 ISBN for $125—and the low price—$1.00 each in quantities of 5,000—is remarkably big. Can you explain for my readers exactly what it is they are buying when they receive that 13-digit number, and why it costs so much?

First, I want to clarify the options and pricing structure for ISBN numbers which changed at the beginning of the year, reflecting up to a 50% price reduction for most units compared to previous years.

  • Single ISBNs costs $125.00
  • A 10-block of ISBNs costs $250.00 ($25.00 per unit)
  • A 100-block of ISBNs costs $575.00 ($5.75 per unit)
  • A 1,000 block of ISBNs costs $1,000.00 ($1.00 per unit)
  • Larger blocks (10K, 100K) are available as part of a more detailed inventory review.

All of the above options include:

  • Assignment of the numbers to the publisher and instant access to manage them at www.myidentifiers.com
  • Publisher and ISBN registration in the Publisher Authority Database which supports the International ISBN Agency Publishers International Information Database
  • Free access to MyIdentifiers.com to create and manage bibliographic meta-data records for each ISBN which are quality checked and incorporated in Bowker’s Books in Print database
    This database is a collection development and database of record for thousands of major and independent retailers (including Barnes & Noble and Borders), thousands of libraries and several major search engines, social networks and mobile channels.
  • All ISBNs and core components of meta-data records are now incorporated in Bookwire (www.bookwire.com) as “Title Cards” which are web pages and part of a search-optimized title discovery index.

All of the above services are provided for a one-time fee at purchase. The ISBN ensures that publishers and their titles can be discovered and play a pivotal role in cataloging, discoverability and trading as part of catalogues, point-of-sale systems, etc. and ensure that a title and/or a format of a particular title are unambigously identified no matter where it is found. An appropriate analogy would be domain names which are purchased and renewed annually for additional fees, except ISBNs never need to be “renewed” for any cost. Similarly to domains, ISBNs purchased on volume basis carry discounts as volumes increase.

Another issue that’s very confusing for self-publishers and small independent publishers is the use of ISBN with ebooks. With as many as 9 or more formats available, people are unsure how to assign ISBN and whether every single format requires it’s own ISBN which, for some, is a pretty big expense. What does Bowker recommend?

Bowker shares the view of the International ISBN Agency; e-book formats should be assigned separate ISBNs, especially where trading models involve multiple partners. There will, however, be instances of compressed supply chains where an e-book in a particular format is available exclusively through a single channel (e.g. Kindle). In those circumstances there is no requirement for an ISBN, unless the publisher needs it for control purposes. (A simple guiding principle is that a product needs a separate identifier if the supply chain needs to identify it separately). The assignment of separate ISBNs to each format ensures that the e-book ordered is the correct one for the user‟ e-reader device and/or software platform, it facilitates electronic trading of e-books, particularly where multiple formats are sold through the same channel. For example, without unique product identification, a retailer or library wishing to order specific formats would have to add various additional metadata fields that would require extra processing by each link in the supply chain, it enables product level reporting of sales and usage and facilitates management of e-book products by publishers, and provides a well-proven global system that is simple to use and involves no new integration work to fit into existing systems. This position paper might also be helpful as a point of reference: ISBN E-Book Paper, Feburary 2010

This situation, it seems to me, has been exacerbated by some of the online retailers and distributors who have pointedly ignored or denied the need for separate ISBNs for every different file format. Are there initiatives by Bowker or trade groups to address these concerns and dialog with these companies?

Bowker works very closely with numerous trade organizations serving the supply chain and its various stakeholders, including the Book Industry Study Group (www.bisg.org), AAP (publishers.org), Book Industry Communication (www.bic.co.uk), Editeur (www.editeur.org) and others to communicate best practices for identification. Most major online retailers and distributors encourage ISBNs; some require it. Even Amazon: (About ISBNs), Apple, Sony and Google encourage a separate ISBN, even when ePUB format is supported and especially if multiple versions of the file derivative will be sold and need to be differentiated for the end-consumer.

thebookdesigner.com bowker books in print andy weissberg

Both Google and Amazon are proprietors of vast and growing databases of books and related publications. Is Bowker involved with these companies to help coordinate uniform bibliographic practices across the industry?

Bowker works very closely with both companies. We recently announced our collaboration with Google as part of Google Editions. Under the terms of the agreement, Google will assign ISBN numbers to Google Editions in cases when book publishers have not assigned their own unique ISBNs to works they intend to make available for sale. Both Google and Bowker will encourage publishers to retain primary responsibility for assigning their own ISBNs to their respective Google Editions and including these records as part of the catalog data they distribute to their trading partners.

Many self-publishers and small independent publishers are concerned that their books compete on a level playing field with books from traditional publishers. We’ve seen from the recent report of 2009 publications that self- and small publishers are becoming a major force in publishing, if not yet in book sales. What is Bowker’s response to this phenomenon?

Bowker, in fact, issued this report: Bowker Reports Traditional U.S. Book Production Flat in 2009. We believe that the self-publishing market, often referred to as the “long tail” will continue to grow and we are very focused on helping its stakeholders to optimize the discoverability of their titles and drive sales. We continue to execute relationships with channel partners like Lulu who provide self-publishing services and make it easy to acquire and assign ISBNs. We still work with the large publishers who have successfully published books for decades; large publishers will continue to flourish and provide lots of value to authors who may not be adequately resource allocated to prepare, publish, commercialize and sell books on a large scale. We also believe the print-on-demand model will continue to grow, particularly as part of the re-launch of rare, out of copyright or out of print works.

We often hear about the importance of publications being discoverable, of having accurate metadata for discovery by search and for bibliographic purposes. What would be the best practices for self-publishers to ensure optimum discoverability for their books?

We encourage self-publishers to leverage the ONIX for Books meta-data standard to optimize discoverability: [download] ONIX Requirements for Inclusion in Bowker Products. This data can and should be repurposed within the meta-data construct of a self publishers’ web site source code to optimize search engine relevancy rankings, crawling and indexing. It can also be incorporated as part of fan pages on major social networks and other channels featuring information about books.

thebookdesigner.com isbn bowker andy weissberg

Many self-publishers report confusion with the various online data entries provided for registering and identifying their publications. Although myidentifiers.com is very user-friendly, Bowkerlink, the powerful access provided to publishers to manage their books’ bibliographic record, is quite a bit less so. Are there any plans to combine these facilities and make them easier to use?

MyIdentifiers.com provides a free way for self-publishers to create bibliographic records for each title. We are in the process of phasing out BowkerLink and migrating all users to MyIdentifiers.com. Since BowkerLink is used in other global markets, there is a fair amount of additional work to be done in order to ensure this migration supports global markets and key data elements, such as diversified currencies and languages.

I’m very interested in the new identifier that you’ve been working on, the International Standard Text Code (ISTC), and I plan to write more about this interesting development. Combined with the ISBN it seems that ISTC will fill urgent needs on the part of the whole supply chain that deals with text-based materials. What is the progress toward widespread use of ISTC? Are there mechanisms planned for self-publishers and small independent publishers to participate in this program?

The ISTC is still in its infancy stages of adoption, although there are several pilots that are now in progress and include multiple stakeholders – publishers, retailers, libraries, etc. We are working closely with BISG on these pilots as part of the Identification Work Group. The pilot programs are being executed to more closely validate ROI for various stakeholders. More information can be accessed at ISTC International. Self-publishers are welcome to submit a request for an ISTC assignment to their titles; requests should be sent to [email protected].

thebookdesigner.com book design self-publishing bowker

The transition to digital text and ebooks seems to be gathering speed. How do you see this transition playing out?

I firmly believe that the e-book market will continue to demonstrate explosive growth across all major segments of the industry. In addition to Kindle, the iPAD, Nook, Sony Reader and Google Editions, new devices and channels will continue to emerge. Business models will continue to diversify themselves from their legacy counterparts. Consumers will have more choices for how they can read as part of new “e-book experiences” – some segments like academic publishing continue to publish and commercialize chapters and fragments as e-books and provide these options at low costs. e-books will continue to become more interactive with cross-media capabilities built into them – links to videos for example. The mobile market creates for exciting distribution opportunities. Publishers will continue to create their own applications and diversified subscription/access models. Eventually, the cost of the devices will come down while the channels grow their catalogues and earn more profits on the content sales themselves. I believe we will continue to see more proprietary channels/devices emerge, although the Google Editions “cloud model” sets forth an interesting precedent which will likely be replicated and provides users with anytime, anywhere, any device access to the content they seek.

Finally, Andy, can you tell us about any new initiatives, products, services or capabilites Bowker is planning for the future? Do you have any insights for my readers on how these plans might impact self-publishers and small independents?

We continue to evolve our Bookwire models and recently launched the beta site and a new program that self-publishers can take advantage of, SEO Title Cards. We’re providing tools to create customized widgets that enable title information and full-text to be indexed and discovered, shared on social networks and virally marketed. We are also experimenting with new technologies like QR codes and intend to offer a new suite of capabilities to create and manage them. On the identifier front, we are participating in the ISNI consortium to bring forth a new identifier for the content creator which will advance and enhance discoverability as part of service packages in the near future. We are also developing and expanding Bookwire as a discoverability application on major social networks and mobile channels. The self-publisher represents a significant portion of our customer base and we continue to dedicate significant R&D to product development in support of this segment.


I want to thank Andy for taking the time to address these issues, some of which are critical for self-publishers and independent publishers to address in their own publishing practice, and for the technological changes as we move into a new era for books and publishing.

Andy referenced many resources, which I’ve collected at the end of this interview, and I encourage you to keep up with developments on this side of the book business. As Andy showed in his discussion of discoverability and the Bookwire “title cards,” this is something every publisher can do to enhance the standing of their books and their brand.

Resources Mentioned In This Article

MyIdentifiers.com
www.bookwire.com
ISBN E-Book Paper, Feburary 2010
Book Industry Study Group
Association of American Publishers
Book Industry Communication
Editeur
Amazon: About ISBNs
collaboration with Google
Bowker Reports Traditional U.S. Book Production Flat in 2009
[download] ONIX Requirements for Inclusion in Bowker Products
ISTC International
ISNI consortium

Takeaway: In an extensive interview Andy Weissberg of Bowker talks about phasing out Bowkerlink, new SEO tools for self-publishers, and the future of the book.

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3 Comments

  1. Dan Holloway

    Joel, this is fascinating stuff. I think the key part that needs emphasising is that bit about the Kindle. ISBNs are – currently – essential for self-publishers of books that they want people to stumble across on Amazon, but – to be quite honest – that is about it. Many of us self-publishers take the view that the key to long-term success doing it our own way has to be building a loyal following who will stay with us book after book, and talking directly to that audience. Stumblers are great but they’re not our core. If we are speaking to fans, and those fans are loyal, then we just don’t need an ISBN – and the more alt/indie the titles one produces the more NOT having an ISBN adds cachet – many of my readers would walk away if they found me on Amazon.

    The publishing industry is full of protectionism, cartels and restricted practices. The use of ISBNs is just one. Is anyone actually seriously suggesting we will be using ISBNs in 10 years’ time?

    Reply
  2. Mayowa

    Great Interview Joel.

    Maybe I’m being optimistic here, but these folks seem to be actively navigating the sea of changes that digitization brings to books.

    I’m still a bit wary of the whole buy more at a cheaper price model for the ISBNs. I’m not sure why my local grocery store and Bowker have to use the same model given that one sells physical items and the other identifying information.

    Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      Thanks, Mayowa. This information is pretty vital to publishers. The entire pricing model is a bit wacky to me, and although Andy ran through “what you get” for your money, there are many questions left unanswered.

      I will say that Bowker seems to be more forward-thinking than you might have guessed in that they are trying to find ways to adapt to the new digital reality. For a large, conservative company used to being more in the shadow than the light, this is encouraging.

      Reply

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