E-book? What E-book? Which E-book?

The International ISBN agency might beg to differ, however, as they see the issue quite plainly. In November 2010, the agency issued a new set of guidelines and FAQs for the assignment of ISBNs to e-books and book apps, meant to clearly outline the required best practices. The guidelines boil down to a reiteration that each unique product, defined by a combination of file format and DRM software/access terms, must have a unique identifier. So, a PDF e-book that is purchased in perpetuity must have a separate ISBN from an EPUB file that is sold for a 30-day access period. An EPUB sold in perpetuity must have yet another, and so on.

The international agency may as well have been shouting into the wind. The Book Industry Study Group (BISG) recently undertook a survey of how the U.S. book sector is managing e-book identifiers, and its findings confirmed what everyone anecdotally suspected. "Bad practices" in e-book ISBN assignment are widespread, to the point of being "structurally embedded," in the words of the survey's author, Michael Cairns.

Trade and scholarly publishers were interviewed for the BISG project. Two of the most common practices reported were the assignment of an ISBN to each production format (PDF, EPUB) or the assignment of a single ISBN to all e-versions of a work. There were a wide variety of other use cases that came to light as well, including the occasional publisher who assigns no ISBNs to e-book products at all. A number of supply chain partners will also assign their own ISBNs, or proprietary identifiers, to a publisher's e-book products.

Cairns reported a number of intransigent problems for the adoption of the ISBN guidelines. For smaller publishers, the cost of purchasing enough ISBNs is a major hurdle to overcome. Other publishers reported difficulty that fulfillment systems have with multiple "e-ISBNs," or that their own internal databases simply don't have the capacity to handle so many identifiers. When supply chain partners apply their own ISBNs to a version of a publisher's e-book, there are roadblocks to the smooth communication of that information back to the publisher and out to the ISBN agency.

At an even more basic level, Cairns flagged a lack of consistent terminology and surmised that the "flexibility" of definitions "enabled specific arguments" for one or another use case. What is a "format," a "product," a "platform," a "version," an "enhanced e-book"?

Overall, however, the whole system has adapted to, and enables, the proliferation of "bad practices." Until a persuasive business case is articulated for a set of best practices to be widely adopted, things are unlikely to change. Cairns posited that his BISG Identification of E-books Research Project uncovered where that business case may already be starting to take shape: the library market. Librarians experience far more difficulty with the inconsistency of identification practices than other markets, but their experience—with "content available from many sources, for any [or] specific platforms, with varying rights and varying price models"—is a possible model for the future of the wider consumer market.

Erich van Rijn, Assistant Press Director for Publishing Operations at the University of California Press, summed up the problem from his perspective in the trenches: "Without some push from the supply chain, the publishers aren't going to settle around a self-imposed standard. Most publishers are trying to minimize the impact on their back office, and the fewer the ISBNs they need to manage, the lower the impact. But the problem [with that] is that the ISBN number used to identify tradable products, and if you use one to apply to multiple formats, its value is diluted. If we can sell a PDF and an EPUB file from our website or to a trading partner, we should be able to identify those two tradable products separately, period. This is the way it works for physical products—digital products don't need to be this huge exception."

After releasing the findings of Cairns' study in late January, BISG tasked a working group to examine the real-world e-book ISBN use cases over the next few months. The working group's goal is to propose practical recommendations that can be widely adopted throughout the publishing chain. If a business case is made clear for the adoption of such recommendations, we might hope to see a more "future-proofed" ISBN emerge.

Brenna McLaughlin
Electronic & Strategic Initiatives Director, AAUP