Since its invention in 1965, booksellers have depended on the ISBN system used internationally to facilitate the distribution of books and to track sales. However, the digital revolution is changing even this long-standing publishing tradition. eBooks do not need, and mostly do not have, ISBN numbers (the cost of acquiring an ISBN ranges from $25 to $250). In a world that has become increasingly less analog, the perceived need to have a universal system is rapidly diminishing. Instead of one global identification system, there are now many. According to The Economist,
“Amazon has introduced the Amazon Standard Identification Number (ASIN). Digital Object Identifiers (DOI) tag articles in academic journals. Walmart… has a Universal Product Code (UPC) for everything it stocks—including books. Humans are also getting labels: the Open Researcher and Contributor ID system (ORCID) identifies academics by codes, not their names. And ISBNs are not mandatory at Google Books.”
This breaking up of the system has resulted in less-than-reliable numbers when it comes to tracking the growth of self-publishing. “Self-published writers are booming; sales of their books increased by a third in America in 2011,” the article continues. “Digital self-publishing was up by 129%. This ends the distinction between publisher, distributor and bookshop, making ISBNs less necessary.”
However, as Porter Anderson points out in Publishing Perspectives, that number estimating eBook growth at 129% is simply a guess. No actually knows the true number due to the anonymity that foregoing ISBNs affords. Anderson also points out that “boom” in self-publishing does not always equate in success for authors. There’s more writing out there, yes, but just how fruitful is self-publishing for writers? Without hard data, it is impossible to say for sure.
Should we be concerned about this or not? I think the question Anderson poses is a good one: “[I]s there something inherently wrong — or somehow too determinedly journalistic — in wanting to be able to quantify, categorize, and track the progress of the industry through the “tagging” of its output?”
What do you think? Is time to end ISBNs?
My grandparents had them. They lined the den in their modest Indiana home. In the garage, outdated sets were stacked neatly in boxes. Every year, salesmen came to the doors of homes and schools peddling their wares. But all that is over. Encyclopedia Brittanica has announced that they will no longer offer their product in print.
It’s rather a sad passage for some of us older folk. There aren’t many businesses that can claim they were viable for over two hundred years. In 1768, Encyclopedia Brittanica published its first set of volumes in Edinburgh, Scotland and has been in continuous publication until this year.
It’s not difficult to understand what finally put the venerable company under. Two words: Wikipedia and Google. Publicly, the company claims that their online competition was not a deciding factor in killing their printed volumes but that seems difficult to believe. Not only is it much easier to access needed information quickly, it’s difficult to compete with “free.” A complete set of Encyclopedia Brittanicas runs some $1,395.
Space, too, is a consideration. A full set consists of thirty-two volumes and weights upwards of 129 pounds. A good flashdrive, by contrast, could conceivably contain every entry in Wikipedia (26,603,553 pages) and fit comfortably in your pocket, with room to spare.
While some champions of the old school encyclopedias decry Wikipedia for having factual errors, a study comparing errors in a sampling of Wikipedia and Encyclopedia Brittanica articles found that there were three errors in Brittanica entries and four in Wikipedia selections. And of course, factual errors are much easier to correct online than in print.
Encyclopedia Brittanica prides itself on having experts write their entries. For example, Arnold Palmer penned the article about the Master’s tournament. If you truly care about this sort of thing, you can still have access to Encyclopedia Brittanica online. But it will cost you $70 for an annual subscription.
In the cut-throat world of lexicography…
When you think of industries laying traps for potential predatory and purloining practices, it’s unlikely you would assume the people who compile dictionaries are on the lookout for thieves.
But they are.
Just like any form of plagiarism, taking an idea that is not your own and presenting it as original is unethical, explains Editor-in-Chief Erin McKean. So the New American Oxford Dictionary, and others, sometimes set traps for those who do not bother to do their own legwork.
Way back in 2001, the NOAD included the made-up word esquivalence, and defined it as “”the willful avoidance of one’s official responsibilities; the shirking of duties.” The editors did everything they could to make the “word” legit, including using it in a sentence: “After three subordinates attested to his esquivalience, Lieutenant Claiborne was dismissed.” And tracing its etymology to the ” late 19th Century, “perhaps from French esquiver, ‘dodge, slink away.’”
The word is especially sweet to Christine Lindberg, the editor who invented the word. She explains: “I wanted the word to suggest character weaknesses, and words like ‘quivering’ and `vacillating’ went through my mind and became the glob of brain putty that eventually got fashioned into ‘esquivalience.’”
NOAD didn’t have to leave their fishing line in the water long. The bait of “esquivalence” was soon gobbled up by Dictionary.com, who credited Webster’s New Millennium Dictionary of English (electronic edition). Dictionary.com removed the word, but even ten years later, Google still turns up three separate sources offering definitions.
So now the question is, when does a not-word become a real word? Lindberg says she uses it frequently and has an affection for her invention: “I especially like the critical, judgmental tone I can get out of it. Sounds literate and nasty all in one breath. I like that.”
What happens to those who get caught? Not much. Sometimes fines for copyright infringement, but embarrassment is the primary punishment for those esquivalient little weasels.