Rumors of Doom for ISBN Numbers

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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 Perspectivesthat 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?


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