Continuing with the one word title challenge, today's post is about ISBN. I take ISBNs so much for granted that I've only written one or two posts on the subject, but they are so necessary to publishing that one of my first blog entries was about getting ISBN numbers. Note the plural. I've received a lot of e-mails since them from authors who are looking for a single ISBN number, which I discourage. You can get a single ISBN number but it's a sort of fool's gold that won't take you anywhere.

What brought the subject back to mind today was a family visit on Sunday, where the conversation came around to the subject of books. I wonder how that happened. My cousin who's a computer scientist is very accustomed to reading off computer screens. In fact, he complained that his main issue with paper books is the lack of a search function. This led to a discussion of what makes the difference between an e-book and a long web page, or a book and a stapled sheaf of paper. I came down on the side of ISBN. As far as the commercial publishing world is concerned, if it has an ISBN, it's a book, whether it's printed on paper, recorded on tape or CD, or passed around as a PDF file.

The corollary to an ISBN being the hallmark of a book is that ownership of an ISBN block being the badge of a publisher. In fact, that's how it's worked for quite a while now. It's not an elitist position. Anybody can buy a block of ISBN numbers in the U.S. The seller, Bowker, is a monopoly agency granted by the government, so they're pretty annoying to deal with, and I think they way overcharge for the service they provide. They do host a software interface for publishers to get their books included in Books-In-Print, but that's overrated as a marketing tool, and it's one of the worst web interfaces I've ever had to deal with.

As critical as ISBNs have been in the past, they may be reaching the end of their run, due to the power of search engines. The advantage of ISBN was it provided a single number that everybody had access to that could be used to order books, even in cases where authors had identical names or books had identical titles. In the Internet age, where search strings can be as long as you like and a cover image or full description is just a click away, ISBN is more of a convenience for booksellers than a necessity for book buyers. In fact, Amazon allows Marketplace sellers to add book items without ISBN numbers to their catalog, and publishes e-books without them.

For the time being, new publishers who try to save a few hundred dollars by not buying an ISBN block are just shooting themselves in the ear. Think of it as a publishing license fee, but don't get fooled into believing you can get around it. The publisher of record for a book is the entity that owns the ISBN number. If you pay a fee to a subsidy publisher to "self publish" a book for you, they become the publisher of record, not you. If you end the relationship in order to publish the book yourself or sell out to a trade, the number can't be transferred, and the book will end up listed as out-of-print through all the cataloging systems.

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