Is the ISBN system being misused?

BY FREDERICK NORONHA| IN Books | 06/06/2017
The time and red tape involved in a publisher getting ISBNs raises fears that they are being rationed to restrict freedom of expression.


The thirteen-digit number tucked away at one corner of a book's back cover might mean little to most of its readers. More so in a booming book publishing region like India, where surprisingly enough, most books are still published without International Standard Book Numbers (ISBNs) anyway.

But an ISBN number is to a book what a name is to a person. Maybe even far more. After all, every book in the world (which has one) will have an absolutely unique ISBN number which it doesn't share with any other book.

To put things simplistically, this makes it easy for a reader, librarian or bookseller to find a book which he or she is searching for. If you're a publisher, it makes it easier for your book to be found and tracked or even marketed, especially in an online world.


Bit of a hassle earlier

For publishers in India, getting an ISBN number was a bit of a hassle  -  but not too  difficult - till around 2016. It took some time, tracking, and tenacity to reach out to the ISBN office in New Delhi. Occasionally, its address location changed. One often heard of staff shortages. Or, there seemed to be inaction over applications made, which probably lay forgotten in some dusty files.

But that was it. After a few phone calls and reminders, publishers would usually get sanctioned some 100 ISBN numbers, allocated all in one go. They could then assign each one, well in time, to the books they were about to publish.

In my case, Goa,1556, a small and alternative publishing house bringing out between 8-14 books in a year, and set up by a journalist (that's me), would allocate the number the moment we started working on a book. There was no uncertainty left in the process.

It's not that the numbers are an extremely scarce commodity. Chances of misuse are reduced if the process to get an ISBN number is made simpler.

In 2007, the system of having ten-digit ISBNs was changed to a 13-digit number, because of a shortage of available 10-digit numbers in some parts of the world.   So, now, there should be no shortage of numbers, right?

Not quite.


Online, in 2016

For a short while, things looked up in 2016, when it was announced that the process for allocating ISBN numbers would go online. After all, the process could only become faster, couldn't it?

'Publishers, authors can now get ISBN in seven days', the newspapers reported optimistically. 

But this was not how things turned out in real life. A growing number of publishers, on sharing notes among themselves, and at conferences, found that they were facing a quite a few problems with the system.

Some 17 publishers grouped together and wrote to the authorities pointing to the many problems they were facing with the ISBN numbers. 

Addressed to Aparna Sharma, the then Joint Secretary (ISBN) in the Department of Higher Education (Ministry of HRD), the letter highlighted the many issues and hassles with the ISBN allocation system in India.

There were, they said,  "long delays in obtaining an ISBN", delaying publications and affecting publishing schedules. There was no contact information on the website to take up issues or seek clarifications. Cases have been closed without proper resolution. The year-old website had its own glitches.

"Publishers who span a "range" of "legal entities" were being asked for all kinds of clearances - like trusts being asked for registration with the Niti Aayog."


Separate imprints of publishers were facing difficulties to get ISBNs if they lacked a bank account in their own names. Indian language applications were being discouraged. Publishers who span a "range" of "legal entities" were being asked for all kinds of clearances - like trusts being asked for registration with the Niti Aayog.

Publishers, including sole proprietors, were being asked for their "registered entity", when this was not required under the law to undertake book publishing activity in India.

"Merely for allocating ISBN numbers, we request that the MoHRD [Ministry of Human Resource Development] should not lay down additional requirements (such as registration with Niti Aayog) when the law of the land does not lay down such requirements for book publishers. Also, the Supreme Court ruling, that the Aadhar number/biometrics is not mandatory for those not wishing to have it, should be respected in its letter and spirit," said the statement, signed by publishers from Ahmedabad, Chennai, Goa, Kolkata, Mumbai, Nagarcoil, New Delhi and Pune.

Publishers also sought specific reasons in case their request for ISBN numbers were rejected.


A tool for control

But more than the technical glitches, what could be more worrying is the concern that someone, somewhere, could be seeing the ISBN (a simple number, to be freely allocated) as a tool for control.

"Publishers also sought specific reasons in case their request for ISBN numbers were rejected."


Strange though it may seem, the ISBN system has been misused in parts of the world (but so far not in India though). It was launched as in Britain as the Standard Book Numbering (SBN) code, Initially, it was a nine-digit commercial book identifier system created by emeritus professor of statistics Gordon Foster of Dublin for the booksellers and stationers W.H. Smith and others in 1965.

It then grew into a global system, and the ISBN system took its first steps in 1967. Internationally, the London-headquartered International ISBN Agency manages the system.


Slower, after going online

After going online in April 2016, the system became slower.

There were many more rejections. Instead of 100 ISBN numbers being given out at a time, just ten were handed out. All kinds of reasons (or excuses) were used to reject applications. Those seeking these ISBN numbers, freely available in many parts of the globe, and easily at a price in other parts, found things getting suddenly tough.

Personally involved in getting and using ISBN numbers myself, I can say that the first 100 were given promptly, and used rather efficiently here. The next 10 came in a smaller lot. Further, one had to apply with details of each book, before getting a specific, single number sanctioned. Time is a luxury a publisher can least afford, especially when rushing to meet a deadline.

Since then, my applications have been bounced around, delayed or rejected, seemingly on every ground possible. But given that the 'freedom to publish' is an important principle, one will continue publishing. With or without ISBNs.

Initially, publishers were told to attach an Aadhar Card and "registered ID proof" of the publishing agency. The first, according to the Supreme Court, is not (yet) mandatory, and no such second "proof" is required to publish in India.

Next, they were asked for a "registration certificate from (the) Niti Aayog", which is actually required for NGOs waiting in the queue for Central Government funding!

In mid-March, we were told: "Provide proper information in the required field while updating profile." (The website does not allow one to delete an existing document, and replace it with a correct one. So I sent in all the documents via email again.)

Then, I was again asked for an Aadhaar card, told there is a "mismatch" in PAN numbers, asked for a voter card (as address proof), and finally asked to provide a list of ISBN numbers previously issued. Phew!

Done, but still no ISBN numbers.

In others parts of the globe, some strange experiences have been reported. When publishers and others from geographies like West Asia or China described how this technical tool was being used as an insidious implement of censorship, other proponents of the ISBN were rather shocked.

Take the case of China where the ISBN is claimed to be the "key to censorship". Or, in West Asia, where a comment by publisher Ramy Habeeb at the O'Reilly Tools of Change for Publishing Conference in 2010 clearly surprised Western audiences into realising that ISBNs could actually be a tool for censorship in the Arab world.

To be fair, when this debate first started here, a representative of the International ISBN Agency did not agree with the view that India, of all countries, could be resorting to a misuse of the ISBN numbers for a purpose it was not meant.

But, later media reports in the Indian Express quoted the International ISBN Agency, after having followed the issue, as saying in a letter that "it is very easy to see why publishers might think there is censorship/ restriction on freedom to publish".

For instance, a few stray cases are also coming up. The author of a graphic novel on Kashmir was quoting as saying that the book took six extra months to come out in India as compared to Britain. News reports quoted the author as saying "he never found out why, but his publisher told him authorities were slow to provide the ISBN number...."

The Indian Express has recently reported that the publishers' fear of "red tape, censorship" could lead to the current agency in India losing it rights to hand out the ISBN numbers. In India, the Raja Rammohan Roy National Agency, which is under the HRD Ministry, is the government institution that looks after the entire job of ISBN allocation in the country.

The ISBN numbers are currently supposed to be free for publishers or authors wanting them. Some publishers are known to have argued that they would not mind paying a reasonable fee, rather than face all the current roadblocks, official or otherwise.

In a recent editorial, the Indian Express termed the developments a "publisher’s  devil" and said: "The problem is scarcely new, since the ministry has a long tradition of being unresponsive to the industry."

It pointed out: "Like Aadhaar, the ISBN is voluntary. A publisher can choose not to take it. But as with Aadhaar, it is not a real choice. The ISBN contains a payload of metadata which partly determines the fortunes of a book in the marketplace. For instance, merely coding the language of publication into the ISBN is known to increase sales. Besides, distributors, bookstore chains and citation databases will not accept a book without an ISBN."


On a postcard

But things have not always been this way.

Arpita Das of the Delhi-based Yoda Press reminisces how, as a publisher, she would send in requests for more ISBN numbers on a simple post card! So has computerisation made the system only more complex and less efficient? What's the point in the authorities handing out just ten ISBN numbers at a time? After they get a quota of ten numbers, why should publishers apply for one book's ISBN at a time?

If someone is an active publisher, doing their work diligently, and producing books regularly, what's the need to go through the entire process of re-registering (each time one seeks a new set of numbers) with the ISBN authorities? This involves submitting all documents online every time. A process that's both inconvenient and unnecessary.

It is not as if these details change every few months, or that they need to be repeatedly verified. In any case, there are many other laws which regulate book publishing (tax laws, defamation laws, even 'sedition' laws which date back to our colonial times, and the general civil and criminal laws).

Publishers work within these parameters. Therefore, the ISBN should not be used as a regulation tool, and should instead be treated as just what it is: simply a way of making books unique and identifiable with an exclusive and region-specific number being tagged onto them.

My set of ISBN numbers got exhausted some time in November 2016. Since then, one rejection, and many queries later, I'm waiting the sanction of a new set. (This is so till the time of writing, June 2, 2017.) If it's going to take over six months to get ten ISBN numbers, it doesn't make sense. If there is a staff shortage at the ISBN office, as has been claimed, then it makes even less sense to implement such kinds of controls.


Missing out on the potential

More importantly, given India's growing ambitions (and potential) in publishing, what will be the impact of such ham-handed approaches to handing out the ISBN numbers?

Arpita Das (incidentally, the daughter of veteran publisher the late Sukumar Das) writes of the experience not long back : "Given that in the 1980s Indian publishers were still getting used to carrying ISBNs on our books, it is a testament both to the tenacity of the people who made the logic of such a number clear to the members of the book trade in India, as well as to the growing global trade in an increasingly computerised and digital era, that today no publisher worth her salt can imagine putting a book out there without an ISBN assigned to it."

Ramy Habeeb, who set up the first Arabic language ebook publishing house in the Middle East, and aims to build a "library of Alexandria that cannot be burnt down" argues that [] there are reasons for the distribution problems that books face in his part of the world.

One central problem, he has argued, "is the lack of ISBNs or other book IDs that can be measured and tracked." ISBNs were introduced into Egypt in 1979 and (due to the failure to adopt the system) reintroduced in 1981. Yet, despite it being law that every publication has to have an ISBN, less than 55% of titles actually have one, he says.

In India too, many smaller entities, author-published books and probably a majority of those in the regional languages, still do not use ISBN numbers - and manage without them.

But minus this "lynchpin of the publishing industry", it is not possible to track the history of a title. Books fail to realise their potential, and keeping statistics about how many books are emerging from a country is also near impossible.

Habeeb has called for a "central database (preferably ISBN based)" to keep track of what books have been published and by whom. Or else, he says, "the Arab publishing industry is condemning itself to a system of publishing that mimics that of Europe in the 1800s - both in scope and methods of doing business."

Here too, there is a crying need for an up to date Indian books-in-print listing or database. This is in the interest of the Indian book sector, and of books generally, and without doubt, of readers too.

There is much at stake.

India has been citing impressive publishing figures. The oft-cited figures are 19,000 publishers, 90,000 books a year, and the third- or second-largest English publishing programme in the world. But nobody knows where these figures come from, or how reliable these are.

Give this reality, more publishers should be encouraged to apply for an ISBN for their books. A simplification of the ISBN-application process so that it complies with international practices is what is needed.


Frederick Noronha is a Goa-based independent journalist and alternative publisher. Over the past ten years, his tiny Goa,1556 publishing house has published some 120 titles, mostly non-fiction in English (and a few in Konkani, Portuguese and even Spanish). 



The Hoot is the only not-for-profit initiative in India which does independent media monitoring.
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