Teleread reported over the weekend that the International ISBN Agency has confirmed each version of an ebook should be assigned what’s called an ISBN, or specific set of numbers to identify it in inventory systems. There has been some confusion about this, as publishers didn’t want to have to apply for ISBNs for each type of ebook; the agency has confirmed that each file type needs a different number, so ePUB, mobi, PDB, etc will continue to receive their own special ISBNs. But what’s an ISBN, and why is this news?
ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number. It basically creates a universal inventory number that libraries, bookstores, and consumers can use to find books or track the versions they own. When I was at Borders, for example, someone from the Barnes and Noble next door could call us with an ISBN and ask on behalf of a customer if we had a book in stock where they did not, all using the ISBN. It takes the guesswork out of getting the title and author correct, and in the case of very specific translations or versions of books, insures customers receive the correct edition. Every book you buy through a retailer has an ISBN, usually located below the bar code on the back of the book.
eBooks are a little different. There’s no bar code to scan, and most people are searching for ebooks by store and title. But it still alleviates confusion and makes tracking easier to assign a unique ISBN to each file type. Interestingly, according to Teleread’s commenters, bookstores that bundle multiformat versions together (Fictionwise and Baen, for example) can use the same ISBN for all versions. So publishers who are mad about being required to pay for ISBNs for each version should look at DRM-free multiformat bundling, or push for a universal format!
Have ISBN rules confused you? Is this just making the ebook world more confused and shattered? Will iBooks use an i-ISBN? Share your thoughts below!