ISBNs And Book Discovery: A Conversation With Bowker’s Beat Barblan

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BookBaby’s Sam Sedam talks with Beat Barblan, VP of Publishing and Data Services at Bowker and Chairman of the Board of the International ISBN Agency about how ISBNs help booksellers, libraries, and wholesalers track, identify, and sell books.

The BookBaby Spotlight podcast is your home for conversations with authors, illustrators, editors, and other industry insiders from the world of self-publishing, hosted by BookBaby distribution manager, Sam Sedam.

Sam recently spoke with Beat Barblan, the VP of Publishing and Data Services at Bowker, to discuss ISBNs and the publishing industry. The following is an excerpt from the podcast interview.

Bowker is the exclusive US agent for issuing International Standard Book Numbers (ISBN), a universal method for identifying books in print. Bowker was founded in 1868 by a German immigrant bookseller, Frederick Leypoldt, who realized there needed to be a more efficient way for bookstores to operate, so he began compiling bibliographic information. Today, Bowker is the world’s leading provider of bibliographic information and is the official ISBN Agency for the United States and Australia. ISBNs are a unique numeric identifier which are assigned to books slated for commercial distribution. ISBNs are now overseen by the International ISBN Agency, where Beat serves as chairman of the board in addition to his role at Bowker.

Sam Sedam: Bowker has played a pivotal role in the publishing industry for over 150 years, most notably as the founders of Publishers Weekly and the founders of the ISBN identification system. Can you tell us more about the role of Bowker in the modern age of publishing?

Beat Barblan: One thing, we’re not the creator of the ISBN system, we were the first ISBN agency in the US. Bowker’s role has expanded over the years, we’re not only the ISBN agency, we also have what we consider to be the best database of bibliographic data for English-language books, we have about 40 million records. Our books-in-print database, to which individual companies subscribe to, allows users to license our data, and we have a number of services and products that help publishers, distributors, and librarians. The key for us is to make it easy for people to discover and to find books and to experience, evaluate, and purchase them. We are the US and Australian ISBN agency, and we also have a number of tools to help libraries enhance their catalogs.

Bowker is an affiliated company of ProQuest, and there’s a lot of interaction between what Bowker does and used to do and what ProQuest does — especially around the idea of providing data for ProQuest, which sells books to the library market.

Sam Sedam: So the ISBNs — can you tell us about how these identifiers are used in practice by publishers and booksellers today?

Beat Barblan: An ISBN is essentially a product identifier. It’s used to uniquely identify and differentiate books. So it’s specific not only to the title but specific to the format and even the edition, if the edition has sufficient changes so that it warrants a unique identifier. So a hardcover book will have a different ISBN than a mass-market book or an audiobook of the same title, etc. So, the key for us is to make sure that people can identify what they’re looking for and purchase it. Most purchasing occurs electronically, so when Barnes & Noble buys books from Hachette, they don’t say we need 15 copies of the one with the red cover and 10 copies of the one with the blue cover; they say send me 15 copies of this ISBN or that ISBN which uniquely identifies that particular book. And that ISBN is linked to data — we can have as many as 100 data elements associated with an ISBN, though the average book has maybe 13 or 14 — typically the title, author, publisher, date of publication. We also typically have information about a specific ISBN three to six months before publication, so our data is also helpful for collection/creation so you can see what’s coming down the pike. But the key is unique identification of a product.

Sam Sedam: What’s the difference between an ISBN and an EAN (European Article Number, the barcode standard 12/13-digit product identification code)?

Beat Barblan: An ISBN is an EAN. If you look at an ISBN, a 13-digit number, for a book, it always starts with 978 or 979. 978 and 979 are GS1-designated “Bookland,” it’s a fictitious country, if you will, that shows that this product identifier refers to a book and not, say, a piece of electronics or a car part, or anything else. The 13-digit ISBN is essentially an EAN. This changed when we went from the 10-digit ISBN to the 13-digit ISBN — we had to expand the numbering system and it’s now compatible with all these other systems. So when you look at a 13-digit barcode, that represents an ISBN.

Sam Sedam: So when you went from 10 digits to 13 digits in 2007, what was the reasoning there? Did you just run out of numbers?

Beat Barblan: Yes, essentially, we just ran out of numbers. Just like we went from just having 978 prefixes to including 979 prefixes. One thing I’d like to say is that the ISBN is an international standard, there are about 155 nations that are part of the international ISBN group, so it is very global and it is used extensively by pretty much everybody in the book world, whether it’s retail or wholesale or distributors, librarians, publishers, etc.

Sam Sedam: How does Bowker collect that metadata? Is it coming directly from the publishers?

Beat Barblan: Not only, but primarily from the publishers, and from others as well. Let’s say there are ways we like to collect it, but we’ll take it any way we can get it. So the standard way for a mid-size to large publisher, and even some of the smaller publishers, is an ONIX file, they send us an ONIX file, we ingest it, and we will also enhance that data. So, for example, we will add media mentions (has this book been mentioned in the media? has Oprah talked about this book?), reviews, bios… a whole bunch of additional information that might be helpful to a bookseller or a wholesaler. We also get some data from book wholesalers. But if you don’t have ONIX, if you’re a smaller publisher, we also take things like Excel sheets. And if you’re an individual publisher, you can go to our website, myidentifiers.com, which is where you can also purchase a block of up to 1,000 ISBNs, and it’s where a lot of our ISBNs to indie publishers are sold, and you can enter the details of your title and it will ingest it into the books-in-print database. We also have an outreach program where we actively pursue publishers who have purchased ISBNs but haven’t given us data yet and we’ll ask them to submit the data because that is really the value of the ISBN. It’s not the number itself, but the fact that the number is linked to metadata, like the title, and that metadata is distributed, which permits the reader to find the title.

Sam Sedam: We get a lot of questions and have clients in Canada, and I know their standards are a little different, it’s actually free to get an ISBN. What are the pros and cons of that model as opposed to Bowker’s in the US?

Beat Barblan: I wouldn’t say that the standard is different, the financing of the management of the standards is different. Globally, in about half of the countries the ISBN free, but I would like to put “free” in quotations. It’s “free” the same way health care may be free in some countries. Meaning, you don’t pay to access the specific product — you don’t pay when you get the ISBN — but you do pay for it when you pay your taxes, because typically in countries where the ISBN is free, the agency is managed by a governmental organization. Everybody pays taxes, and those taxes pay the salaries of people who run the agencies, the offices, the development of software that may be needed. The advantage that we have is that we’re completely detached from any government agency, we don’t get money from the government.

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There is a LOT more to the conversation. Listen to the entire podcast. Check out more episodes through Anchor.fm, Spotify, Apple, and most other podcast platforms.

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