Why ISBN does not work

ISBN stands for “International Standard Book Number”. It is a 13 digit number that identifies your book. No two ISBN numbers are the same and they usually appear on your book in numeric form and as a bar code. Generally, you buy ISBN numbers and each country manages this slightly differently. Some countries require you to be a publisher before you can order an ISBN. In the USA, I believe, you buy them in blocks of 10, whereas in New Zealand you just apply for them – they give them away.

If you wish to distribute a book through established book channels then you mostly need an ISBN. Book shops such as Barnes & Noble or your local book shop require ISBN so they can track, sell and order stock (books). Most online retailers of any size also require this – Amazon, for example, require an ISBN if you wish to sell through their channels. However, some online channels do not require ISBN – lulu.com for example.

The big problem with ISBN is that you need a new ISBN for every new edition. So if you release a book and then edit it and re-release it you need two ISBN numbers. This can take a long time to order and process and it can be expensive (depending on how you get your ISBN).

This is not the real issue. Admin takes a long time, we are all used to that. But sometimes an administrative system gets built to work for a certain model and when that model changes, then things stop making sense.

ISBN works well in a publishing world where books take years to produce and the products are identifiable as distinct bodies of work. However, in the world of Booki, this is not the typical process. For example, when working with a Book Sprint team, we typically write and release a book in 5 days. You can register the ISBN before the event, no problem. However, quite often after the event we may ‘release’ a new version of the book  – 5, 10, 15 times in one day. Some of these releases may be substantial revisions. This quite clearly does not sit neatly with the slow ISBN process. Even with a more conservative development cycle for a ‘Booki book’ the implication is clear – ISBN expects content to be static, it does not expect books to ‘live’.

Its a real problem for free content and content that exists in an environment where ongoing contributions to the source are encouraged. If you manage a book like this in Booki and you wish to distribute the book through traditional distribution channels, then there is a point where you must ‘freeze’ the content and release the ‘snapshot’. This is not altogether satisfying since then you must either make the book ‘die’ for a time so the printed work and the source remain equal, or you must acknowledge that the paper version is merely a soon-to-be-outdated archive.

Letting content die, or temporarily freezing contributions, can kill a book, which is not a very desirable result considering it often takes a lot of work soliciting ongoing contributions in the first place. The alternative, accepting that the printed book is an archive, is probably not going to make many distributors very happy since you are asking them to sell an out-of-date product (although this is conjecture since I have never tried this).

My answer to this dilemma is to actually walk away from traditional distribution channels. Free content should travel freely across media and in front of the eyes (and ears in the case of audio books) of whoever wants it and in whatever form they want it. Let the content go, don’t constrain it to these traditional channels.

Typically these channels are pursued however for ‘legacy’ reasons. Some you can’t escape – if you are an academic you live off ISBN and the education system will be slow to change that. However, if it’s a business model you are after, then don’t make the mistake of thinking that selling books is the only way to go… new models are emerging – get people to pay you to write the content, for example. One such successful example of this is the Rural Design Collective who successfully raised $2000 (US) via crowdsourcing on Kickstarter.)

So there are alternatives. ISBN is blocking the way, but it’s probably about time to start believing there are better ways….