BISG Policy Statement POL-1101: Best Practices for Identifying Digital Products

BISG Policy Statement
  • SumoMe

On December 7, 2011, the Book Industry Study Group (BISG) issued their BISG Policy Statement POL-1101: Best Practices for Identifying Digital Products. Digital Book World has a nice summary of the report in their post “New ISBN Recommendations to Lay Groundwork for Future Publishing Innovations.”

The document includes General Rules for ISBN Assignment as follows:

  • ISBNs are assigned, not created. One ISBN registration agency per country, or community, is designated by the International ISBN Agency to assign and distribute ISBNs to the publishers and self-publishers located in that area. Any number identified as an ISBN must be a valid ISBN obtained from an officially sanctioned ISBN registration agency such as R.R. Bowker, the United States ISBN Agency, or Library and Archives Canada, the Canadian ISBN Agency. At no time should a random or unsanctioned number be created and identified as an ISBN by any member of the supply chain.
  • ISBNs for Digital Books should be labeled “ISBN”, not “eISBN.” There is no such standard as an “eISBN”, nor is this the proper way to differentiate Digital Book formats.
  • Digital Books should never be identified with a number that is in the same format as an ISBN or labeled “ISBN” unless that number is a legitimate ISBN issued by an official ISBN registration agency, such as R.R. Bowker in the US.
  • Digital Books should not be assigned the same ISBN as any Physical Book.
  • Digital Books of the same title but different file format (i.e., EPUB, PDF, etc.) and/or different usage rights should not be assigned or display the same ISBN:
    • Assigning and/or displaying the same ISBN can confuse Consumers and/or result in the delivery of an incorrect product.
    • Assigning and/or displaying the same ISBN can affect the proper cataloging of the title by libraries and registration agencies.
  • Ideally, identical Digital Books (i.e. an EPUB being sold on various vendor sites) should not carry different ISBNs. There must be a differentiating factor (or factors) in the Digital Book’s content, file format, usage rights or metadata to justify the assignment of a unique ISBN.

When defining Best Practices for Identifying Digital Products, the BISG document makes this differentiation:

If a third party recipient makes the Digital Book available down the supply chain without alteration it should maintain the publisher-assigned ISBN.
If, however, a Digital Book (an EPUB, for example) enters the supply chain and is subsequently converted for rendering on various digital devices, has particular usage rights and/or restrictions applied—in any or all combinations—then a separate Digital Book has been created and a unique ISBN should be assigned.

In defining Best Practices, BISG states the following:

Separate ISBNs should be assigned to all unique Digital Books for ordering, listing, delivery and sales tracking purposes. In general, there are three major factors that determine the need to assign unique ISBNs to Digital Books.
1. Content

  • If two digital books are created, one an exact textual reproduction of a Physical Book and the other an enhanced version that includes video, audio, etc., then the two Digital Books are unique and different products, and each requires a unique ISBN.

2. Format

  • If an EPUB format, a PDF format and a Mobi format (among others) are created, each format should be assigned a unique ISBN. This is similar to creating a hardcover and paperback edition of a Physical Book and should follow the same rules regarding ISBN assignment.

(Note: When the application of DRM software is part of the transaction with the Consumer (as frequently happens in the US) it does not constitute the creation of a new format as the term is being used in this Policy Statement. In this case, DRM is not a format: it is a wrapper around a product. An EPUB file with DRM software applied is still an EPUB file, a PDF file with DRM applied is still a PDF file. In this case, DRM is not part of the product, it is part of the transaction. An ISBN is a product identifier, not a transaction identifier.)

3. Usage Rights

  • If a Digital Book is made available with different usage rights in different markets (e.g. adjusting the usage settings so that printing is allowed in the version going to the education market, but not in the version going to the retail market), each version should be assigned a unique ISBN.

(Note: As described in the note under “Format” above, usage rights specifically applied to a publisher’s Digital Book using DRM software, such as Adobe Digital Editions or Apple FairPlay, as part of the transaction between the vendor and the Consumer does not fall into the above category and does not require the assignment of a unique ISBN.)

The BISG states that it is perfectly acceptable for a publisher to assign an individual ISBN for each retailer if it chooses to do so to track ordering, listing, and sales at a granular level: ePUB, Kindle, Kobo, Library Edition PDF and ePUB, Nook, PDF, iBooks. If a publisher chooses to only track these things at a macro level, they may only issue ISBNs for specific formats: ePUB, Library-specific ePUB, PDF.

On January 10, 2012, the International ISBN Agency issued the statement “The International ISBN Agency welcomes BISG Policy Statement: Best Practices for Identifying Digital Products” commenting on BISG’s policy statement. The International ISBN Agency has a couple points it emphasizes in the document:

For example, both the ISBN Guidelines and the BISG Policy Statement are clear that different formats require different ISBNs to identify them, as it is clearly stated in the ISBN Standard. However, in daily practice, it may be difficult to distinguish when there are indeed multiple products. In particular, the impact of different types of Digital Rights Management software and of different usage rights settings on the assignment of ISBN needs very detailed examination.

The IIA appreciate the approach of the BISG Policy Statement to distinguish between the case of different “products”, which always merit separate ISBNs, and the case when different DRMs or different usage rights are wrapped with the product at the moment a transaction occurs between the vendor and the consumer. The distinction may not always be obvious. It is important to remember that separate ISBNs are necessary to avoid ambiguity arising in the value chain where there are multiple products and multiple parties involved.

Where a publication is available in a supply chain with more than one specific type of DRM, whether offered by the original publisher or by a vendor later in the chain, then each of these are unique products that need to be identified by unique ISBNs.

The International ISBN Agency also has their policy on ISBN for Electronic Publications on its Website.

What does all this mean today? We are in an eBook environment where publishers will soon have ePUB2s and ePUB3s of the same book in the marketplace; where iBooks may sell both an ePUB and an .ibooks file for the same book (but the .ibooks file, being proprietary, won’t be distributed); where Amazon may sell both the Kindle file and a KF8 file; where retailers may all ingest the same ePUB2/ePUB3 file, but will wrap it with different DRM or device specific markup. So what should publishers and self-published authors do?

In the U.S., the cost of an ISBN is always a consideration, especially for small publishers and self-published authors. The cost for ISBNs from Bowker are as follows:

  1. A single ISBN = $125.00
  2. 10 ISBNs = $250.00 ($25.00 per ISBN)
  3. 100 ISBNs = $575.00 ($5.75 per ISBN)
  4. 1000 ISBNs = $1000.00 ($1.00 per ISBN)

The cost of ISBNs in other countries varies; in some they are actually free (India, for instance).

Each individual ePUB that you distribute to retailers should have an ISBN. While some retailers have expressed a preference for their own unique ISBNs, if the same file is sent to each retailer, you can use the same ISBN if you choose. This is the definition of a distributed product.

As I read the statement of the BISG, I believe that if you have uploaded ePUB2s to retailers, and you create ePUB3s for the same titles, those ePUB3s should have new ISBNs since they are in a new format. The same goes for a separate enhanced ePUB, a fixed layout ePUB, a read aloud ePUB, or any other file that is in a format or has content that is not included in your basic ePUB file.

If you upload an ePUB to Amazon, and Amazon converts that file into a Kindle file, you do not need to issue a separate ISBN for the file. Amazon certainly will assign its own ASIN if you don’t provide an ISBN. Since Amazon does not distribute the file, it doesn’t need its own ISBN. The same is true for the new KF8 format, since it is not distributed, either. You may choose to issue a separate ISBN, however, particularly if you want it to track sales or for accounting/royalty purposes and want to be able to distinguish between the two different formats sold by Amazon and the general ePUB.

If you upload an ePUB to iBooks, you don’t need a separate ISBN. If you create an .ibooks file using iBooks Author, you don’t technically need a new ISBN since this format will not be distributed and according to Apple’s EULA, can only be sold by Apple through iBooks; however, Apple will not sell a book through iBooks without an ISBN, so you will need to issue an ISBN for any title you want to sell in this new format.

How many ISBNs do you issue for each ePUB you sell? How many ISBNs do you issue for all your print and digital editions of each title? Are you doing anything different from what BISG recommends? Why?

2 Responses to “BISG Policy Statement POL-1101: Best Practices for Identifying Digital Products”

  1. If one sells a .epub ebook (it has its own ISBN, and say it’s DRM-free) through an ebookstore, and say to the consumer, “If you want to read this on your Kindle, use Calibre and convert it to .mobi”, then apparently a different ISBN for the .mobi is not needed. But if one sells the .epub and .mobi in the ebokstore (where the .mobi was generated from the .epub by Calibre, but this time on the supplier, not the consumer side), then a separate ISBN would be needed for the .mobi.

    Is that a correct reading?

  2. Hi Philip,

    Thank you for sharing an excellent article on BISG Policy Statement POL-1101: Best Practices for Identifying Digital Products. It was worthy reading. I’ve discovered an excellent book publishing store called which also does publication with ISBN. Please do check it out.

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