The Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) has sought an explanation from the Ministry of Human Resource Development after the ISBN International Agency threatened to strip the Indian government of its role in distributing International Standard Book Numbers (ISBNs) to publishers amid complaints of red-tapism and fears of censorship.
The HRD Ministry is learnt to have held a meeting on May 31 on issues flagged by the ISBN International Agency and decided to, henceforth, process all ISBN applications within 48 hours. As first reported by The Indian Express on May 25, the ISBN International Agency, in a letter sent to Minister of State for HRD Mahendra Nath Pandey on March 29, had warned that it is “seriously considering” revoking the ministry’s appointment as the agency for issuing ISBNs in India as the number of complaints has “reached unacceptable levels”.
Last year, the HRD Ministry, then under Smriti Irani, digitised the allotment of ISBNs, a move that publishers complain has inexplicably slowed down publishing in India. The new online application system has also raised fears of censorship, with the Ministry seeking details of each book before issuing ISBNs.
ISBN is a unique 13-digit code, usually found on the back cover of a book above the barcode and used by buyers to identify books. Although ISBN is not mandatory to publish a book, it has become an indispensable sales tool as bookstores, wholesalers and distributors keep track of books by these codes.
The ISBN International Agency’s missive flagged three primary problems. First, the lack of response on email or phone from the Ministry once an application for ISBNs has been filed. Second, the delay of three to four months for publishers to get ISBN numbers allotted, against the expected service time of two weeks. Third, restrictions imposed on the number of ISBNs assigned in one go — from a set of 100 to a set of 10.
According to sources, in its meeting on May 31, the HRD Ministry has decided to frame standard guidelines to dispose of requests expeditiously. This includes a new dashboard on the Raja Rammohun Roy National Agency (RRMRNA) website to track pendency of applications.
The Ministry, however, is still concerned over hoarding of ISBNs by publishers as only half of the unique codes issued to publishers till May had actually been used for publishing books. To address this, publishers, henceforth, will be asked to upload the ebook on the National Digital Library portal to support the fact that they have actually published the book and are not hoarding ISBN numbers.
Meanwhile, all application backlog has been cleared by the Ministry, and a status report with the above decisions has been shared with the PMO.