In a ceremony at the India International Centre in Delhi last April, Smriti Irani, who headed the Human Resource Development ministry at the time, inaugurated a portal through which publishers could apply online for International Standard Book Numbers (ISBNs) for their publications. But, the idea that digitisation automatically improves efficiency and transparency has turned out to be a chimera. The publishing industry has been making representations to the HRD ministry, which issues ISBNs through the Raja Rammohun Roy National Agency, the body under the HRD ministry which issues ISBNs, complaining that their business is threatened by its bureaucracy.
Publishers have also complained to the ISBN International Agency, which has given a monopoly to the government to issue ISBNs. The problem of inefficiency is of hoary vintage. Every publishing house is warned of it when they send their first book to press. Never mind the editing and design, their peers warn them, get your ISBNs issued first. Publishing is an uncertain business. Writers default on deadlines, by months if you are lucky, and by years if you are not. While Bollywood has institutionalised the art of locking up scriptwriters in hotel rooms and not letting them out until they’re done, authors are free spirits and resist being tied down. When they do deliver and have been edited, there is the printer’s devil. Simple issues like bad cutting or inadequate lamination can set back publishing schedules, which are usually tied to deadlines for catalogues for the big trade fairs in Frankfurt and London. Given the stresses, it’s a wonder that publishing professionals don’t just drop dead like flies.
And then, if you are raw and earnest, as most publishers are when they start out, they may find themselves in a Sargasso Sea with their ISBN issuer for a boatman. The officials at the RRRNA were decent folk, though not very communicative. But, if you let them know in good time that you were gestating a book, they would send you 10 ISBN numbers to encourage you to greater efforts. Seasoned publishers learned to stockpile ISBNs like nuclear warheads against future shock.
Well, it’s here. The industry complains that its number may up in a couple of months, when the stockpile runs out. But the complaint that’s urged the ISBN International Agency to shoot off a letter threatening suspension to the HRD ministry concerns the fear of censorship. The ISBN process now requires publishers to submit all details of a book, including the jacket, before it will spit out a number. Since the government of the day has an active interest in knowledge in general and books in particular, the anxiety is not misplaced. It would be so easy to damage the prospects of a book which is perceived to be out of line simply by delaying the ISBN process.
Taking out an ISBN for a book is not a legal necessity, but there are financially compelling reasons for doing it, because the number has taxonomic value. The leading distributors and bookstore chains, which process huge inventories, will not handle your books unless they are numbered. They are compelled to do so because the warehousing, shipping and invoicing of books is heavily automated, and you need a code which computers will readily understand. In addition, the academic world’s citation indexes are less likely to include your book unless it is number-coded because the process is now software-driven.
So, it’s fairly obvious and both publishers and authors would rapidly go out of business if they were denied ISBN numbers. The issuing agency is therefore required to be fleeter of foot than it has been. Since organising the taxonomy of book publishing isn’t really the government’s job, any more than electricity distribution and making watches and tractors is (remember HMT?), it should bow out in favour of an industry body.
The ISBN should be in private hands especially because the fear of censorship is in the air. It’s bad enough having Dinanath Batras on the loose with state backing, and using the ISBN system to sniff out targets like an ideological radar would really be over the top. Publishing is an expensive, high-risk business and the cautious behaviour that the threat of censorship encourages would take the life out of it.