May 26, 2017 12:42:23 am
After years of shambolism in the issuing of International Standard Book Numbers (ISBNs), which uniquely identify every book published the world over, the ISBN International Agency has reacted to mounting complaints from publishers and threatened to revoke the HRD ministry’s monopoly in India, where it is the official issuer. The problem is scarcely new, since the ministry has a long tradition of being unresponsive to the industry.
Small publishers, who do not have the wherewithal to approach the authorities in Delhi, have been worst affected. Now, progressive changes associated with digitisation, introduced during Smriti Irani’s tenure at the ministry, have raised fears of covert censorship, which must be addressed.
Like Aadhaar, the ISBN is voluntary. A publisher can choose not to take it. But as with Aadhaar, it is not a real choice. The ISBN contains a payload of metadata which partly determines the fortunes of a book in the marketplace. For instance, merely coding the language of publication into the ISBN is known to increase sales. Besides, distributors, bookstore chains and citation databases will not accept a book without an ISBN.
Traditionally, ISBNs were issued in blocks, and publishers were required to provide book details as they were used. In addition, they must supply two copies of the book to the Raja Rammohun Roy National Agency under the HRD ministry, for archival use. Now, publishers are required to supply all book details, including the jacket — which is usually finalised last — before a number is issued.
Publishing schedules will be upset after existing ISBNs run out, harming Indian publishing houses as they fail to print in time for trade and rights events like the Frankfurt Book Fair, where the world’s book business is transacted. Besides, the demand for prior information naturally raises fears of censorship.
The ISBN is purely taxonomic and the issuer is not supposed to have a regulatory function. If contested, the quality of a book is to be tested in a court of law. The government should divest itself of this function, which it has performed indifferently for decades. It should devolve to a private agency, perhaps established by the publishing industry.
Indeed, the ISBN International Agency is chaired by the CEO of a wholly owned subsidiary of the German Publishers and Booksellers Association. Officialdom was damaging enough but now that the industry fears censorship, it is definitely time for the government to get out of the way.
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