Alphabet Soup: ISRC

ISRC is a music-industry standard.

The ISRC identifies a specific musical recording, regardless of the format in which it is issued (unlike the ISBN). Thus the studio recording of Adele’s “Hello” has the same ISRC regardless of whether it’s issued on vinyl, MP3 or CD.

ISRC is in use at some of the biggest distributors of music worldwide – Apple, Spotify, and Pandora all use ISRCs to identify music. While it was developed in the 1980s originally, it has proven to be quite useful over time.

More information about ISRC codes can be found here.

Faith In the Small Things

Two words guaranteed to bore the crap out of anybody are standards and governance. Of course, these two things make our world pretty much bearable - without standards, bridges would collapse and cars wouldn't run, there would be no internet or web, or phone, or electric lighting. And governance is what makes standards work.
I'm not going to argue about the relevance of standards in book publishing, etc. - I think that ship sailed a long time ago. We know. We know, okay, Mom? Jeez.
Governance is what determines the success or failure of any given standard. How is it applied? How is it used? By whom? What for? It's the nitty-gritty details, the rules. And there...lies the devil in the details.
ISBN governance means that ISBNs cannot be used for more than one product. (Fight me.) ISBN governance dictates that an ISBN is now 13 digits long and begins with a 978 or 979. Etc. Most of us in publishing know how the ISBN is governed - how it works. We agree on its rules, fundamentally. The rules work for us.
Other standards are not so clear. Or are open to debate. ISTC is a good example of this. The ISTC's rules are: anyone can apply for an ISTC to tie a group of editions (ISBNs) together, and the ISTC registration agency would decide if that grouping was valid, based on the criteria that the applicant supplied.
The applicant could be a library. A literary agent. An author. A publisher. A retailer. A distributor. Just an interested party - the author's mother.
Needless to say, this caused no small amount of consternation among stakeholders in the book supply chain when ISTC was introduced in the early 2000s. We were all just getting used to the idea of customer reviews. The potential for a standard to be, essentially, crowdsourced was problematic. And for the ultimate arbiter to be a registration agency (which may or may not have the best interests of publishing or bookselling at heart)?
There may yet be a way to salvage ISTC and make it into something that everyone can agree on using. But to date, different stakeholders define ISBN groupings in different ways, and some of those are proprietary. And as long as there are seven different ways of describing an elephant (or "work"), governance is near-impossible.
This is a huge lesson as the industry moves forward into adopting other standards, such as ISNI, or We all have to agree on the rules. Those rules have to work for us. Or the standard is a solution without a problem. Which is a huge waste of time, and makes us less likely to invest time in developing actual problem-solving solutions.
We're in an interesting period these days. The pain of digital's impact on publishing is by and large manageable now. We're in an era of the "nice to have". Sometimes that leads to investment. More frequently, it leads to reification, which brings on later pain and disruption. I'm also not here to argue the wisdom of investing in infrastructure to avoid pain later. We know, Mom. Ugh. Stop being boring. You're not cool and you're embarrassing us.
The pain will come, inevitably. It always does. As sure as we get out of bed in the morning and wince, there will be plenty of pain to go around. When it does, we'll need to pull together quickly and develop a standard to solve/salve it. As with most salves, it won't be perfect. The pain may never entirely go away. But it will be a point we can all come to agreement on. Which, these days, is a rare and heartening thing.

Alphabet Soup: BISAC

BISAC began as a standalone initiative, designed to create standards for EDI transmissions in the book supply chain, largely between ordering departments and warehouses. BISAC was responsible for a file format called “BISAC fixed” as well as another called “X12”. With the rise of book superstores such as B&N, Borders, and Books a Million, it became apparent that a standard was needed to determine where in these stores books should be shelved. BISAC took on the responsibility of creating standardized codes that publishers could use to suggest to bookstores which section of a store a book would be a good fit for.

Initially there were only a handful of codes. By 1995, there were around 50 general codes, with a few “sub-codes” under each – forming a 2-level hierarchy. The codes were rather cryptic – 3 letters followed by some numbers – because they were developed for machine-to-machine processing. The actual names of the codes were only used by those doing the assigning and those receiving the books and deciding where to put them. (There were those nerds who had the codes memorized, because there were so few of them.)

But with the emergence of online retailers, BISAC experienced a period of rapid change. It was subsumed by the Book Industry Study Group, which had originally been created as a research community analyzing the book market. And BISAC codes were developed with an eye towards discovery on the web as well as in-store placement of books. Whereas bookstores required a single BISAC code, web stores could “shelve” a single book in multiple categories. Most guidelines recommend 3-5 codes per title.

You might notice, for example, that the “Body, Mind and Spirit” BISAC categories begin with the characters “OCC”.

This is because that category used to be called “Occult” back in the 80s and 90s. It was where books about UFOs, spiritual healing, crystals, Wiccans, and other titles were shelved. The OCC prefix evolved into the “New Age” category. As “Body, Mind and Spirit”, it has been expanded to includes books about mindfulness, meditation, reiki, “inspiration and personal growth”, and fengshui, all of which are fairly mainstream, in addition to continuing with more obscure topics such as astrology and numerology.

So if the BISAC prefix doesn’t match up to the name of the category itself, it probably had a previous life as a category more appropriate for the 80s or 90s cultural landscape. Books reflect our landscape, and their subjects evolve over time.

More information about BISAC codes can be found here.

Rumors Greatly Exaggerated

In the early '90s, I got a job as assistant manager of the medical department at the Barnes & Noble flagship store on 5th Avenue in Manhattan. I sold medical textbooks to residents and nursing students; I sold stethoscopes and calipers. I hazed new staffers with forensic pathology and dermatology slides. I made "signage" out of BISAC categories.

The store was a weird mix. On the one hand, it was a textbook shop for NYU and other New York City colleges. On the other, it was the original Barnes & Noble, and something of a tourist attraction. So it sold trade titles and bestsellers in addition to fulfilling the syllabi of local professors.

Unlike the superstores, this shop was cavernous, with low ceilings and unbelievably creaky wooden floors. There were mice - mostly in the overstock areas, but occasionally one would make its way out to the sales floor, cough miserably, shoot one of us a baleful look, and wander away. All staff had to wear blue jackets, kind of like lab coats but shorter, so we could be easily identified.

That store doesn't exist now. The new flagship store is the Union Square superstore. The college division is a separate entity from the big stores. But one thing has not changed.

Len Riggio.

If Steve Jobs was Apple personified, Len Riggio is that for Barnes & Noble. In the 1990s, B&N was a juggernaut - seemingly unstoppable, perpetually plunking down new superstores, driving indies out of business, and generally behaving like an 800 pound gorilla.

Then came the internet. Then came Amazon. Then came the Kindle.

This triple whammy ultimately put competitor Borders out of business entirely, and weakened Barnes & Noble's position in a drastic way. (Ironically, B&N had been at the forefront of ebook sales in the early 2000s. But they didn't catch on, and once burned is twice shy.) The website just couldn't compete with Amazon, where you can buy shoes, home furnishings, and books all in one order. And the stores have faltered as well. Where they once boasted vast inventories, the web and ebook combination have seen B&N stocking games, bobble-head figurines, and stationery products in lieu of books. Indie bookstores have seen a resurgence, by adding coffee shops and wine bars and hosting events.

This week we learned that Ron Boire, the CEO of Barnes & Noble, has been let go. Len Riggio, on the verge of retirement, has decided to step back into the CEO role for the time being. This is not the first time that has happened. The position of CEO of B&N is coming to resemble that of the drummer in Spinal Tap.

Some see a long, slow death spiral in the making. I have to wonder about that. While music stores collapsed after iTunes and other services, and video stores after Netflix and streaming, books are a different proposition. Ebook sales have flattened. Print book sales are stable (once you remove the boost that adult coloring books have given them). The market seems to have found its footing after the digital disruption.

The thing that hurts publicly-traded companies the most is the expectation of increased profitability year over year. Stability is not enough.

In the course of his stewardship of B&N, Riggio has shown a willingness to spin off divisions into their own companies, acquire other companies, partner with larger companies, take his companies public, take those companies private again. When shareholders get disgruntled, Riggio readily buys them out.

So I wouldn't read a revolving door of CEOs as a harbinger of a death spiral. I wouldn't look at store closings, the failure of the Nook, and an influx of non-book inventory as indications of B&N disappearing from the landscape.

As long as Len Riggio is still with us, Barnes & Noble will be too. It began as a college store and it may well end as one. But it will persist as long as Len wills it to. Do not expect him to turn off the lights and lock the doors.

Alphabet Soup: DOI

The DOI is not in fact an identifier of digital objects. It’s a digital identifier of objects – DOIs can be assigned to physical items. But they are most frequently assigned to digitally-published journal articles.

The DOI is, like the ISBN, not a dumb number. There is a prefix and a suffix, separated by a slash. Most of the time, the prefix begins with the number “10”, followed by a period – this indicates that the identifier, while part of the Handle system, is specifically a DOI. After the period, there’s a number indicating who registered the DOI (similar to a publisher prefix). Following the slash, the actual identifier of the article can be alphanumeric.

The main DOI registration agency is CrossRef, but there is also one for the entertainment industry called EIDR. Most book publishers who are using DOIs register them with CrossRef, however - these are largely academic and scientific publishers who also publish journals.

More information about DOI can be found here.

How ONIX Came To Be

In 1997, superstore behemoth Barnes & Noble had launched their website in competition with Amazon. (As a matter of disclosure: I began working there in 1998, directing the database that served both the web and the stores.) Borders, Hastings, Books-A-Million, and others soon followed. There were numerous start-ups dedicated to selling specific sorts of books – Varsity Books for textbooks, FatBrain for business books. Companies were acquired, rose up, shut down – it was absolutely chaotic.

In the midst of all this, the problems presented by back-office, transactional metadata (truncated titles, metadata in ALL CAPS) were abundantly clear to consumers – these websites were ugly, clunky, and not very enticing. Publishers noticed. Distributors noticed. Everyone saw an opportunity to increase sales.

ONIX stands for Online Information Exchange, and was developed as a joint effort by the Association of American Publishers (AAP) and EDItEUR (which originally stood for EDI-to-Europe, but which has evolved more broadly into a London-based standards body for the book industry). It was created to solve two problems: (1) that consumers were now looking at this data so it had to be more robust, descriptive, accurate, and reflective of what they needed to see, and (2) that ANSI X12, as a US-based standard, was insufficient for international communications about books.

I was on the front lines back then – it was hotly competitive between Amazon, Borders, and Barnes & Noble. There were lawsuits, front-page news articles, insults, and shade thrown. It was nasty. But everybody could agree that the metadata was causing us all the same headaches. So there was a parley.

In 1998, in the conference room at AAP on 5th Avenue, the Big Seven publishers (yes, there were seven at the time), Barnes & Noble, Amazon, Ingram, Baker & Taylor, a handful of startups, and a number of other interested companies sat down at a large conference table and laid out the problems. It was the first time B&N and Amazon had allowed representatives to sit in the same room together – Cindy Cunningham and myself. (We later became good friends – largely due to this experience.) It was clear that we needed to present a unified front to persuade publishers to adopt this new standard that would benefit all of us. After two years of negotiations, ONIX 1.0 was published and its maintenance in the US was handed to the Book Industry Study Group, which created a metadata committee (now run by Richard Stark at B&N, who was one of my first hires there) to handle changes and fixes and additions to the code lists.

ONIX is not terribly sexy. But it allowed sexiness to happen. As we evolve through ONIX 3.0 and beyond, knowing how we got here will help us lay the infrastructure for whatever awaits the book industry as the Web itself advances.

Alphabet Soup: ISTC

The ISTC began development in the early 2000s as a way of collocating editions of textual works. It’s not technically a “Work ID” for books, but was misperceived that way – in actuality, it’s an identifier of text strings. So (broadly speaking) the hardcover, paperback and ebook edition of a book would all receive the same ISTC, but the French translation would not, because the text strings are different.

The ISTC is not necessarily assigned by a publisher, or a library, or a bookseller. It can be, but it doesn’t have to be. There is no “ownership” of the ISTC like there is with other identifiers.Anybody who wants to register a textual work – whether it’s an author, an agent, a publisher, or whoever - must submit a request to an ISTC registration agency with the necessary metadata needed to distinguish that work from others. The registration agency determines whether or not that request qualifies for a new or an existing ISTC.

More information about ISTC can be found here.

Small Changes Afoot

IPG acquires InScribe Digital. Barnes & Noble acquires Adaptive Studios and is experimenting with POD for self-published titles. Ingram's been on an acquisitions binge since last December. Hachette acquiredPerseus's publishing unit. And Mike Shatzkin has announced he is stepping down as program director of DBW.
Mike makes a good point - the dust raised up by the drastic disruption brought on by digitization is settling. Pain points seem to have minimized. These days, the big news is in consolidation, iterative experimentation, and (dare I say it) infrastructure improvements. The acquisitions I mentioned are not earth-shattering but incremental - the Big Scary Days are safely in the rear-view mirror for the time being.
For those of us who thrive on disturbance, this can be a difficult time - casting about for The Next Big Thing (especially in summer, when the buzz of the tree locusts lulls us into either napping or impatience) is quite frustrating when all seems well in hand. Forcing disruption where none is naturally occurring is, of course, not terribly honest. One can always argue that publishing is complacent, that the book trade is blinkered, that if traditional publishers don't focus on something other than the next bestseller then they'll be blindsided by Pokemon Go or something like it.
And that's true.
But publishing continues. For all the disruption caused by ebooks, print sales are still strong. Audiobook sales continue a spectacular hockey stick growth. Pikachu can exist side-by-side with adult coloring books and the Knopf frontlist.
So perhaps now is a time for contemplation. For digging ditches, and focusing on fortification. For refining processes and smoothing efficiencies. It's a luxury to be able to do so. I used to have a trainer who would hold me back from pushing myself during certain workouts. "It's okay if it's easy," he would say. "Enjoy it. Not everything has to be hard."

Alphabet Soup: ISAN

The ISAN was developed in the year 2000 and published by ISO in 2002. It identifies an audiovisual work – so it applies to films, TV shows, video games, etc. ISANs are used by film and television studios, services such as iTunes and HBO, and technology companies like Microsoft.

The first twelve numbers of the ISAN form the “root” of the identifier. The root is assigned to the core work. The next set of numbers applies to the episode or part (if there is one – if not, the next four numbers are zeroes). The next character is a check character. The next eight numbers identify the version of the work. The last number is also a checksum.