Alphabet Soup: ISNI

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The ISNI was developed in 2010 and published by ISO in 2012. While we have identifiers for just about every form of intellectual property, the ISNI identifies the people and organizations that create that intellectual property. Authors, composers, musicians, actors, directors, producers, public figures, music labels, publishing companies – anybody who has created or contributed to the creation of intellectual property is eligible for an ISNI.

ISNI is particularly helpful in two cases – differentiating people with the same or similar names, and collocating people who have made multiple contributions across a variety of media. Large publishing houses, for example, frequently have similarly-named authors in their stables and royalty tracking can be made easier with an identifier like ISNI.

In addition to helping with rights tracking, the ISNI plays a central role in connecting various different sorts of systems together. In use by Wikipedia, Musicbrainz, the British Library, Harvard University, and a number of other organizations, ISNI provides a bridge between all these data sets, a way of linking all these different collections together with a common identifier. This enhances discoverability across the web.

ISNI registration agencies tend to form around specific interests.

The BnF, for example, is focused on French-related interests. Ringgold registers only organization names. The British Library is focused on UK-related contributors. Iconoclaste specializes in French-Canadian musicians. Numerical Gurus is focused on creators of books, music, video and film, and other media and entertainment content.

Numerical Gurus is the only registration agency in the US, and it is the only registration agency that also provides applications for individual contributors. The rest only do bulk uploads.

More information about ISNI can be found here.

A Detour Into Some History

ISBN History

Born in Romania, Emery Koltay grew up in Hungary and was active in the Hungarian resistance to Communism. He spent a lot of time in and out of prison camps before eventually fleeing to the US, where he began working…for R. R. Bowker.

Bowker’s Books in Print database has long roots, going back to the 1800s. It was (and still is) intended to be a catalog of all the books being published in the United States. (Later versions include the UK and Australia as well.)

While he was there, the UK bookseller and wholesaler WH Smith was building a new warehouse that was going to be computerized. This system required every book in the warehouse to be numbered. WH Smith recruited a man named Gordon Foster, who had worked at Bletchley Park during World War II and later worked with Alan Turing at the University of Manchester. In 1965, Foster developed the SBN, a nine-digit number that WH Smith could use to identify editions of books in their new computer system.

Koltay followed the SBN’s progress from the US, and introduced the concept to US publishers as part of his work at Bowker. That set the stage for the number to be refined and ratified by ISO – the International Standards Organization. Within 4 years, ISO published the standard for global use – the fastest an ISO standard had ever been approved.

The ISBN remained at 10 digits until 2005, when it evolved into a 13-digit number to align with the EAN barcode, which was becoming the standard in retail.

It’s important to remember that the ISBN was initially created to solve the problems that digitization was bringing to the book world. Our so-called “digital disruption” is actually a culmination of events that began in the 1960s, when computers began to be more widely used outside of military and academic settings.

BISAC History 

BISAC began as a standalone initiative in 1976, designed to create standards for EDI transmissions in the book supply chain, largely between ordering departments and warehouses.  These were early versions of what ONIX would eventually become – a way of communicating among trading partners.

With the rise of book superstores such as B&N, Borders, and Books a Million, it became apparent that an additional 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.

By 1995, there were around 50 general codes, with “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 merged with BISG in 1999. 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 now 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 “Occultism and Parapsychology” 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 feng shui, 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.

Alphabet Soup: ISSN

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The ISSN identifies ”serial publications” – journals, magazines, annual conference proceedings. Developed on the heels of the ISBN, the ISSN was drafted in 1971 and published by ISO in 1975. It was clear from the ISBN’s success that numbering publications was a good idea.

The ISSN, unlike the ISBN, is a dumb number. The digits carry no intrinsic meaning; there are no prefixes or groups. The ISSN is an eight-digit number – seven digits and a checksum.

Also unlike the ISBN, there is such a thing as an e-ISSN.

As you might expect, it identifies the digital version of the journal. There is, therefore, a p-ISSN, identifying the print version.  Linking the two is the ISSN-L, which is assigned to whichever version is published first.

More information about ISSN can be found here.

Carrots and Sticks

Not too long ago, I was at a conference hotel, getting some work done in the lobby between sessions. A friend dropped by to chat, and I showed him an app that I use for productivity and good habits. It's a role-playing game called Habitica. As you knock to-dos off your list, and check off when you've performed a habit you want to encourage in yourself, you get rewards. It's a positive reinforcement virtuous cycle.

He laughed and said, "You're all carrot and no stick."

It's true. I happily admit it. I function best when incentivized with rewards rather than threats. I might check off more to-dos in a threatening environment, but I'm happier in a rewarding one - which means I do a better job at the things I put my mind to.

Unfortunately, standards adoption doesn't work that way.

There are a great many standards that are created to solve specific problems, but get very slow adoption in the industry. Or none. At least in the US book industry, it seems, there has to be a stick. Carrots don't get the job done.

The stick, in most cases, is that someone has to make the first move in requiring a standard. That was how the ISBN caught on - bookstores began requiring it. That was how ONIX (and the ONIX code-lists) caught on - Amazon began requiring it from the larger publishers. In our portion of the industry, that's what it takes. "Nice to haves" are lovely, but by and large, the book industry doesn't invest in "nice to haves" unless there's a distinct competitive advantage. Which, itself, is at least the threat of a stick.

Other industries have more sticks, it's true. The music industry is a thicket of threats and competition. The video industry is as well. And with our adoption of ISBN (and, to some degree, ISSN) and ONIX, we're regarded as being "ahead" by those industries. But both music and video companies are scrambling with discoverability issues, rights and royalties issues. They're looking closely at, for example, ISNI as a way of solving these problems. They're looking at linked data functionality, so they get attention from Google's Knowledge Panel.

And it may be that, as an industry, we're extremely comfortable with what's already on our plates. But I would argue that, in many ways, we're competing with other types of media for customers - and that competition isn't going so well for us these days. And if those media are looking at standards that we haven't even implemented as potential solutions to their problems...that gap might well become more pronounced.

Treat yourself, maybe. Think about a carrot.

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 Schema.org. 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.