When I got my first job in the book industry, the ISBN was waiting in the wings. It was actually doing a little more than that – people in the trade were encouraged to quote the ISBN on orders, and printed order forms usually included them. By the end of the 1970s, almost all books had an ISBN printed on the back cover. Yet, while these rune-like digits were not exactly a sham, they served no useful purpose either. I remember my first boss asking me what I thought of ISBNs. I shrugged. They meant little more to me then than the ‘By appointment to the Queen’ notice on a marmalade jar. ISBNs – the brainchild of a HarperCollins director called Carl Lawrence, one of the grand old men of publishing in my youth – were like the dummy burglar alarms that some people attach to the front of their houses: they indicated, even warned, of something that was not actually in place. That something was a well-organised, automated book industry supply chain.
The trade was quick to catch on, though. By the end of the 1970s, teleordering had been invented and the bigger bookshops and bookselling chains were experimenting with EPOS systems. Some publishers’ reps had handheld devices by which they could transmit orders to head office as they received them (these very early forerunners of the iPad bore about as much resemblance to it as Dom Joly’s giant spoof mobile bears to Apple’s sleek invention today). For the first time, booksellers and librarians were able to identify the correct edition of a book by inspecting the magic barcode on the back. All of these breakthroughs depended on the humble ISBN.
There were some hiccoughs, of course. Rows about how ISBNs should be used erupted right from the start. Eventually it was agreed that not only every edition but also every format of a title should have a unique ISBN. This was a relatively simple concept in an era when most titles appeared first as hardbacks and then as paperbacks if they were successful. Some publishers, however, persisted in allocating ISBNs to non-book material – to posters, for example, or to book packages. I remember arriving at work one day to discover forty dumpbins of a James Herriot title dumped – literally – on the doorstep. I had ordered forty copies, but the publisher had allocated the ISBN to the dumpbin, not the book.
Nevertheless, the ISBN was a wonderful invention. For the first time in its history, the book industry basked in praise for being so innovative. We were told that our use of the ISBN was rivalled only by the ingenious cataloguing mechanism developed at the same time by the car parts industry. This was praise indeed!
Today, ISBNs are ubiquitous. They are used by publishers in most developed countries and routinely quoted by customers when ordering books. (As a purist and something of a pedant, I shudder every time I hear someone say ‘ISBN number’. ISBN, of course, stands for International Standard Book Number, so the added word ‘number’ is redundant. Americans have got round this by creating a word from the acronym – they refer to ‘IZBENS’.)
And, amazingly, considering that all we are talking about is a set of digits, ISBNs still stir up controversy. Now that e-books are available in so many formats, publishers and booksellers are asking whether it is really feasible to allocate a unique ISBN to each. Bibliographic agencies, librarians and some booksellers and publishers say that it should be. Other booksellers and publishers disagree.