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Good Intentions, Bad Implementation

While the intention of providing ISBNs for free can be lauded, the inefficiency in the system, the time delays and the complex procedures hampers the larger intention of encouraging publications of more books.

Recently, the Takshashila Institution published its first book “A Visible Hand” by Narayan Ramachandran. Narayan has written scores of articles/essays on various topics and the book is a collection of his finest writings – essays on the intersection of politics, economics and society. The next step after publishing the book is to make it market ready. To commercially sell this book, one requires an International Standard Book Number (ISBN), such that it can enter the catalogues of the sellers and makes the transaction of buying and selling the book easier. The ISBN is a 13 digit unique commercial numeric identifier that is assigned to each publication, which is then updated to the database.

Though it is an international standard number, each country has a different agency that assigns the ISBNs and thus, each country has different procedures to acquire it. Many countries have outsources this job to the private companies, like R.R Bowker in the US, Nielsen Holdings in the UK, etc. Many other countries have a governmental agency that deals with issuing ISBNs, such as the Library and Archives Canada, the National Library of South Africa, etc. Irrespective of whether it is a government or a private agency, the process is a fairly simple one that can be done online and the response time should be fairly short. The Bowker’s website, for example, provides ISBN numbers and a barcode immediately after the payment of a fee.  Though the process is easy, acquiring an ISBN in the US or UK is quite an expensive affair – it costs $125 for an ISBN in the US and £120 in the UK.

The 13 digit International Standard Book Number

The 13 digit International Standard Book Number

In India, with the noble intention of encouraging more people to write and publish books, the Ministry of Culture issues the ISBNs free of cost for publishers, authors and educational institutions. It has set up the Raja Rammohun Roy Library Foundation as the agency responsible for issuing ISBNs in India. While the intention of providing ISBNs for free is good, the inefficiency in the system, the time delays and the complex procedures hampers the larger intention of encouraging publications of more books.

Specific problems with getting an ISBN:

Time: Getting an ISBN in India takes, on average, more than a period of two months. There are instances where people have waited more than six months in acquiring the ISBN and this can be hugely frustrating for either publishers or individual authors who have invested significant effort, time and money in publishing a book.

Procedure: Only one ISBN is awarded per application for individual authors. Publishers however, get a block of 10 ISBN numbers that they can use for their future publications.

The application form is fairly simple, though there is one question that almost no one knows how to answer. The question is “Category in which applied (5/4/3/2/1)  ___”. Even after an extensive search on the internet, it is still not clear as to what categories they are alluding to. Many aspiring authors have asked for help on the same question in different user forums and have not received any answer. The agency has not yet responded to either mail or telephone calls.

Further, the application form has to be sent by snail mail to Delhi, which further increases the time, effort and uncertainty in obtaining the ISBN.

Another remarkable feature is that educational and research institutions cannot get an ISBN for books they might publish. They can get one only for seminar/conference proceedings. It is rather strange that the agency does not envisage educational and especially research institutions to publish books.

Experience: Many users have reported through their experience that the only way to obtain an ISBN is by personally visiting the office in Delhi and submitting the form. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the applications sent by mail are not processed quickly nor is an acknowledgement receipt sent.

Time-Cost Tradeoff

Thus, it essentially boils down to a time-cost trade-off. Does the free ISBN warrant the laborious procedure and the uncertainty? Publishers might not mind paying a bit to get the ISBN quickly and easily, such that they can sell the product in the market and profit.

The Ministry of Culture has a large dataset to look into the most efficient systems in the world, since each country has an agency to issue the ISBN. It can look into the various options to make the process smoother. It can outsource it to a private company and either let them charge their own fee or subsidize it. If it wants to run the agency itself, it can consider charging a nominal fee and use it to move the entire system online and quicken the procedure.

Ultimately, it should not be forgotten that providing a free service (ISBNs) was a means towards a greater end of getting more published books. Any solution should answer the bigger objective.

Anupam Manur is a Policy Analyst at Takshashila Institution and tweets @anupammanur

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