20/06/2017 4:47 PM IST | Updated 20/06/2017 6:47 PM IST

A 13-Digit Number Has Been Playing Havoc With Indian Publishing

The delays in issuing ISBNs triggered fears of censorship.

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It's probably the least noticeable aspect of a book, but has the potential to cause a serious havoc. And it's just earned India's Union human resource development (HRD) ministry a sharp rap on the knuckles from an international agency.

The International Standard Book Number (ISBN) is a unique 13-digit number assigned to books published the world over. It's not a mandatory requirement, but no publisher worth its salt would venture into the market without it. In India, it is issued by the HRD ministry, under the guidance of the ISBN International Agency, for gratis, though issuing authorities in some countries charge a fee for it.

Somewhat akin to the Aadhaar, ISBN is a singular identification number allotted to a book and treated like a unique footprint by traders, librarians, retailers and readers, internationally, across the industry. It helps publishers keep track of the stock of a title, enables researchers to locate a book in public holdings, allows booksellers to decide on orders and reorders, and readers to trace what they are looking for.

Like the Aadhaar, the ISBN is also not a necessity. A lot of self-published writers and language publishers targeting smaller markets get away without it. Selling mostly via distribution channels supported by local and loyal personal networks, these entities can avoid the formalities of acquiring ISBNs—as well as a good deal of heartache that has come to be associated with the process in India of late.

Digital doldrum

In spite of the received wisdom (much of it propagated by the current government in power) Digital India does not come without its glitches. Those who need reminding have to only consider the security lapses and invasion of privacy that the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) has unleashed upon the country. So, when Smriti Irani, as the then HRD minister, decided to digitise the process of applying for ISBNs last April, the idea didn't already bode too well for many—especially the indie publishers who don't have as much clout as the corporate ones.

In theory, the proposal sounded neat: instead of a written application, publishers should apply online. The process was expected to save both time and resources. In reality, it ended up becoming a liability and an insidious instrument of control.

Apart from the technical glitches in the government's portal, run by Raja Rammohun Roy National Agency (RRMRNA) under the HRD Ministry, the process of applying for ISBNs became incredibly cumbersome. From Aadhaar number to tax receipts to registered ID proofs (none of which was required earlier) the paperwork became riddled with bureaucratic trappings. The details of each book, including its themes and contents, had to be submitted—matters that the ISBN-issuing authorities had hitherto showed scant interest in.

In Hoot, journalist and independent publisher Frederick Noronha recently wrote an account of the ordeal he faced over getting ISBNs for his small imprint based in Goa. In The Wire, a few days before him, indie publisher Arpita Das outlined her trials with the RRMRNA. Both the testimonies pointed out the escalating difficulties in getting ISBNs issued from the authorities.

In the pre-digital era, a message on a simple postcard would get Das a stock of ISBNs, which she would then use for the titles she would publish over the year. In Digital India, a laborious process and months-long wait yielded 10 ISBNs at a time, as opposed to the 100 that were issued earlier. The telephone numbers listed in the portal remain unresponsive and complaints fall on deaf ears.

Censorship or overload?

Publishing schedules are sensitive to delays, especially for books that are tied to specific occasions in the calendar and thus, notionally, to a market demand. A delay in getting an ISBN can leave the fate of a book dangling, uncertain of getting noticed by sellers, buyers and distributors. Like a domino effect it can make or break budgets and revenues for big publishers.

On the flip side, writers tend to be notoriously unpredictable about sticking to deadlines. As Pratik Kanjilal says in The Indian Express, "While Bollywood has institutionalised the art of locking up scriptwriters in hotel rooms and not letting them out until they're done, authors are free spirits and resist being tied down." But be that as it may, once a book is signed on, it is allotted an ISBN number, though it may take several years for it to get published.

The HRD ministry's worries over the misuse of ISBNs, stockpiling of numbers by publishers and the fact that a good many of the numbers already issued are yet to appear on published books are not unfounded. But that's not sufficient reason for it to delay the release of fresh numbers that cannot be legally denied to any publisher. So no wonder there's an apprehension among the publishing community that these tactics have a more sinister underpinning than the government's stated concerns.

In China and parts of the Arab world, denial of ISBNs is a standard way of controlling the dissemination of books. As this article in says, "By withholding these numbers to books it does not approve of, the Chinese government controls what books eventually reach the public." The reality in India is thankfully far different.

India's market is diverse, with many regional language publishers active in it, publishing for a limited but dependable readership. They can thus afford to run their businesses without having to clear the hurdles of getting hold of ISBNs or worrying about populating the right metadata into a government-run system.

Now what?

The latest in this saga is a missive that was sent to the HRD ministry by the ISBN International Agency last month. After receiving a series of complaints from Indian publishers for months, the agency threatened to revoke the ministry's appointment as the body responsible for issuing ISBNs in India. Reports of delay and non-cooperation had "reached unacceptable levels", Stella Griffith, the executive director of the agency, said in a communication to the ministry.

Since then, the ministry has promised to expedite the process, with a maximum waiting period of 48 hours, while also denying any allegations of wrongdoing. Government officials also pledged to clear the existing backlog as quickly as possible. If all goes according to plan, India's publishers will soon have one less thing to worry about in a market where expanding their customer-base is already a major headache.

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