It may seem like a routine letter involving procedure, but the recent one from a group of 17 small and medium publishers to the Ministry of Human Resource Development is anything but that.
Every time a book is published, one of the key requirements is what is known as a ISBN – International Standard Book Number. A unique 13-digit number given to books published around the world, it is generated by the International ISBN Agency. But it is left to each country to decide how it will issue the numbers to publishers and authors on their soil. In India, it is the Raja Ram Mohan Roy National Agency (RRMRNA), under the Department of Higher Education in the Ministry of Human Resources Development, that handles this.
In April 2016, when Smriti Irani was HRD minister, the government decided to digitise the allotment of ISBNs. And what, inexplicably, a move that should have streamlined the process ended up creating a bottleneck.
The RRMRNA launched a website where publishers, whether companies or individuals, would have to register to get their numbers. A ministry press release announcing the website had stated that the objective was to draw India into the framework of Digital India – the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government’s flagship campaign to take all its services online – and to make the process of application easier and more transparent.
This website, however, is still riddled with bugs. And with no phone number through which the Agency can be reached, some publishers have been left waiting for months for their ISBN numbers, with no clarity on the status of their application.
Even government organisations, such as the Indira Gandhi National Open University, have been stymied by this new process and were unable to print new books (at least till December, 2016) despite visits to the agency office in Delhi, according to a report in Books Link, a newsletter for the publication community.
Other publishers have taken to Twitter to complain.
“Earlier, the ministry used to give us ISBN numbers in lots of 100,” said Frederick Noronha, a book publisher and independent journalist based in Goa, and a signatory to the letter asking the RRMRNA to upgrade its website. “Now, because of the delay in registration, we have had to publish books without ISBNs.”
One of these was a book commissioned by the Central government – a translation of the writings of the father of Portugal’s Prime Minister António Luís Santos da Costa, who is of Goan origin. The government had planned to present the book to Costa during his visit to India in January.
Floundering under paperwork
In the old system, publishers would register with the agency, wait a few weeks, and then get the numbers in sets of 100 each. They could then assign these to new books as they chose. When applying for a fresh lot of ISBNs, they had to fill in forms with the details of the books to which the previous numbers had been allotted, to prevent wastage.
Once the website went up, publishers were asked to provide a host of details, including their Permanent Account Number, Aadhaar number and bank statements, just to register. (The bank statement and Aadhaar number are no longer required.) After that, they are now allotted numbers in lots of 10, instead of 100, and have to upload the details of each individual title as they use them, instead of only when applying for a fresh lot.
All calls to the numbers listed for RRMNA on the Human Resource Development website went unanswered.
The agency is floundering under the paperwork, according to Manish Purohit, another signatory to the letter and one of three people to have visited its office in Delhi to deliver the letter. Purohit, co-founder of AuthorsUpfront, a self-publishing platform, clarified that he was speaking in a personal capacity and not for the group.
“I think the entire problem is not about the dissemination of numbers, but the time taken to register,” he said. “The expectation of registration in the digital world is that it will happen in one day, when it is actually one month.”
That said, Purohit expressed an understanding of the agency’s problem, which started when they decided to make the system online. “The office is very poorly staffed and there are only two or three people dealing with 10,000 publishers from around the country, not all of whom write to them in English,” he said. That, he added, made it difficult for them to issue numbers soon.
ISBNs for all? Not exactly
Why are publishers so eager to have International Standard Book Numbers? Because only with these numbers do books become a part of a global database. The 13 digits identify the country, publisher and edition of an individual book. Publishers, booksellers and librarians use these numbers to organise and simplify their records of books. Many online retailers, such as Amazon, insist on the numbers before they stock any book in their collection. And in the academic world, books with these numbers have greater credibility.
Some governments delegate the authority of issuing the numbers to public libraries. Others charge publishers for getting these numbers, though India does not.
Some countries also use the International Standard Book Numbers for censorship. In China, all books that are published must have them. By withholding these numbers to books it does not approve of, the Chinese government controls what books eventually reach the public.
This is not the case in India, where many publishers of Indian languages simply do not bother to apply for the numbers since their buyers do not require it. “I publish Tamil books so I don’t require ISBN anyway,” said M Palani, associate joint secretary of the Booksellers and Publishers Association of South India, who is the publisher at Mullai Pathipagam. Palani had not heard of the new guidelines, which was why he had not registered on the website. He added that most Tamil publishers did not use the numbers at all.
Even so, with the website available only in English, those publishing in regional languages are likely to find it difficult to navigate. This is despite the ministry’s stated goal of launching a mobile application in regional languages to reach out to a more diverse set of publishers.
Manmath Patnaik of Agraduta, a publishing house that specialises in Odia literature, said that for now, he is waiting for his present batch of 100 numbers to get over before registering on the website. “We publish only 20-30 books each year, so we do not need these numbers so frequently,” he said.
But he is apprehensive of the process. “Odia books are anyway not being sold much. If ISBNs are made compulsory, it will be difficult for us. As it is, libraries are not working properly because the government does not give them funds to buy books. If we cannot publish our books on time, we will suffer.”
Publishers have been trying to suggest solutions to the problems, aimed at easing the bottleneck – such as minimising the paperwork requirement every time new ISBNs are applied for, changing the stipulation that 90% of the last batch of ISBNs should have been used before new ones are issues, and increasing the batch size of numbers issued at one go to 250 or 300. book
On World Book Day, there’s nothing that is making this aspect of publishing books any easier.