Big earthquakes can cause building damage and collapse. Sometimes, it's because a builder hasn't followed code, and the violations are exposed by the stress of a quake. Other times, it's because the building code didn't properly anticipate the stresses of the earthquake. Either way, after a severe earthquake, buildings need to be inspected to assess damages and to determine if changes need to be made in the building code.
Modern technology allows buildings to soar through traditional limitations. For example, the engineers of Taipei 101, which was the worlds' tallest building from 2004 to 2010, put a huge tuned mass damper system at the top of the tower. They made a virtue out of necessity, and the damper is now on display as a dramatic part of the Taipei 101 tourism experience, well worth the visit if you go to Taipei. (I was there in 2006.)
|the tuned mass damper in Taipei 101|
Last Thursday, I was fortunate to be at a presentation of the Book Industry Study Group (BISG) about identification of eBooks. BISG hired Michael Cairns, the principal of Information Media Partners, to do a study of the use, issues and practice surrounding assignment of ISBNs in the US book industry. Think of him as a structural engineer hired to inspect the damage to the supply chain's supporting infrastructure after an earthquake. Cairns conducted 55 separate interviews with a total of 75 industry experts from all facets of the industry. (I was interviewed for my expertise in the use of ISBN in library linking systems).
- BISG eBook ISBN Study Findings Released Michael Cairns' blog
- Summary of BISG Presentation From BISG, PDF 730 KB
Despite the difficulties created by the uneven application of the standard, there's no collective desire in the industry to "fix" the problem. Everybody has patched their systems to make them work in spite of a damaged infrastructure. The result is that poor practice has been structurally incorporated into the ebook supply chain, such that it doesn't help any more to do things correctly. If everyone started following the rules tomorrow, the supply chain might stop working.
It's as if an addition to a building needed to be built during an earthquake, even as things continued to shake. The framework is crooked, but that's needed to keep the building from falling over. You shouldn't expect such an addition to be perfect; it's something of a miracle that it can be built at all.
One example of how supply chain tremors putting stress on the supply chain edifice was raised in the discussion after Cairn's talk. At BN.com, they are enhancing some ebooks for the Nook. The enhanced ebooks are then offered at a different price than unenhanced ebooks. Normally, this would not affect ISBN assignment, because the modified ebooks are sold only by BN in the Nook store, and no one else would be affected. But last year, the supply chain was shaken when 5 of the big 6 publishers moved their ebooks to the "agency model". All of a sudden, the ebooks sold in the Nook store were being set by the publisher. The publisher was now pulling price strings for each version of the ebook, and the string being used was, you guessed it, the ISBN. So the result of the shift to an agency model was that a whole bunch of ebooks suddenly needed their own ISBNs.
While everybody seems to be scraping by for now, there may be severe problems lying ahead. Cairns pointed to libraries as a supply chain participant that was already experiencing ebook ISBN dystopia, and he suggested that the experiences of libraries today may presage the sort of problems which may spread to consumer markets as the ebook industry matures.
Libraries have historically had a different relationship to metadata than publishers and other supply chain participants. They KEEP their books. Publishers pay a lot of attention to metadata when a book is created because it helps them sell books. Then, they're pretty much done with the metadata. If the data rots (goes out of date), it's not really a publisher problem. So libraries have maintained their own metadata to allow them to manage their collections.
eBook metadata is forever. Because ebooks are licensed, not sold, the licensor retains a relationship with the purchaser extending beyond the sale, and must maintain metadata surrounding the license for much longer than in the case of printed books. There are new sets of intermediaries and many more possibilities for business models. This is already playing out in library distribution channels, where ebooks are being licensed, lent, rented, printed, viewed, bundled into packages and purchased. If multiple sets of licensing terms are used for an ebook, resulting in multiple products with different prices attached, are new ISBNs needed? In the past, the answer would be a clear "no"; things like the agency model have changed that to a clear "I don't know".
Another issue laid out by Cairns was the low profile and negative perception of the US ISBN Agency (and by extension, ISBN International) in the ebook industry. Many of his interviewees had the impression that the assignment policies were being driven by the agency's business model (basically, the selling of ISBNs and related databases). If only it were so simple!
Brian Green, Executive Director of ISBN International spoke briefly about a similar study his group had commissioned. Although this study (PDF, 509KB) focused less on the US situation, many of its findings were similar to those of the Cairns report. At least one recommendation in that report has been acted on- ISBN International has released an updated FAQ (PDF, 363 KB) on assignment of ISBNs to e-books. You can help with another recommendation by helping to disseminate it widely!
Perhaps the book industry will need the standards equivalent of a tuned mass damper. I can't wait to visit that skyscraper.