International Agency Threatens to Revoke MHRD’s Power to Grant ISBN Numbers to Book Publishers

Publishers in India have written repeatedly to the International ISBN Agency to complain about the many problems they have been facing in obtaining ISBN numbers.

The publishing industry in India is facing a crisis. Credit: Reuters/Files

New Delhi: A crisis has been unfolding in the publishing industry in India, triggered by a scarcity of International Standard Book Numbers (ISBNs). The Raja Rammohun Roy National Agency – which functions under the Ministry of Human Resource Development – stands to lose the right to grant ISBN numbers to publishers and authors over concerns of red-tapism and censorship.

According to an Indian Express report, the International ISBN Agency cited “unacceptable” complaints against the MHRD in granting ISBN numbers, because of which, on March 29, the agency warned the government that it would withdraw its right to grant the unique 13-digit code. The codes, though not mandatory by law, are indispensable to buyers and sellers because they make indenting and cataloguing much easier.

The dearth of ISBNs seems to be a symptom of digitising the process of allotment – a move that was undertaken by former HRD minister Smriti Irani in 2016. Thereafter, publishers have complained that the entire process of acquiring ISBN numbers slowed down, as excessive scrutiny raised fears of censorship.

In February 2017, a collective of publishers had written to Aparna Sharma, joint secretary (ISBN) at the MHRD, detailing their concerns. While the government had promised that the matter will be “looked into”, very little was done to address their concerns.

According to the letter, several applicants were asked to submit their documents repeatedly, which led to delays in their publishing schedules. The ministry did not communicate effectively with the publishers on several counts – leaving applications unanswered, not responding to or adequately resolving queries and rejecting applications without providing sufficient reasons. Furthermore, if the required documents fail to upload owing to technical problems, no intimation is provided by the ministry. Instead, the application is considered incomplete and rejected, and the applicant is informed only a few days later.

Despite the kind of linguistic diversity that India has, the application process does not recognise any vernacular languages, which forces publishers to provide transliterated text. There is also no provision in the system to acquire ISBN numbers for e-books and texts in Braille.

Another significant concern that the letter raises it that the application process doesn’t consider the vastly different legal entities who engage in publishing in India – namely private companies, universities, organisations, trusts, etc. The application process does not distinguish between these various kinds of publishers and does not have a clearly-defined set of rules and documents required for each entity. Therefore, the ministry often functions arbitrarily, asking some publishers to first have their publications verified by other government authorities.

Such a step indicates deep suspicion of the publishing community. We believe that such encounters with the application process will only dissuade many entities from using an ISBN for their publications,” the letter said. 

A large part of the problems faced by publishers seem to be rooted in technical issues, which can be resolved if the software for application is redesigned. The letter urged the ministry to address these problems, and said, “A simplification of the ISBN application process so that it complies with international practices, we believe, will encourage more publishers to avail of this facility, and ensure that more books are registered with an ISBN.”

Among the signatories of this letter were Indira Chandrasekhar of Tulika Books, Manish Purohit of Authors Unlimited, Ritu Menon of Women Unlimited, Sayoni Basu of Duckbill Books, Sudhanva Deshpande of LeftWord Books, Shobha Viswanath of Karadi Tales and others. 

Publishers who spoke to the Indian Express also pointed out that as a consequence of the ineffective application process, “ISBNs are now issued in lots of ten, instead of 100, after a wait of three to four months.”

The reduction in the number of ISBNs issued and the increasing delays along with the lack of response were the three primary issues highlighted by the International ISBN Agency.

Stella Griffith, executive director of the International ISBN Agency has also asked the government to issue clarifications over the concerns raised about censorship, but the government has reportedly responded by asking the agency to provide specific examples for the concerns raised and has dismissed suggestions of censorship.

“Many of us have been surviving on our stock of ISBNs secured earlier. But we are running out. At this rate, the publishing industry in the country will face a serious crisis in two to three months,” a publisher told the Indian Express. 

  • alok asthana

    What else to expect from Smriti Irani? She doesn’t read book over those of class 12th.