Indian Publishers Face Delays, Fear Censorship as Government's ISBN Rules Become Complex

The HRD ministry's new rules for giving ISBNs to publishers are inexplicable – why should the applicant get clearance from NITI Aayog?

File photo of the Kolkata book fair. Credit: Biswarup Ganguly/Wikimedia Commons

The Indian publishing industry is feeling the pain after the changes to the process for getting the International Standard Book Number (ISBN), which till now was a relatively simple task. After the process went online, things have got more complicated and difficult, and delays are endemic. And publishers are beginning to even express concern over possible censorship.

A bit of history is needed. Just three decades ago, certain members of the Indian book trade worked closely and determinedly with the Ministry of Human Resources Development (MHRD) to popularise the use of ISBNs in our country. An ISBN is a unique identifier number – earlier with ten digits, more recently with 13 – which appears on every copy of a particular title published in the world. While there is no legal requirement for an ISBN and nor does it offer any legal protection, it is a product number which is invaluable to publishers, booksellers and libraries for ordering, listing and stock control purposes. Given that in the 1980s Indian publishers were still getting used to carrying ISBNs on our books, it is a testament both to the tenacity of the people who made the logic of such a number clear to the members of the book trade in India, as well as to the growing global trade in an increasingly computerised and digital era, that today no publisher worth her salt can imagine putting a book out there without an ISBN assigned to it.

After ISBNs came into being internationally in 1970, the nodal international ISBN agency began to get into collaborations with organisations in various countries to enable them to assign ISBNs to publishers in their respective countries. In India, that collaboration was set up with the Raja Rammohun Roy Library (RRRL) located under the aegis of MHRD.

When I started my own publishing house Yoda Press in 2004, I remember a particularly hot afternoon spent at the RRRL office on Kasturba Gandhi Marg in New Delhi, waiting for the lunch hour to end so that I could put in a formal request in person for the first batch of ISBNs to be assigned to us. I had been advised by senior book trade members that an appearance in person would help my cause. As is wont to happen in government offices in India, lunch hour extended to two or perhaps three. I waited, my determination waning, and as I was getting up to leave, a surly, portly lady appeared, took my application and informed me that there was no need to come in person, and in future, we should put our request for additional numbers on a postcard and send it to them, and the job would be done. Indeed, for the next decade, and without fail, this was how we got our ISBNs, via the Indian postal system and a humble postcard.

In 2016, however, the HRD minister, Smriti Irani introduced the ISBN portal, making the process of registration and application for ISBNs, new or additional, online. Since then, we in the book trade are faced with the ISBN conundrum. The application process has become a nightmare and very few of us, even after trying for almost a year, have managed to receive our new batch of ISBNs. Those who have received theirs are dismayed to find that they have been assigned only ten new numbers instead of the customary 100. As far as new applications for fresh publishing ventures are concerned, multiple applications have been rejected with the pithy message ‘application incomplete’ but with no further explanation what that might mean.

In the meantime, publishing is booming in India. A recent Bloomberg article put the total worth of the sector at $6.76 billion and estimated that the sector is set to grow at an average compound annual growth rate of 19.3% until 2020. To give you an idea how big that is, the estimated compound annual growth rate for global book publishing for the next five years is just 2%. Naturally, this implies a humungous volume of new titles, which need to get off the ground on time. However, with ISBNs mired in the current online conundrum, publishers feel that they will have hell to pay in getting the work done.

ISBNs are generally assigned to a new title by a publisher from the batch received by her from RRRL at the time that the contract is signed with the author, i.e., at the very beginning of the publishing process. With the global world market having become accessible via the growth in online retailing of books, ISBNs are important for trade book buyers, distributors, aggregators and bookstores in pre-ordering a forthcoming book that catches their interest. More than anything else, at the point that I as a publisher start doing advance publicity for a book, I need to have an ISBN attached to the title for my trade buyers to treat it with any interest. The ISBN, in other words, spells that I am a serious publisher and that the title being promoted is going to be made available within an established, recognised and accessible system.

A publisher friend rued to me the other day that she had applied for her new batch of ISBNs when the contract was signed and now the stock is ready to be printed and she is yet to receive them. She has, in other words, been waiting for eight months, while the Raja Rammohun Roy website continues to publicise ‘Now get ISBNs in 7 Days’.

The particulars of the actual application form add to the conundrum. As a memorandum on the matter submitted to the ministry three months ago by a group of publishers clearly spells out, ‘The application does not favour Indian language publishers as they cannot apply in an Indian language.’ What this means is that Indian language publishers have to submit a phonetic equivalent of the title of the book in the Roman script, which often does not get accepted. Since there is no email or telephone number provided anywhere on the website, these publishers are then stuck with no one to reach out to.

A large number of publishing houses in India, particularly the smaller ones, are proprietorships. And by the law of the land, a publisher who is a sole proprietor does not have to be legally registered. Despite this being the case, the form asks for a registration number and a document and one cannot proceed further without producing these.

At a time when self-publishing is on the rise not just in the world but in India, and on an average five-six of the top ten bestselling titles every month are self-published ones, for the ISBN agency to give out only one ISBN at a time to authors makes little sense.

Perhaps what is most worrying about the application process is that entities such as trusts which are also publishing houses are being asked during the application process to first get a clearance from the NITI Aayog, an organisation that has nothing to do with publishing whatsoever. Publishers fear that the ISBN system might be used as a surveillance or censorship mechanism given that we live in an era of increasing legal cases against perceived ‘offending of sentiments’ and book bans, with some large publishers even self-censoring by pulling books off their list in the recent past. Naturally, the publishing industry is worried and even the international agency has taken note of the problems faced by Indians.

Frederick Noronha, an independent publisher had a pertinent question:‘ …if someone is an active publisher, doing their work diligently and producing books regularly, what’s the need to go through the entire process of re-registering with the ISBN authorities, submitting all documents every time one applies for a new set of ISBN numbers? It is not as if these details change every few months, or that the same needs to be repeatedly verified.’

Another publisher friend brought this to my attention: “ISBN issuance being country specific is only a facilitation process. Nowhere is it mentioned that a publisher from one country cannot purchase an ISBN from another country. Should the publisher decide to purchase from another country, he loses out on the group classification (the fourth and fifth digit) assigned to India. To a consumer (retail, individual, organisation) it really doesn’t matter as it is just a product number.” Maybe, it is just a matter of time before Indian titles begin to be published with UK, US or Brazilian ISBNs on their covers.

Arpita Das runs an independent publishing house called Yoda Press.

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