Come April, the ISBN online portal will have completed one year but the initial problems publishers faced while applying for ISBNs online still persist. There are publishers who have applied for ISBN and have had to wait for months before their application got processed; many have not got them yet. Then there is the issue of the online process itself not being streamlined properly to handle the many thousand applications which the online portal receives from publishers across India.

‘Earlier we used to allot around 8000-9000 numbers, but now we have already allotted around 45,000 ISBNs. And since we have more publishers applying, there is bound to be strain on the system,’ says Aparna Sharma, Joint Secretary at the Ministry of Human Resource Department and the person in charge of the department responsible for allotting ISBNs. However, scale does not justify a system plagued with problems, especially when it is known that  huge numbers are the one thing which any system in India is sure to face and the process has to take this into account from the very beginning. Therefore any new policy made without accounting for India’s numbers  is bound to falter.
Publishers’ books have been stalled, universities have not been able to publish their course materials and authors have missed out on important deadlines. ‘I was hoping to launch my book at the New Delhi World Book Fair and had applied for ISBN back in August 2016, thinking I’d have ample time. I’m here in Delhi, but instead of being at the book fair I am at the ISBN office still hoping to secure an ISBN for my book,’ says Rakesh Sharma, a self-published first time author.
‘I find the online process very daunting, with so many unclear guidelines and instructions. And the only way you can resolve your query is by visiting in person the ISBN office which is in Delhi. I come from Kashmir and have visited the office 4-5 times, but am yet to find a resolution to my problem,’ Zohoor Ahmad, a small publisher from Kashmir told Book Link, lamenting the fact that there are no state departments or the fact that no one at the office responds to emails or picks up the phone to answer queries.
‘The latest ISBN series which was issued to us is the exact same series we had been issued in 2013. We had already started using up the ISBNs for fresh publications, and only after 7-8 books were sent for printing and publishing did we realise the mistake when distributors and online retailers were complaining to us for using duplicate ISBNs. Now all our books are held up, including books of renowned authors like RD Sharma. We can only sell our books in the local market, and all our online sales are held up. There is so much confusion surrounding this entire thing, and we have been trying to deal with the ISBN office for so long. Earlier we used to send someone from the staff, but now even I have to come down here but am still waiting for the issue to be resolved’, says a frustrated Girender Singh, Production Manager, Dhanpat Rai Publications.
Our correspondent visited the ISBN office one Wednesday, the official ‘grievance redressal day’, and found many such publishers outside the ISBN office, waiting for the Under Secretary who is the officer-in-charge of the ISBN office. Many publishers waiting have complained that he has a habit of arriving late. ‘He has a very bad temperament, and often dismisses our pleas disrespectfully’, said another publisher.
When Book Link raised concerns over this situation, Aparna Sharma had this to says, ‘Right now our staff situation is very bad. But more importantly, we are trying to improve the system and have started phase-2 of software implementation. We have added some new features, like an editing option for publisher’s profile, while taking out some regulations like mandatory submission of book covers before ISBN issuance. Hopefully, within two-three months most publishers will start getting ISBNs issued without much problems.’
Arguing against bringing back the offline application, Sharma further adds, ‘Earlier we had no record of who, where and for what purpose ISBNs were being used. There were even cases of people filing for ISBNs and then selling it to third party vendors and foreign publishers. All that will change now. We can now also see in which states publishing activity is more and in which it is less. It helps us to know where there is scope for us to promote more books and publishing, like north-eastern states which are so rich culturally but lack behind in publishing.’
While the future looks not too bleak for publishers, it is the present discomfort which no one wants to endure, and rightly so as for many publishers the publishing process has come to a halt this new year. One can only hope that all the pain and losses which publishers bore for this one long year so far results in a smooth 21st century system

Mathew M Phillip

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