Lack of ISBN is hurting the local publishing industry

The International Standard Book Number (ISBN) is a unique numeric commercial book identifier based on the unique digits for book publishers and booksellers.
Stephen Mugisha
Stephen Mugisha

The International Standard Book Number (ISBN) is a unique numeric commercial book identifier based on the unique digits for book publishers and booksellers.

The initially 10-digit ISBN format was developed by the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) and was published in 1970 as international standard ISO 2108.

Later on, ISO appointed the International ISBN Agency as the registration authority for ISBN worldwide and the ISBN Standard is developed under the control of ISO Technical Committee 46/Subcommittee 9 TC 46/SC 9.

In 2005, ISBN agency made the major revision of changing the code from a 10-digit identifier to one of 13 digits which is being used to date. At this point it’s important to note that International Standard Book Numbers issuance is country-specific, in that the codes are issued by the ISBN registration agency that is responsible for that country. 

When an ISBN is issued to the country, the country in turn assigns a country agency to issue it to publishers and authors. Normally this role is assigned to the national libraries or any other institution depending on country’s structures.

After this introduction and background of the history of the ISBN, it’s important to know that ISBN issuance is centralised and is issued by ISBN agency.

This body assigns specific ISBN code to the individual country where publishers and booksellers get ISBN to publish books and in turn these ISBNs become book identifiers. At this point the burning question is why is that the ISBN agency has refused to assign the ISBN code to Rwanda?

Without referring to history and neo-colonial legacies that shattered this country’s knowledge sector, the agency should do the right thing by assigning the country ISBN code as we embark on our journey to build the publishing industry.

For over one year now, Ms Jennifer Turatsinze the Director of Rwanda Library Services has been embroiled in lengthy email exchanges requesting for an ISBN to no avail.

Some of the replies are so embarrassing, including telling her that the parent agency to which Rwandans are subjected to is in France.

At the current time because ISBN is relatively mature and has been adopted in many countries, the international body can only appoint new agencies if there is very pressing evidence that a new agency is required.

This would be based on clear evidence that there is very strong demand for the code in that country and that the book trade is ready to use ISBN and bar coding for example.

It is still rather unclear whether or not there is sufficient demand to justify the establishment of a new ISBN Agency for Rwanda and therefore the allocation of a group prefix specifically for Rwandan publishers.

 The number of publishers who wish to join the ISBN system appears to be quite small and, so for this reason the board has reservations as to whether it is appropriate to set up an agency in Rwanda at this time since it may be sufficient to continue with the current arrangements whereby allocations are made by France for the few publishers who apply each year.

In the publishing fraternity there is a professional joke of an author who submitted his manuscript for publication. When he came back to check on the status the publisher had this note;

“Your book is both good and original, but the part that is good is not original, the part that is original is not good”.

In short he couldn’t have his book published! Similarly, the agency maintains that not until we have many publications we should keep affiliated to France!

The question is should it be a lot of publications first or it should be ISBN first which would in turn encourage the growth and development of indigenous book publishing? If ISBN is an international book identifier, so any book without an ISBN remains a pamphlet and lacks international book standards.

So, what will motivate Rwanda publishers and authors to invest in the book sector if their publications remain sub-standard? We call upon the ISBN agency to give us what belongs to us; all countries are entitled to ISBN codes!

There is no reason whatsoever why Rwandan publishers and authors should go through France! By denying us the ISBN country code, the agency is indirectly suffocating the growth of indigenous publishing.

Book publishing industry plays significant role as a voice and the heritage of every nation. Book publishing industry and books for that matter are used to preserve, disseminate and inculcate cultural values and heritage for the future generations.

The writer is an educationist, author and publisher.