Media regulation

Snags in China's new ISBN distribution system

The key to the marketplace

Last week Danwei posted about a brief notice from GAPP announcing that management of China's publishing sector would be overhauled during the next two years, with the ultimate goal of decoupling publishers from the government.

In 2008, GAPP announced changes in the way it issues book numbers, which are required for a book to be legally published in China. In the past, authorized publishers applied to GAPP for a batch of ISBNs a few times each year, which they then assigned to the books they published during that period. No one else was able to obtain ISBNs from GAPP, but because many publishers received more ISBNs than they needed, a black market sprung up with authorized publishers acting as book number dealers to private companies that handled acquisitions, editing, marketing, and most of the other tasks a publisher traditionally takes on.

Although widespread, this practice was technically illegal. The new system, which went into effect at the start of this year, issues book numbers on a per-title basis, eliminating the surplus ISBNs that could be sold off to unlicensed cultural companies. Established relationships between officially-recognized publishers and private book studios were not expected to suffer under the new system, but the prospects for purveyors of inferior-quality and harmful books were not so hot.

Assuming that the new system worked, of course. In Guangdong, there seems to have been a slight problem:

According to a staff member at the Guangdong Administration of Press and Publication (GDAPP), roughly 100 domestic publishers started using GAPP's new "title-based book number application system" network when it was launched on January 8. GAPP halted the previous system under which publishers submitted topics and were issued a batch of numbers. However, because of platform development issues in GAPP's network, Guangdong's publishers have yet to be granted a single title-based book number: new book licenses for 2009 are unable to be issued. The GDAPP is working with GAPP to resolve the issue so that by the end of this month or the beginning of next it can start issuing this year's numbers.

The Yangcheng Evening News reported the GAPP network problems on February 10. In the same article, it also noted that some publishers have voiced additional concerns about the new system:

Many publishers worry that after the title-based system goes into effect, the book data they need to submit to GAPP, including an author bio, a book title, a price, and a total character count, in order to obtain a unique book number and bar code will require working from a complete manuscript that has been edited, laid-out, and fully inspected, and that once this has been done, there will be no chance for further changes. A title-based book number granted only after the book is complete will substantially restrict publishers' ability to make adjustments, and requiring a book to be essentially in its final form before it can apply for a publication license means running the risk of market losses if the approval process is delayed.
A manager at a relatively large-scale private culture company in Guangdong said, "The title-based system will standardize the issuing of book numbers, but it also accentuates scarcity and may drive up the price of book numbers. You'll still be able to buy them; it's just that the cost to private book studios will be higher. Smaller cultural companies will go under, and even those that are larger-scale will see their output drop." He said that this will strike a sizable blow at the market because the majority of best-selling books are produced by private companies.

Another private entrepreneur said that to some extent, barring books from changing titles after approval violates the rules of publishing. Market trends change, and a title is a very important selling point and point of identification for a book, and could very likely be changed at the last minute. Having a "name for life" may be administratively expedient, but it shows a certain lack of understanding toward publishers.

The following day, commentator Li Qing remarked on the need to eliminate restrictions on book numbers:

As those who are understand book publishing are aware, a book must have a book number before it is formally published. Not just anyone can issue a book number: only licensed publishers have the capability to apply to GAPP to obtain one. Because the source of book numbers is monopolized, for a while now some publishers have turned a profit by illegally selling off book numbers obtained through their own channels to other organizations and individuals, who have brought lots of bad books to market. GAPP's "title-based book number application system" is intended to standardize book number management and halt the trade in book numbers.
I have no desire to condemn the administrative departments' standardization of book number management. Indeed, the book number system cannot be eliminated: assigning serial numbers to books is an international rule. However, the original point of book numbers was simply to have an identification number for every book. They should not become a scarce resource monopolized by government agencies. What the situation should be is this: new books awaiting publication that have no obvious content issues should easily obtain book numbers. Liberalizing the issuing of book numbers will enrich the publishing sector and wipe out the phenomenon of book number trading.
The manager of a private cultural company said, "The title-based system...accentuates scarcity and may drive up the price of book numbers. You'll still be able to buy them; it's just that the cost to private book studios will be higher." His fears are not baseless. Trade in book numbers came about not because ruthless profit-seeking publishers sold them, or law-breakers with money sought to buy them, but because they were highly monopolized. Without a book number, even a book whose content is entirely problem-free has no way to be published.
GAPP head Liu Binjie said that unequal distribution of book numbers led to the book number trade. However, the "unequal distribution" he referred to is only the imbalance in the number of book numbers issued to different publishers. The real problem is even under the title-based application system, many publishers are still book number dealers: their books are actually produced by other cultural companies. Organizations outside the system that have the ability to produce and market books have no legal channels to obtain book numbers. For books that have poor sales projections, authors use "self-financed publications" — actually, they buy book numbers from a publisher. When will this "unequal distribution" be incorporated into the agenda for reforming the management of the publishing sector?

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There are currently 3 Comments for Snags in China's new ISBN distribution system.

Comments on Snags in China's new ISBN distribution system

Very good. I heard your blog from keso's blog.

"Indeed, the book number system cannot be eliminated: assigning serial numbers to books is an international rule. However, the original point of book numbers was simply to have an identification number for every book."

Who is this Li Qing? An apologist for censorship in China?

Equating China's system for "assigning serial numbers" with others countries', particularly in the EU or the US, is absurd.

Since 1949, books without a "shuhao" (book number) cannot be published. This has given the authorities a means to deny publication to books deemed harmful to the state.

What Li Qing is whitewashing, and Joel Martinson fails to point out, is that the new system has been set up SPECIFICALLY to tighten the state's control of what can be legally published. Period. This is not an attempt to "rationalize administration" of the publishing industry; it is a smart move intended to ensure publishers publish politically correct books.

Bruce: Thanks for your comments. I am aware of the history you raise, and I specifically point out in the top of the post that book numbers "are required for a book to be legally published in China." The immediate result of this system may be a tightening of state control over book publication, but one could argue that its specific intent is to allow GAPP to maintain its existing control over book publication after it opens up the industry to additional players, a shift in the marketplace that would make issuing batches of numbers more unworkable than it is now. The net effect may be the same, I won't presume to guess at GAPP's motives. Chinese publishing is what it is, and from the standpoint of a media observer, I find the censorship issue in and of itself far less interesting than the ways that authors, editors, private book studios, and larger publishers find ways to cope with it.

Li Qing's argument, at least as far as I understand it, is that China's system for "assigning serial numbers" should be more like other countries': that is, he makes the case that book numbers shouldn't be part of the censorship regime. Yes, he does mention "content issues" and seems to support at least a baseline of giverment restriction on speech, but that's a separate issue from the inanity of the book number system.

Additionally, the line you take issue with, 然而,书号的本来意义,只是图书的一个编号而已,它不该成为稀缺资源,被管理部门垄断在手中, I interpret to refer to serial numbers in the abstract, not as employed by the Chinese authorities. Perhaps I'm wrong, but overall, Li's piece doesn't strike me as a defense of current censorship practice.

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