Will 2007 Be Your Bookstore Computer System's Y2K?

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By Fred Hoffman

While it might not be as well-publicized as "Y2K," a potentially very serious computer systems problem looms on the horizon for some book retailers: In the near future, the book community will run out of unique 10-digit ISBNs, and, to ward off the possible repetition of ISBN numbers, there is a transition currently underway from a 10-digit ISBN to an ISBN- or EAN-13 identifier.

And while Y2K ended up more hype than reality (due to proper planning), the change to ISBN-13 could easily spell disaster for the unprepared retailer. If a retailer's system vendor does not develop and provide the necessary systems upgrade to accommodate the new 13-digit ISBNs sometime after January 1, 2007, the retailer's computerized inventory systems may no longer be able to do what they were bought to do. From inventory management to ordering to receipt to point of sale, bookstore systems must accommodate the change.

The results of a recent survey sent by ABA to 15 bookstore computer systems vendors indicate that, while most vendors that responded seem to be close to being compliant with the upcoming changes, the onus is on each bookseller to contact their particular systems vendor to ensure it is doing everything possible to ensure a smooth transition from ISBN-10 to -13.

A Brief History of ISBNs

Let's back up for a minute and take a look at what's changing and why, and then look forward to what bookstore systems need to do to adapt, and what is actually being done.

As its name suggests, the International Standard Book Number, or ISBN, is an international standard administered by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). ISO requires that all of its standards be periodically reviewed, and, if necessary, revised.

The ISBN underwent such a review, which was completed last summer. Representatives from the book industry worldwide -- including U.S. publishers, wholesalers, and retailers -- addressed the problem that, in the not-too-distant future, the book community would run out of ISBNs. ISO's solution was to expand the ISBN from 10 to 13 digits.

Anyone who picks up a trade paperback or hardcover and looks at the back cover will see a 10-digit ISBN printed above the bar code. Below the bar code they will see another number that begins with "978." The latter is the number encoded in the Bookland EAN barcode just above it. Its fourth through twelfth digits are the same as the first nine digits of the 10-digit ISBN above the bar code. Starting January 1, 2007, the (now 13-digit) ISBN will become one and the same with the Bookland EAN.

Currently, many systems vendor's software use a mathematical formula to convert the scanned 13-digit Bookland EAN to a 10-digit ISBN for storage in their database. However, sometime after January 1, 2007, ISBNs with a "979" prefix will begin to appear, and this means that there will eventually be two quite different books having the same nine-digit "core" within their 13-digit ISBNs. In such a case, converting from 13 to 10 digits will cease to work because it will yield the same 10-digit number for two books.

Consequently, by January 1, 2007, bookstore systems need to be able to scan, store, and process (in orders, order acknowledgments, invoices, etc.) the full 13 digits of the revised ISBN. That means that every instance in which the ISBN is used in a system -- in databases, forms, and processes -- needs to be reviewed and updated. (For greater detail, readers are directed to the Book Industry Study Group's Product Identification Web site at http://www.bisg.org/pi/index.html. This site includes general and technical information, timelines and a special section for independent and college book retailers.)

This also means that the old and outdated BISAC fixed format for electronic ordering (EDI), which many bookstore systems still use, and in which the length of the field for the ISBN is limited to 10 characters, will not accommodate the ISBN-13 and will have to be replaced.

For booksellers, the good news is that the job of updating systems to work with the ISBN-13 should fall to the systems vendors, not the individual booksellers themselves. Further good news is that, in general, systems vendors seem to be aware of the issues and are currently working on resolving them -- if they haven't already.

At least, that's what the results of a survey of systems vendors conducted by ABA with the help of BISAC (Book Industry Standards and Communications, the main standards forum of the Book Industry Study Group) indicate.

ABA Vendor Survey

In the Fall of 2004, ABA contacted 15 bookstore computer systems vendors: Anthology, Bestseller Too, Booklog, Book Manager, Book Trak, The Book Wizard, Books In Store, Computac, IBID, Information Partner, MBS Textbook Exchange, PRISM, UBIC System, Wallace Haines Bookseller, and Wordstock. The vendors were asked to complete a survey to assess their awareness of the issues involved in the move to ISBN-13 and what progress they were making.

Of the 15 who were contacted, responses were received from eight vendors: Anthology, Booklog, Books In Store, Computac, IBID, MBS, UBIC and Wordstock. Despite a number of attempts, ABA was unable to get a response from the other seven. (If you're out there, folks, we'd still love to hear from you!)

Among the questions on the survey, vendors were asked whether they were aware that the ISBN was expanding to 13 digits; that the revised ISBN-13 would be the same number as the Bookland EAN; that ISBNs with a "979" prefix would begin to appear after January 1, 2007; that the appearance of "979" ISBNs would render the option of converting a 13-digit Bookland EAN to a 10-digit ISBN invalid; that the old BISAC fixed format for electronic ordering would have to be replaced with a different EDI format; that the 14-digit EAN/UCC-14 was the recommended standard format for communication of identifiers between trading partners; and that an ISBN-13 can be converted to an EAN/UCC-14 simply by adding a leading zero as long as the quantity being denoted is "units," as opposed to cartons, pallets, etc. Fortunately, all eight respondents indicated awareness of all the issues presented in the questionnaire.

Respondents were then asked about their plans to modify their software to deal with ISBN-13s. Their responses were as follows:

  • Six of the eight vendors' software can now scan the Bookland EAN (13-digit) bar code. The other two plan to be ready by mid-2005. (However, those users using older scanners may be faced with a hardware issue because, unlike the newer models, it's possible an old scanner won't be able to recognize all the various bar code formats used in retail.)
  • Seven of the eight vendors can store all 13 digits (rather than converting from 13-digit ISBNs to ISBN-10s and storing the latter). The other plans to be ready by the end of 2005.
  • Five of the eight vendors can already transmit and receive ISBN-13s electronically in purchase orders, order acknowledgments, or other documents. The other three plan to go live by mid-2006 at the latest.
  • Six of the eight can already use ISBN-13 in paper documents, with the other two ready by the end of 2005 at the latest.
  • Six of the eight vendors will follow the recommendation of BISAC, transmitting both ISBN-10 and ISBN-13 in electronic and paper documents during the transition period from ISBN-10 to ISBN-13. (This will allow each recipient to select which of the two identifier formats it is using and make the switch from 10 to 13 at their own pace.)
  • Six of the eight say they will store the ISBN-13 and convert to ISBN-10 if necessary, one will store the ISBN-10 and convert to 13 when necessary, and one will store both 10 and 13.
  • Only three vendors plan on implementing communication using EAN/UCC-14, with two more thinking about it, and three more saying "no."

The Good, Bad, & the Obsolete

As indicated by the survey results, the picture looks pretty good, with everybody who responded either having made the necessary changes or in the process of working on them within a time frame that should enable them to be ready before the witching hour January 1, 2007.

However, here's the bad news: Even though the systems vendors are making the necessary modifications to their software, some users are running older versions of the software that may not be able to be modified. There are definitely users out there whose current software cannot simply be modified to deal with ISBN-13. Books In Store, Computac, and MBS all reported that they have no users using problematic versions, and one other vendor reports only 15 users of its earliest version, which cannot be modified. However, other vendors report having a significant number of users who will encounter problems.

Given the importance of the changes taking place, it is crucial for there to be communication between vendors and their user groups, especially in those cases where users are on obsolete versions and will have to undertake serious (and presumably costly) upgrades of their software. Kudos go out to MBS and UBIC, who have already given their users fairly detailed information about the changes they're making, including time frames. Four other vendors have let their users know that they're working on the issues, but two have said that they have not yet communicated with their users at all.

This demonstrates the need for users of technology to keep upgrading their software and systems. It is probably safe to say that those who have kept their systems upgraded and who have bought software maintenance plans should find the transition to ISBN-13 fairly painless and don't need to worry. However, if you're still running version 1.0 of your bookstore software, Windows 3.0, and a 10-year old computer, you've most likely got problems. If your systems vendor hasn't talked to you, it's time you contacted the company to discover what it is doing and what you need to do.

The Book Industry's Y2K?

So is the comparison to Y2K farfetched? If a few hundred users of obsolete systems may not be able to conduct business after January 1, 2007, I don't think so. On January 3, public radio's Marketplace broadcast a look back at the whole Y2K experience. The report made clear that Y2K was no hoax -- while all the disasters anticipated by some (stuck elevators, planes falling from the sky) didn't happen, it was only because a small army of programmers got most things fixed.

Most, but not all.

On January 1, 2000, John Koskinen, who had been appointed by President Clinton to oversee Y2K fixes, watched "the low level wind shear detectors at every major airport go out at 7:00 on Friday night, the defense intelligence satellite system [go] down, the French intelligence satellite [go] down, the Japanese lose the ability to monitor a couple of their nuclear power plants," as reported by American Public Media/American RadioWorks.

On the whole, the book industry will survive the transition to ISBN-13 quite nicely -- but simply because it will have done its homework and made the necessary changes.

Will you?

Fred Hoffman is ABA's liaison to the Book Industry Study Group's Book and Serial Industry Communications Committee. He was, for many years, an employee of the now closed WordsWorth Books in Cambridge, Massachusetts.