Episode 10: The Need for Standards

Standards are an important driving force in every civilization. Standards help us all agree on how we define things, and provide opportunities for us to more effectively engage with each other in trade and in other ways.

There is an interesting article in Science Magazine about how traders in the ancient Near East and Europe, during the Bronze Age, developed standardized weights and measures over time that allowed them to more easily trade goods with people from other parts of the world. The process of creating these standardized weights took place over a long period of time, but the weights are surprisingly consistent despite the time and distance.

Standardization is much more complex today, and we now have international standards for weights like the kilogram. The Kilogram standard was developed in 1799, and a single cylinder of platinum-iridium that resides in Paris, France, has been used since 1889 as the internationally-recognized standard for a kilogram of mass. That changed in 2019, when scientists and governments around the world defined the Kilogram instead based on a newly defined value of Planck’s Constant, in a process that took many years and many scientific experiments to define. Veritasium has an interesting video about this process.

All of this really leads to the point of this episode: standards are important. There is a lot of work being done in the publishing industry to define and update standards for things like BISAC subject codes, EPUB, ISBN, and ISNI. There are committees and working groups (especially at BISG) that discuss these standards, discuss best practices, and help the publishing industry advance.

I highly encourage you to get involved with these organizations and join the committees that are developing and discussing these standards. More voices are always welcomed, and your unique input is needed.


So this episode’s gonna be just a little bit different than normal episodes here on the BookSmarts podcast, it’s summertime, vacation gets in the way, time kind of gets away from me. So I didn’t have a lot of time to put together an interview, like I like to. I’ve got some interviews coming up that I’m really excited about. But I’ve been thinking just recently about a couple of things, and I thought I would just throw them out there.

The biggest thing here—and I think a really important topic for publishing to remember and kind of stay on top of—is the need for standards: independent, high quality standards for the industry that we work in. Now I’m—for those of you who may not know I’m on the Board of Directors of the Book Industry Study Group, so I’m kind of covered/surrounded in standards for that, and also in my in my job at Firebrand, talking about metadata and things like that—there’s lots of standards that we use in our modern world. And sometimes standards don’t even—we don’t even think about it, we don’t think a lot about how standards have evolved necessarily, or kind of why they are sometimes the way they are.

This is an interesting topic to me, for a variety of reasons, obviously related to work. But also I was just, I was reading through a newsletter the other day. And I saw an article in Science Magazine, that was really interesting, because it talks about how in the Bronze Age—and I keep coming back to the Bronze Age, one of my favorite times in history. If you missed my earlier episode about the Bronze Age movement and transport and things, there’s an earlier episode you should listen to about that. But in Bronze Age Europe, there was a kind of a movement to establish standard weights and measures that was not actually done by the governments of that time, it was actually—obviously there weren’t really large, extensive governments back in the Bronze Age. But there were lots of different standard weights that were used by different merchants to trade goods of equivalent value across everything from Egypt, to Mesopotamia and everywhere else. And it’s interesting, because when you—we’ve done lots of excavations in different parts of the world—what’s interesting is that in the different locations, we have found objects that were consistent enough in weight to be considered basically the same weight and measure. And so there’s a lot of questions: why did, in different parts of the world, different cities, you know, not, you know, maintained by the same government or anything like that, how did they come up with these standards. And the standardization process is, is kind of interesting and very important when you think about it. You know, back in the day, if I’ve got a certain number of, say, almonds or something, and I want to sell my almonds, I want to make sure that I’m getting the right price for them. And then the person buying them wants to make sure that I’m not cheating them on the on the sale, and I’m giving them the correct amount. And so having standard weights and measures is obviously a very important thing. If you if you go back to say Biblical times, there’s, there’s commandments in the Torah that, in the Bible, does say that you’re supposed to have standard weights and measures that are consistent and that are not going to cause someone to think that you’re that you’re stealing from them and things like that. So this is actually built into all of the political and religious systems of the of the ancient Near East, because it’s important, it’s important to have those.

What’s really cool is when you think about, you know those standard weights and measures and then continue up through into modern history. No, this has been obviously a continual process, a continual requirement for trade to work properly between different countries and different civilizations. So you get into the 1700s. And it’s really interesting, because in 1799, there was an internationally-defined unit of measure for the kilogram. It was originally defined as the mass of one liter of water, but in order to make sure that everyone could very easily maintain the correct weights and correct standard of what a kilogram actually is, there was a piece of platinum that was defined as “this piece of Platinum is the exact weight of kilogram.” Then in 1889, that was replaced by another cylinder of platinum-iridium that was known as the international prototype of the kilogram. And that still, that piece of platinum-iridium is still in France, in Paris, in a very highly temperature controlled environment. And up until 2019 it was the international standard for a kilogram. So if you wanted as a country to have your own kilogram standard weight, so that you could use that for doing scientific experiments and making sure that everything is consistent, you would have to go and measure your weight against the weight of this international standard piece of platinum-iridium to define that, that was, you know, you had the correct weight.

This is such an interesting topic, because, you know, think about how much effort had to go into that, and how many different people had to be involved across the entire world, to not only come up with that standard, but then to maintain that standard, how much interconnectivity it requires, for individuals and for governments and everyone else to be willing to say, “This is the standard.” Regardless of whether governments change or you know, other things happen, the scientific community kind of kept that standard as 100%, the same standard for everybody, regardless, across the entire world, essentially.

And then you get to 2019. And there’s an interesting story about this. The problem is, now you’ve got this, this piece of platinum that’s sitting there in Paris, and how difficult is it for me as a individual scientist to go and measure my weight against that weight? And so it becomes this big problem of how do you ensure that all the weights are correct? And so there’s—I’ll link to a story in the show notes, a video in the show notes by Veritasium, which is really great YouTube channel, I highly recommend, a science YouTube channel—it’s very good. Veritasium has this really great video about how the standard can be changed. The international organization that that maintains these standards actually said, well, in order to make this easier for everyone to do, we have to instead define the kilogram not based on this piece of physical platinum in Paris, but to base it on Planck’s Constant. And to do that they actually had to define what Planck’s Constant is, because Planck’s Constant as a number, had some variability, some uncertainty to it. And so there’s this really interesting process all these countries had to go through to do experiments to compare to each other and find out what can we agree on as the official standard for what Planck’s Constant is, so that therefore we can define the mass of this object as being—or this the mass of a kilogram as being this amount.

This is a very interesting topic. So anyway, I’m going to take all of this and try to boil it down to some interesting topic here it and connect it somehow to publishing. Standards are important. That’s really what it comes down to. You know, in the world that we live in, we have tons and tons of standards that we just rely on a daily basis. And in publishing, there are lots of standards as well, that we also rely on. But a lot of times we don’t necessarily focus much attention on the intricate details of those, or we don’t think about the fact that sometimes certain standards are important, but we don’t do them at all, we don’t use them at all. So obviously, ONIX is an international standard for book metadata. And that’s an important standard. And everyone, I think, understands that, although there are some definite limitations in how it’s used, and whether it’s used in certain circumstances. And there’s, there’s a lot of questions about how do we effectively utilize ONIX. When it comes down to it, it is an international standard that everyone recognizes as being the best way to do things.

EPUB is also a similar kind of standard in publishing. It took a long time for us to get from the early days of ebook files—as an ebook developer I used to create four, or five, six different ebook files for clients, because there were so many different formats that you had to deal with. And every different device had its own format and all that kind of stuff. So it’s great that we have standardized down to a single standard of EPUB. And even in the Kindle platform, which still has its own, technically has its own format, Amazon has seen that publishers really just want to make an EPUB file as much as possible and deliver that. And so that’s become kind of the international kind of default standard.

But there’s a lot of other standards that we may not think about much or may not implement as much as we like. The ISNI, the International Standard Name Identifier, is, I think, one of the most important standards in publishing that we—a lot of people don’t even know about it, don’t even know that it exists or have a reason to think about it. And ISNI is basically like an ISBN for people. So you yourself as an author, or a creative person who has, you know, written a song or, you know, published a book or whatever, whatever kind of creative work you’ve done—being able to define you as a person is important in the supply chain that we have. We do this with books by using ISBNs, although ISBNs have some limitations, as well, as exemplified in a lot of the library systems out there that, you know, they need even more defined characteristics for the individual ebook file, not just for the ISBN of the book. But there’s a lot of value in being able to say, well, this John Smith, is this John Smith, who wrote these books, or sang these songs or whatever it is. And so it’s really important for us to think about how can we define things in a much more consistent way, especially as computer communication continues to expand as we—we’re letting systems handle the delivery of data and the aggregation of data and the dissemination of data in a lot of different ways that, that we don’t want to have to have human intervention. And the more we rely on that, the more important it is for us to also rely on the standards that help those computer systems communicate effectively. And you can see this as a problem very quickly, if you go to, if you go to Amazon, or Barnes & Noble, or some other website, and you do a search for the name of an author that’s a little bit more generic. It’s, it’s hard sometimes to really find exactly what you’re looking for. Because it could be that there’s 20, John Smith’s who have written books and, you know, it’s just one of those things where it’s very important to have consistency. So ISNI is, I think, a very important standard.

There’s other standards as well out there. And there’s new standards coming out and all the time, I think we might have a conversation about another standard coming out in the future, maybe later this fall. But I just think it’s important for us as publishing professionals to think about where standards are and think about where the standards are affecting our day to day work. And, and how can we as publishers, engage a little bit more with those standards, to think about how those standards apply to us to the work we do and to the books we publish. So that we can more effectively disseminate information properly, keep consistency and visibility for products, and just ensure the longevity of the work that we do. I think there’s a lot of value in that.

On the flip side of this, there’s also there’s also some other things, other reasons why standards are important. And I think it’s beneficial to publishers to look at the standards as a, as a company-wide, industry-wide movement and to put effort behind it. So if you work for a publisher, and you’re in any way involved in dealing with standards on a daily basis: maybe you have to assign BISAC subject codes, maybe you’re in charge of handling metadata of some kind, or maybe you’re an ebook developer, or maybe you’re a publisher, maybe you actually are the publishing head and you’re in charge of making sure that your company is staying on task and doing the things it’s supposed to be doing. There’s a lot of reasons why you individually as a person who’s in the industry as a professional, can, and I think should, be involved in standard creation and standards maintenance.

There’s a lot of benefit to having more voices in standards development. If you look at the BISG committees, the BISAC Committee has a lot of input from different publishers and needs a lot of input from different publishers to know whether or not certain BISAC subject codes should be included or not included in the next update. So if you’re a publisher, and you have different types of books, and you want to make sure that your books are categorized in a logical way, in a consistent way, it’s good to have that input and to submit those ideas to the committee, or even join the committee if you feel like you have a voice to be on that committee. There’s other committees as well for BISG, there is the Metadata Committee and the Supply Chain Committee and—there’s lots of places where, as an industry, more voices are beneficial. And your voice matters in helping maintain the standards that we use every single day to drive publishing and to make publishing work.

So I just encourage you—I’m gonna put a link in the show notes to the story about the ancient European standard weights and measures, and also put a link to the video about the kilogram. I think both of them are very interesting stories. But I just encourage you as we move the past the middle of the year here and into the Fall, if you’ve got a little bit of extra time, if you’ve got some effort that you can make, some time that you can put toward, you know, toward the industry and toward helping the industry grow, I recommend that you reach out to the Book Industry Study Group, the IBPA (the Independent Book Publishers Association)—join committees, get involved, help develop standards, help everyone else in the community—in the in the publishing community—see where there’s benefit in standards. And let’s let’s move forward as an industry. Let’s make sure that we have these great ideas that we’ve got—that we can actually implement them. And we can make publishing move forward through the use of standards.

So that’s it for this episode of the BookSmarts podcast, I appreciate you taking some time to listen to my little rant here about standards. If you like what you’ve heard, then please go leave a review or rating in your podcast app. And also, please do share this podcast with your colleagues. I really appreciate that you guys are sharing it around and letting your co-workers know about it. If you have a topic suggestion or you have some feedback for me, you can email me directly at joshua@firebrandtech.com. And thanks a lot for joining me, and for getting smarter about your books.