acquiring one and it’s use.
Earnshaw Books has a close relationship to the China market, having published books for 16 years that deal with China from a variety of angles, and the company is registered in Hong Kong and uses Hong Kong ISBNs—that is, the internationally recognized book registration numbers that once upon a time, every book had to have. I say once upon a time because digital books are now very important and Amazon, the primary channel through which they are sold worldwide, has its own equivalent of ISBNs called ASINs. They make a big point of saying that an ISBN is not required to publish a digital book for distribution through its system, but for many many years ISBNs have been fundamental to the process of publishing worldwide, and the process and conditions for obtaining them vary widely from one territory and jurisdiction to another. In China, ironically sales for us are problematic because we are registered and operate fundamentally outside of the mainland. I say ironic because just about all of our books are about China and yet, for various reasons related to the way published materials are handled in this jurisdiction, it is a major task getting a book into a bookshop in China.
The history of international ISBNs goes back half a century. The 10-digit ISBN format was developed by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and released in 1970. Every jurisdiction has a unique set of numbers and has the right to issue them according to their own requirements. From 2007, ISBNs expanded to thirteen digits, and that is what we use today.
We could get ISBNs through other sources than Hong Kong, although sometimes it is a little bit tricky. An alternative to Hong Kong would be to use ISBNs from the United Kingdom, but for symbolic reasons I much prefer to use ISBNs from Hong Kong, even though from the perspective of 99.99% of readers the 13 numbers on an ISBN indicating both the origin of the ISBN and the specific title, mean nothing.
Most of my experience with ISBNs comes from Hong Kong and in this regard, there is a lovely office of the HK government in an out-of-the-way part of Kowloon which handles their issuance. I have visited the office and they are all really helpful bureaucrats. The requirement for Hong Kong is that we must provide a list of the titles to which the ISBNs are assigned and provide five copies of every title. Having lived in HK for so many years, and being a fluent speaker of Cantonese and having such a strong fondness for Hong Kong, plus the role that HK has played over the years as a preserver of certain aspects of Chinese culture, it has always felt important to me that Earnshaw Books be domiciled in a part of the Chinese empire, and particularly there. One of the concepts underlying Earnshaw Books is the idea of bridging China and the outside world, and Hong Kong over the past decades has played the same role.
To get an ISBN in China is both extremely difficult and extremely easy. Because it’s China and nothing is allowed and everything is possible, in the words of one of my songs. In China, ISBNs are called Shu Hao, which translates directly as “Book Numbers” and they are issued by the central government to publishers… and that is where it gets grey. China operates on the basis of the genius of the grey. All publishing comes under the system, but private publishers are able to obtain book numbers under the auspices of state publishers. Sometimes there is a drought and book numbers are unavailable, as opposed to Hong Kong and elsewhere where there is an unlimited supply. Why are there droughts is a useless question to ask, but it’s one of the many anomalies of the China publishing market which I may address in another post.
I am not in any way superstitious and I have never thought about linking ISBN numbers to specific books based on any lucky numerology. But we have a book coming through the system which is about superstition and fortune telling and the ways in which they impact on China’s financial markets, and come to think of it, that one has to have an ISBN with lots of 8s in it.