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You'll never guess what's been at the front of my mind the last few weeks. It's something so simple I can't believe my brain is making such a big deal out of it, and I can't believe I've not cracked it already -- and yet. The problem is simply how to describe books. I know! But here's the thing.

What's a 'book'? A copy? A publication? A piece of writing? Does the word encompass format, or is it more a description of the manuscript? Would you say that the hardback and the paperback are both 'the book'?

And it goes on. If 'book' is too woolly, then what about splitting out the piece of writing from the physical form. Bibliographic-types would describe the 'work' and its 'manifestations', with 'impressions' (or printings) producing 'items'. (The poor chaps who have to think about musical works and their annoying performance aspect also have to consider 'expressions' of a work). This is very good, but the word 'manifestation' doesn't really conjure up the image of a book. If a fellow in the street was to brandish a brown paper bag at you and declare 'in this bag is my latest manifestation', you'd not be entirely sure whether to reach for a pen, to get him to sign the article, or a strait-jacket.

So we can look at the words that non-bibliographic people frequently use to describe books. Why, they'd say, it's simple. You have a paperback edition of a work, and a hardback. Aha! 'Edition'. Sounds plausible. But that word is one of the most loaded. You can have a paperback edition (a format descriptor), or a second edition (a time descriptor), or the Penguin edition (a publisher descriptor) or the library edition (a customer descriptor), or the US edition (a territory descriptor). And what if you have the 'digital edition' which turns out to actually be three 'books': ePub, PDF and Mobi format?

What are the other options available to clearly describe a book? We've tried 'edition', 'book' and 'manifestation'. Then there's 'product', 'ISBN', 'version', 'SKU', 'line', 'article' (ha! anyone remember expensive SAP implementations?), 'publication', 'format'. Amazon refer to 'books' and 'formats'. Some bibliographic systems refer to 'works' and 'editions'. The powers that be call them 'works' and 'manifestations'. ONIX (the language of book data) calls them 'Products' and mostly leaves the concept of 'Works' to the ISTC scheme. Works, in turn, can be called 'works', but also 'titles', 'product lines', 'ISTCs'.

All this is enough to conclude, at least, that publishing hasn't agreed on what the things are called that we produce. I suppose we've only had since the fifteenth century. I'm torn at the moment between using a loaded-yet-familiar term (upside: if you say 'edition', at least you might have a clue that it's a book being discussed. Downside: hilarity may ensue if person A's understanding of what an edition is differs from Person B's), and using a brand new word (upside: if you say 'manifestation', if you think about it for a moment in the context of book data, it's clear what we're talking about. Downside: it's an awful word).

What do you think?

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