If you’ve ever published a book through an independent publisher, or self-published, you are probably familiar with the ISBN assigned to your book. It’s the 10 or 13-digit number that allows you to sell it in bookstores and with Amazon. And if you were responsible for the purchase of the ISBN, you probably experienced a little sticker shock.
A single ISBN costs $125. That may not sound so bad until you consider a few facts. For a large company, like Amazon, an ISBN costs less than $1, since they can purchase them in blocks of up to a million. Here are the current offerings from Bowker, the officially-designated ISBN agency in the U.S.:
1: $125 10: $295 100: $575 1000: $1000
10,000 or more: quoted price, no doubt under $1 each
The ISBN is an international standard for cataloging books. Each country designates how that system will be implemented within its borders. In Canada and India, for example, ISBNs are free (but you have to live there).
Basically what we have here is a system in which other countries encourage writers to publish and sell their work. But in America the smaller you are, the more you pay. Why must individuals and small publishers pay up to 125 times what corporations pay?
Bowker doesn’t say. My research indicates the prices are based on the old database management system they had in place in 1967, when the ISBN was created and they first got the rights to sell them. At that time, much of the data entry work was done by hand, so it took almost as long to catalog one ISBN as it did to handle 1000. But I doubt they are using that system today. The MyIdentifiers web site (Bowker’s sales site) uses a web interface in which the purchaser enters all the info. Their computers do most of the work.
Bowker gouges writers even more: Once you’ve purchased your ISBNs, they try to hit you with another $25 each to convert the ISBN into the necessary barcode. They don’t tell you there are dozens of web sites that will do this for free.
Information on Bowker on the web is amazingly scarce. A search through Google and The New York Times archives turned up only Bowker’s marketing pages and a few blogs by irate self-publishers. All I could learn is that Bowker is an affiliated business of ProQuest. It is a for-profit business that has an exclusive right to sell ISBNs in the U.S.
In other words they are a government-sanctioned monopoly.
True, you can get one ISBN for free. Many book printers will give an author one ISBN. But in doing so, by law, the purchaser of the ISBN (for example CreateSpace) must list the book as published by them not you. Since they pay $1 or less for their ISBNs, this amounts to virtually free advertising by placing their company name on the spine of your book.
You can also purchase ISBNs from resellers for reduced prices, but the same imprint requirement applies. Sometimes, the resellers don’t tell their customers about this, and when the writer/publisher tries to use a different name as publisher, they can’t, and become stuck with unusable ISBNs.
This is completely unfair to individual writers and small publishers, and seems to be working to restrict publishing, instead of encouraging it.
But what can writers and small publishers do?
Perhaps the best route is to press our national and regional writers’ organizations, and publishers’ organizations, about ISBN inequality. What do they know about it, and what, if anything, is their stand on the issue? If you’re a member of such a group, I urge you to contact them.
We can also make this situation known to influential media outlets, and ask them to investigate Bowker’s monopoly.
In the coming weeks I will pursue those opportunities. I’ll let you know if anything comes of it.