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Business of Writing, Publishing, Self Publishing

The ISBN: A Government-Sanctioned Monopoly that is Hurting Writers

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.

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About Joe Ponepinto

Co-publisher, with Kelly Davio, of Tahoma Literary Review. Author of "Curtain Calls," a featured Kirkus Review. Married to Dona. Dad to Henry, the coffee-drinkin' dog.

Discussion

12 thoughts on “The ISBN: A Government-Sanctioned Monopoly that is Hurting Writers

  1. Joe, I think you’re right–the ISBN system is expensive, unfair, and needlessly complicated in the U.S. Another reason why I wish I were still living in Canada, where I lived part of the time when I was a grad student.

    Posted by shadowoperator | August 23, 2014, 4:03 PM
    • It bothers me that other countries have found ways to make ISBNs free to their citizens, but in the U.S., corporate interests rule… oh, right, the Supreme Court has ruled that corporations are people. I almost forgot. So I guess that makes the ISBN scheme fair.

      Posted by Joe Ponepinto | August 24, 2014, 4:56 PM
  2. The problem with taking a free CreateSpace ISBN isn’t free advertising on the spine of the book. The cover and interior never have to mention CreateSpace. The problem is that the publisher of record in every distributor catalog is a known Amazon company, which is an instant do-not-stock to bookstores that aren’t Amazon. ISBNs are an evil racket in this country, and it’s past time for that monopoly to be broken!

    Posted by Stefon Mears | August 23, 2014, 6:08 PM
    • Yet another reason to bring this to light. Thanks, Stefon.

      The lack of information about how a for-profit receives and continues to hold the exclusive rights to managing and setting prices for ISBNs is amazing. Wish me luck in finding out.

      Posted by Joe Ponepinto | August 24, 2014, 5:06 PM
  3. Thanks Joe, very informative.

    Posted by Lois Brandt | August 23, 2014, 9:03 PM
  4. Very helpful background information. Thank you for this research and work Joe.

    Posted by Sharon M | August 23, 2014, 10:42 PM
  5. Sounds like another case in which the publishing industry is dreadfully behind the times, and it’s working out very well for Bowker and Amazon. So why would they be inclined to initiate any kind of change? Very informative. Thanks.

    Posted by Gwen Stephens | August 24, 2014, 11:22 AM
    • Not to defend Amazon, but they didn’t write the law that gives them so much publishing control. They are, of course, exploiting it.

      Posted by Joe Ponepinto | August 24, 2014, 5:11 PM
  6. Yes, I use CreateSpace to publish my work, but I pay the $10 “Custom” version of the ISBN so I can put whatever “publishing” name on the spine I want (hence, “Wailing Loon” is my Indie publishing name). Nowhere in my work does “CreateSpace” show. Of course, when you go to get it, as a distributor, I’m sure then it shows up, but I’m not really sure how all that works. And yes, that hurts in the traditional world of stocking and selling in brick-and-mortar locations/mindsets, but as many have shown, books can still sell with the Amazon tag. Nothing’s perfect, and change takes time…but it is coming!

    I’ve always meant to do more in-depth research into ISBNs, so I thank you for this information!

    Posted by fpdorchak | August 24, 2014, 4:15 PM
    • That’s an option I’ve not encountered on CS. Thanks for pointing it out. I’ll have to check it out.

      Posted by Joe Ponepinto | August 24, 2014, 5:12 PM
      • Yeah, you have to pay attention to what you’re selecting. Here’s an excerpt from my own publishing checklist:

        When doing a CreateSpace copy:
        o Get paperback ISBN. Once ISBNs are assigned, they cannot be changed (but see “c,” below).
        a. “Custom” ISBNs can have a “fake” imprint name, like “Wailing Loon.”
        b. Custom ISBNs are also pushed to retailers versus libraries.
        c. If pick wrong one, delete entire “book” and restart that book’s account.

        Posted by fpdorchak | August 24, 2014, 5:18 PM
  7. mind boggling…. thanks.

    Posted by Stephanie Barbé Hammer | August 26, 2014, 6:01 AM

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