Guest Post: How Bowker uses its U.S. ISBN monopoly to rip off new authors

EAN-13 bar code of ISBN-13 in compliance with ...
An author or publisher who wants to distribute a print edition of a book in the United States will eventually have to get an ISBN (International Standard Book Number) assigned to the title. ISBN records contain author, publisher, size, format, topic-related information, pricing, and other data needed by retailers, libraries, and book distribution systems. Some authors leave ISBN assignment up to their publishers, or distributors serving the self-publishing market, such as CreateSpace and Smashwords. Others get their own ISBNs, which gives them more control over the ISBN data as well as a slight marketing edge (a self-purchased ISBN will reflect the name of the author’s publishing company or imprint).
Purchasing an ISBN in the United States involves going through Bowker, an old-school publishing services company that is the sole issuer of ISBNs in the U.S. Bowker is an affiliate of ProQuest, and offers various services targeting the publishing industry. In the digital age, is Bowker’s hold over the system weakening? In an article headlined “Digital publishing may doom yet another analogue standard“, The Economist noted that the rapid growth of digital self-publishing has given rise to ISBN alternatives, such as Amazon’s ASIN. The largest ebook distribution platforms, including Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing, Apple’s iTunes Connect, and Barnes and Noble’s Pubit, no longer require ISBNs.
However, this trend does not mean Bowker’s ISBN business is falling apart — far from it. The company claims sales of ISBNs to self-published authors is “rising dramatically”. Moreover, the company is leveraging its monopoly power to gouge new writers and small publishers, using exploitative pricing for ISBNs and other services.
How bad is Bowker’s pricing scale? If you’re a publisher needing lots of ISBNs, the price is $1 per ISBN — but you need to order 1,000. If, on the other hand, you only have one book and plan on releasing only one version (such as a single print-on-demand title) Bowker demands $125 — a 12,500% markup.
Actually, the markup is a lot more than 12,500%, if you consider the cost of the service. After all, it costs Bowker practically nothing when an author enters data into Bowker’s Web-based system to create and store a new ISBN record. Canada even gives away ISBNs to Canadian authors for free.
How much is Bowker making from the sale of ISBNs to new and independent authors? The company did not respond to my March 5 email about ISBN pricing. Bowker LLC is not a public company, so there is no public annual report. However, Bowker made this claim last year:
“Small presses, a category that is defined as publishers who have produced 10 or fewer books, accounted for 34,107 self-published titles — 21,256 print and 12,851 e-books — in 2011.”
The numbers of self-published authors/small press titles probably grew in 2012, in line with growing tablet/e-reader demand, and the expansion of Amazon’s KDP program for independent authors. While not every author purchased ISBNs at $125 a pop (Bowker’s pricing scale includes more “cost effective” plans for self publishers, including 10 ISBNs for $250), Bowker nevertheless enjoyed multi-million dollar profits on the backs of new and independent authors and small publishers.
Hold on. Surely Bowker educates new authors, and offers additional services that make it worth their while to pay $125 for a 13-digit number. Right?
Hardly. Even though ISBNs are not necessary for ebooks, Bowker urges new authors to buy ISBNs “for each format of your book … ISBNs may be used for either print or digital versions” while admitting to the publishing establishment that “no ISBN is necessary” for authors using Amazon.
Once an author has bought an ISBN, Bowker layers on even more mercenary upsells, such as $25 barcodes and the “View Inside” widget ($120 for the first year, $60/year thereafter). Bowker claims this widget, which can be embedded on blogs or author websites, lets authors go “viral” through sharing on social networks and connecting with affiliate programs, such as Amazon Associates. Never mind that there are hundreds of free social media widgets available elsewhere, and Amazon Associates has a large selection of free widgets that authors can embed on their blogs and websites.
I could complain about other aspects of Bowker’s ISBN services, such as the terrible user interface for assigning ISBNs and the bizarre request that authors upload PDFs of their books to Bowker so they can resell keyword data to their corporate customers. Naturally, authors don’t get a cut. But I’ll have to leave that rant for another day.
Bottom line: Bowker is (in my opinion) an old-school monopoly that rips off new and naïve authors with overpriced services. The company deserves to be investigated on unfair pricing grounds, but until that happens I can offer only a few pieces of advice to new authors:
  1. For your first print book, consider using free ISBNs offered by CreateSpace or Smashwords. It’s not ideal, but if sales take off you can always reissue the book using an ISBN that you purchase yourself or one that your publishing company buys.
  2. Self-published e-books do not require ISBNs! Amazon, iTunes, Pubit, Kobo, as well as digital content seller platforms like e-junkie and Gumroad, do not require authors to use ISBNs.

I learned the last lesson the hard way, after using up a half-dozen overpriced ISBNs for early ebook versions of Dropbox In 30 Minutes and Google Drive and Docs In 30 Minutes. But for the latest In 30 Minutes title, Derek Slater’s Online Content Marketing In 30 Minutes, I only assigned an ISBN to the paperback edition. The Kindle, iPad, Nook, and PDF versions have not been assigned ISBNs … and never will be, if I can avoid it.
Ian Lamont is the founder and president of i30 Media, which publishes In 30 Minutes™ guides. He is the former managing editor of The Industry Standard and a digital media veteran, with two startups and more than 15 years of online experience behind his belt. He tweets at @In30Minutes and @ilamont.
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  1. DED said:

    I had no idea Bowker was running such a racket! When I published my book, I just used the ISBN Lulu offered. I figured it was just easier that way. I was totally unaware of the outrageous markup! Thanks for bringing attention to this scam.

  2. Total Agreement said:

    I totally agree. Is there some oversight that people can complain to have this practice stopped? It is ridiculous to have to pay such high prices to obtain an ISBN in the USA. I think they need to be stopped!

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  4. Klaus said:

    This is a crazy business. They are basically selling hot air for gold. I know someone in Germany how is selling ISBNs for a third of the normal price and he has just created his own ISBN number system and nobody realizes it. He is making a fortune out of this…

  5. Bernhard said:

    “The company deserves to be investigated on unfair pricing grounds” EXACTLY. It’s so easy to see that they are a rip off company – and who on earth ever gave them all that power I am wondering!? To see your own publications that you bought an ISBN from them, you also have to pay $ 25 a year to have them listed on their pages. I have not been able to find any of my 8 books that I bought the ISBN numbers for in their system! On top of it, they are a dinosaur – it takes days to update your publisher information in their system and days to get a new password for their system. Who is behind this company and who is making all this money?

  6. Tamara Mayo said:

    Wow! Great article! It touches on why so many writers and authors don’t trust the publishing industry – everything they don’t know is being exploited for high dollars at their expense, and the authors know it. They just feel powerless to stop it. I’ll definitely be sharing this with my network. I do, however, want to mention one thing: Barnes and Noble Nook Publishing does require an ISBN number for eBook publishing. Not sure what a solution is to this problem, since Bowker pretty much owns the monopoly on ISBNs, but at least Amazon took the load off of many authors by using ASINs instead.

    • Ted said:

      I published a poetry book on B&N for Nook and didn’t have to have any ISBN.

      Who gave Bowker this monopoly? Our government?

      • Michael said:

        Bowker has worked hard to get the ISBN into various governments where the market is not profitable such as the free ISBNs for Canadian authors mentioned above. By doing so Bowker gets others to assume the workload of distributing ISBNs in unprofitable countries and it also gives their ISBN product an air of governmental authority. But in the US and UK, Bowker/Nielsen runs their ISBN business as a for-profit business. There is no governmental ISBN agency in the US, because the ISBN business is just that — a business that Bowker is running in order to make money by charging high prices for first-time self publishers.

        • Diane Jolly said:

          Do you have a number to talk to someone at Bowker? I have the publisher that I fired posting my book her name as author and using my isbn #. I want to talk to someone to get this corrected and can’t find a #. Thanks Diane Jolly 941-321-1676 or 941-745-1413

  7. Holly Rivney said:

    I have a question: how does a company (such as Smashwords or ISBN Services) offer free or low cost ISBNs if the only “authorized” US provider is Bowker? Do they buy 1000s at $1 and resell them under their own name as the publisher of your book? I refuse to pay $125 but I want to be certain my number is legitimate. Also, can’t you make your own bar codes for free using the internet?

    • Mick Rooney said:

      Correct to your first part on ISBNs. CreateSpace and Smashwords buy ISBNs in bulk and offer them free (single ISBN), but they remain the publisher of record.

      If you want to be the named publisher of record, you need to buy directly from Bowker or myidentifiers.

    • Mick Rooney said:

      For barcodes, yes there are free online tools that allow you to create a barcode from your ISBN and download as a file for your cover. Just Google ISBN barcode tool.

  8. Kit Cowan said:

    Thank you SO much for writing this. My finger was poised over the Bowker button but just in time I decided to google isbn versus bowker and your article popped up. You saved my life – or rather my finances. Thank you! Best of luck!

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  10. Eman Ruoy said:

    Doesn’t First Amendment require that the government not allow companies like this operate, because they interfere and abridge my freed of expression and press?

  11. Christina said:

    What about a ISBN and Barcode from They say they are an “affiliate” and “authorized agency” with Browker. Their Self-Publisher Package is $55.00 for both an ISBN and Barcode. Is there some kind of a catch with them too?

    • harley davidson said:

      God. Who knows. I love this country. It allows you to take advantage of people with little money and make millions off them. God bless America!!!!

  12. Jim Danforth said:

    I don’t object to the pricing, but I find the Bowker website extremely difficult to use. I have successfully registered three ‘volumes’, but a forth resists completion, despite all my attempts to follow the extremely complex Bowker instructions. Worse yet, after going through all the steps to complete the forms, there was no way to enter my credit card number to pay the $25 fee for the barcode. And all my inputting seems to have been lost. (I had previously purchased a ‘block’ of ten ISBNs).
    In addition, one of their products (copyright registration) is bogus in that it offers protection that copyright does not confer. It also states (as though it were ‘breaking news’ that copyright registration is required before a lawsuit can be initiated. This has always been true. (If you don’t like the Bowker prices, you can’t afford a suit for infringement. A copyright action costs tens of thousands of dollars, up to hundreds of thousands if there is any opposition.
    Then there is my personal pet peeve: their website pages look like pages in a color catalogue, not a serious government publication. And they continually try to entice one to buy more products. Let’s get this organization ‘decertified’.