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:
- 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.
- 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.