TIPM is currently on a break for the holiday season and this is a repost from our Best of 2013 articles. We would like to take this opportunity to thank all our readers and subscribers for their continued support over the past year. We hope you have a prosperous holiday season and enjoy the time you spend with your loved ones and friends.
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.
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?
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.
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.
Mick Rooney – Publishing Consultant
If you found this review or article helpful, but you’re still looking for a suitable self-publishing provider to fit your needs as an author, then I’m sure I can help. As a publishing consultant and editor of this magazine, I’ve reviewed and examined in detail more than 150 providers throughout the world like the one above. As a self-published and traditionally published author of nine books, I understand your needs on the path to publication and beyond. So, before you spend hundreds or thousands, and a great deal of your time, why not book one of my personally tailored and affordable consultation sessions today? Click here for more details.
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