USA Author-Publishers Will Pay More for ISBNs


There are many costs assigned to self-publishing a book, everything from paying an editor, cover designer, book formatter, conversion service fees for digital editions and maybe even marketing and public relations specialists. You may choose to opt for a one-stop-shop publishing service and pay a single fee for your book’s publication. Alternatively, you may go the DIY route with and manage all aspects of your book’s publication by contracting and working with a number of different publishing professionals.

Whatever alternative route you choose to publish your book outside of traditional channels (particularly if you want to be listed as both publisher and author on international book databases), then there is a degree of administration involved in setting up your publishing imprint, maybe registering a company name and copyright, ensuring your book is listed with Bowker or Nielsen and obtaining a block of precious ISBNs for all those editions of your book (paperback, hardback, e-book and audio). In the whole scheme of author-publishing, the administration stuff might take a degree of time to understand and sort out, but it’s likely to represent a much smaller financial investment out of your budget than the expenses of editing and marketing.
Well, the costs on ISBN blocks have just grown a little more for author-publishers in the USA. In a rather cynical move—that seems to specifically target independent authors and micro-publishers— buying ISBNs in bundles of ten has increased from $250 to $295. Bowker has not increased the cost of a single ISBN ($125) or any of its larger bundles mainly bought by mid-sized and larger publishing houses. With the rise of digital publishing (with its closed gardens and multi platforms), if you wanted your book properly listed with most international wholesalers and retailers, then you really need an absolute minimum of two ISBNs to meet book industry standards—one for the paper edition and another for the digital edition (unless you are happy with a Kindle-only e-book).
The way the wind was blowing a few years ago suggested we might actually see the reverse—cheaper ISBNs, but if anything, Bowker has actually expanded its array of targeted self-publishing services for authors. Bowker is not alone in increasing the price of a ten-block of ISBNs. The price has also gradually risen in the UK as well. In 2010, ten ISBNs would have cost an author £98 from Nielsen, the UK agent, now the cost has risen to £132. But US author-publishers are still getting a raw deal from Bowker. Convert that UK price and you will get $224 at the current exchange rate! Therein lies part of the problem. The ISBN system is really tailored for print books, not digital editions, and every country has its own administration agency, charging rates and application policies. Some countries don’t even charge for ISBN allocations to publishers or author-publishers—with Canada a perfect case on the North American continent.
Readers may find a guest post by Ian Lamont of interest. We published it here on TIPM last year and Lamont examined how he believes Bowker is turning the whole explosion in self-publishing into a money-making exercise. The trend goes back as far as 2010, when Bowker launched a manuscript submission service for publishers and self-publishers, and in 2013 a manuscript conversion service for e-books.
The publishing industry is constantly telling author-publishers that their books need to be professionally produced and meet industry standards to be taken seriously and distributed by the book trade, but professional and entrepreneurial authors also deserve a fair playing field and the move by Bowker to increase the cost of a ten bundle of ISBNs seems to me to be directly targeting author-publishers.
Replying directly to Porter Anderson this week, Beat Barblan, Director of Bowker’s, addressed the reason for the price increase:

We did increase the price of only the 10-ISBN offer. We have not increased the price of entry (single ISBN) nor any of the other prices. The 10-ISBN price (10 for the price of 2),  had been a discount that we kept going long after the initial time period expected to ease the cost of purchasing ISBNs for multiple formats. […] Individual author/publishers pay more than companies that purchase large quantities of ISBNs due to the increased cost to us of managing small numbers of ISBN and the relative metadata, as well as providing customer service to individuals.~ Beat Barblan,


That really doesn’t wash with me. If ISBN agencies in other countries can offer bundles a lot cheaper or even for free, regardless of populations, geographic location or number of books published annually, then it takes the same amount of work to electronically process a thousand ISBNs as it does one!
The time is quickly approaching when the whole global ISBN system needs to be carefully examined and overhauled. It was set up at a time when the industry only dealt with print books and it is simply no longer fit-for-purpose.

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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One Comment;

  1. Inkling said:

    I’m not sure I should thank your for such depressing news, but I guess I can thank your for keeping me informed.

    I’m fortunate. When I got into publishing in 1999, I made a very wise or lucky choice. Then, 100 ISBNs from Bowker was $400 and 1,000 were $600. Pondering a bit, I decided that I certainly might use more than a hundred, so I opted for a 1,000. That was ten times as many for only 50% more. Ebooks have made that choice most fortunate. Instead of one or two ISBNs, I now use four for each book.

    I fully agree with your remark: “In a rather cynical move—that seems to specifically target independent authors and micro-publishers.” In my darker moods, I even wonder if Bowker, when it was pushing the major publishers to adopt a 70s-era physical barcode for a twenty-first century digital product, there were whispered promises from Bowker that it would make sure that smaller publishers and independent authors paid a hefty price for even a single ISBN.

    The prices are certainly ridiculous. All the real work of assigning an ISBN is done by the assignee in entering the data. Bowker’s costs are virtually nil. In fact they’re probably about the same as that to get a Library of Congress Control Number from the LOC. That’s free, although it does include a requirement to send them a copy of the book so they can assign a LOC and Dewey classifications to the book.

    The problem is obvious. It’s Bowker’s greed or incompetence at reducing the cost of assigning ISBNs. And in either case, it’s equally obvious that this monopoly needs competition. If we need a rationale, it’s that in the wide-open world of contemporary publishing, we need more options.

    One more comment. There’s actually two broad ways of handling coding for things. In one, very few parts of the field mean much.

    * In my ISBNs, the 978-1 means its a book published in the U.S. The next five digits designate me as the publisher. The last digit is a check sum and the three digits in between mean absolutely nothing. You have to go the Bowker to find out what sort of book they are and it’s title. No one can tell from that ISBN if the book is print or digital. No one can tell from the ISBN for the first edition what that of the second will be. That is, without going, cap in hand, to Bowker.

    * The other method assigns meanings to portions of the number. It’s not to hard to develop a marvelous ebook numbering scheme from it. One set of numbers would designate the publisher or author. Another set would designate the title. Those would be the only ones that would need to be assigned and tracked in a central database. The numbers after that would have specific means. One set would define the format, i..e. print or digital, another would designate the digital format (i.e. ePub), followed by the version of epub. The DRM used, if any, would get its own set of numbers.

    The result would be that, given the assigned number, it’d be very easy parse out what each version is. The number itself would tell you almost everything you’d need to know. Equally important authors and publishers would need only to insert the proper numbers for each different format and, if they do a revision, increment that number by one.

    Know anyone with a bit a venture capital and a love of books. There’s absolutely no reason why such a scheme couldn’t be implemented. Some retailers might still insist on an ISBN, but others would be more than happy to add this new ID number to their database. Over time, the better method would probably push out the overpriced and long out-dated one.

    I tried to get Google to do this, since it would give them contact with authors but drew a blank. Instead, they blundered into their Google Book Settlement disaster. They could have created a world class author, publisher and book database for a fraction of what they’ve spend on lawyers.