ISBNs: The Blame Game


ISBNThere have been a couple of articles written this month on the subject of ISBNs and their use — or rather non-use — by self-published authors, particularly authors publishing exclusively in e-book form. It’s a subject TIPM has visited a number of times, most notably Ian Lamont’s guest post; How Bowker uses its U.S. ISBN monopoly to rip off new authors. Things have not changed for the better when it comes to ISBNs purchased by self-published authors and small publishers. A single ISBN from Bowker’s will cost $125, and a block of ten will set you back $295. In a democratized publishing environment where you can self-published an e-book via a DIY publishing platform, a distributor or directly with an online retailer like Amazon for free or a lot less than $295, authors continue to question the value of using ISBNs.

Amazon and Barnes & Noble and several other smaller retailers use their own product number system and do not require books to have ISBNs. In fact 30% of all e-books purchased in the U.S. in 2014 did not have an ISBN number. Writing yesterday in Goodereader, Michael Kozlowski takes serious issue with self-published authors for not using ISBNs and towing the industry line, choosing to leave his snarkiest slight on indie authors via a comment under his own article.

I have been wanting to write on this for quite awhile. Lately the flaming torches and pitchforks have been plaguing this site from indie authors who think they know everything. Most of them, likely don’t have a purchased ISBN number and just rely on whatever Amazon or Kobo gives them. This is basically selfish behavior.

Well, firstly, Amazon doesn’t stop indie authors from using an ISBN, nor do they promote the practice of non-use of ISBNs. And secondly, Amazon and Kobo are global online retailers. It is not their role or responsibility to assign ISBNs. Indeed, Kobo is actually very proactive about the use of ISBNs in its Writing for Life manual:

You will be able to publish through Kobo without an eISBN, but we strongly advise that you have one so you can take full advantage of Kobo’s partnership with leading retailers around the world.

But the Big Kozlowski isn’t finished his wrath on indie authors yet.

I found it very interesting that 20% of Amazon’s overall Top-10 selling e-books did not have ISBN numbers. Considering traditionally published books account for the vast majority of sales, it means that indie authors are rarely, if at all ever considering purchasing their own ISBN’s. This can be attributed to pure laziness on authors part. Not only are they hurting themselves but they are willfully contributing to the perception that self-published books don’t sell and are all trashy.

This statement kind of contradicts itself! Personally I think it actually demonstrates that even the most successful indie authors who make the bestseller lists on Amazon (and rub shoulders with some of the biggest authors and publishing houses in the world) have made a conscious business decision (for their businesses) that the cost of ISBNs against the perceived industry value relegates the use of them as ‘not fit for purpose’ rather than a mark of ‘laziness’ or ‘selfish behavior.’

I think the reality is that many indie authors are perfectly happy to use free ISBNs provided by companies like CreateSpace, Lulu and Smashwords rather than go to the expense of shelling out $295 for 10 ISBNs. The advice from Bowker is that ISBNs should be allocated one per print edition and e-book format. That’s three alone (paperback, ePub and mobi) and does not include the allocation of ISBNs to any other additions (hardback and audiobook). I think authors would rather put that money into a good book cover or proofreading services.

And we are in an undemocratic publishing universe. A large publisher releasing hundreds or thousands of titles can pick up ISBNs from Bowker for as little as $1 per unit. France, Canada and several other countries provide publishers and authors with free ISBNs via their respective agencies because the governments in these countries subsidise the process and collection of book data. Bowker on the other hand charge for ISBNs (with the smallest publishers and authors forking out the most money) and then charge publishers for access to that data via industry services. Let’s not forget, if you don’t have access to barcode generation software, Bowker will charge you an additional $25 a pop for that. Fortunately if you look hard enough you will find free services to do this on the Internet.

Some may argue that Bowker needs to be paid for its time to correlate data, particularly metadata. But who actually does most of that dredge work? Again, authors and publishers supply it by filling out online forms.

I do agree with Kozlowski’s core point; that indie authors should ideally buy their own ISBNs because the industry is currently set up in a way that increases the potential for better distribution penetration and trade discoverability.

ISBN numbers not only assist the industry in providing meaningful sales data on independently published books, but it also provides a seal of ownership for the author.

Again, there is some value and control if an author owns his/her ISBNs and is the registered ‘publisher of record’ but indie authors (I doubt) have little interest in industry sales data. They already have access to the data that matters most to them — their sales!

And once again by way of commenting on his article, Kozlowski seems confused on the issue of ISBN ownership and rights:

Not having an ISBN is basically letting whoever you self-publish it with have the rights to the book.

I’m not aware of any of the major e-book self-publishing platform who makes a claim on an author’s rights. I think Kozlowski may be confusing this with some less reputable print publishing service providers or vanity presses. If anything there are more and more self-publishing service providers who actively support authors with ISBNs.

In an article earlier this month, Reedsy founder Ricardo Fayet asked if it is Time to bury the ISBN? However, Fayet — unlike Kozlowski — is not out to blame indie authors for recklessly and selfishly creating a clandestine shadow world of book sales the industry can’t properly monitor.

Obviously, a system that directly tracks the sale of each ebook (like the ISBN) is much more accurate, as long as all books sold have such a tracker. But an ISBN is not required to publish an ebook on Amazon, and authors or publishers have to pay if they want their titles to have one. The result is that a lot of independent authors and publishers just don’t bother–and why would they? The ISBN doesn’t impact their sales in any way, and as entities, some publishers are too small to care about global data on book sales.

Critically, Fayet points out:

But Bowker and Nielsen […] are not allowed to “profit from the ISBN”. This is stipulated by the International ISBN Agency, which appoints national agencies like Bowker or Nielsen. So everything these agencies “charge” for the tracking of ebooks is only meant to cover their costs.

Maybe it is time Bowker and Nielsen were asked to explain what exactly the breakdown of costs to supply ISBNs is because prices have continued to rise for several years. The actual value of having ISBNs for publishers and authors has not. If anything it’s diminished with the growth of self-publishing to a point it cannot be ignored when it consumes a sizeable chunk of the overall pie.

Rather than ranting at indie authors because they aren’t doing it the right way, we should actually be examining a system in the industry which has allowed this state of affairs to arise and is no longer fit for purpose. No one set out to deliberately break the system. It is just time to fix or replace one with critical deficiencies. There is no use taking the attitude that it all worked perfectly until ‘that lot’ arrived.

Some things were just meant to be broken.



  1. Douglas Burcham said:

    In 2013 I used three of my batch of ten ISBN numbers for hard copy, Kindle and another E version of Ywnwab! and incurred the cost of putting a bar code on the hard copy cover. I also supplied seven copies of the book free to the British and other Libraries which I could well have done without. All this involved admin time which would have been better put to creative writing. These overheads I hope to avoid or much reduce in any future publishing I do by going the Amazon Kindle route for e books and either Create Space or selling direct for hard copy.

  2. Paul Klein said:

    What is this about? When I self-pubed my last book using CreateSpace, part of the deal was a $10 charge for two ISBNs, for print and electronic versions of the book. If you enter the ISBN 9780615956473 in either Amazon or Ingram, you have my book. Not having the number for your book seems short-sighted to me if you are going to sell more than locally.

  3. Witold Jaworski said:

    When I started to think about self-publishing (2011), one of the things that encouraged me to try it were the free ISBN numbers that I can receive (as Polish citizen) for free from our National Library. Because I publish simultaneously two editions of my books (in Polish and English), every of them in three formats (PDF, MOBI, EPUB), I need a new batch of 10 ISBN numbers every year. What’s more, lately this ISBN system was enhanced: now I can report the used ISBN books online, adding additional metadata (keywords, description, picture, even author’s bio) and requesting new batches of the ISBN numbers – I receive them instantly.
    It was shock for me when I learned that in many other countries this is a paid service – and the most expensive for the smallest publishers!

  4. Pingback: Hey, Indie Authors — More ISBN Flak | Be A Novelist

  5. Diana said:

    Why would you need a different ISBN for .mobi (Amazon) and epub (BN, Kobo, D2D, and pretty much all the other distributors)? If you want to know how many sales you have on Amazon- log in to your dashboard and see. You can download a spreadsheet (previous month is available by the 15th), so you can track your sales. All the other platforms give you that information as well.

    As an author (and publisher), I have all the tools necessary for me to analyze my sales- all free. Why would I pay for an ISBN? What information will that give me that I don’t already get for free?

    And if the information that Bowker provides would help me sell more books- then why aren’t the big 5 publishers making profits on every book they publish instead of 1 in 5 as I have read in other articles?

    As for the ISBN for paper books, Create Space provides one free. I have ISBNs- FREE for my ebook and free for my paper copy. Typing in either ISBN (who searches by ISBN now anyway?) will pull up my book. Who cares if it is registered to Smashwords or Createspace?