Down With Bowker

ISBNIndie authors and small press publishers, how much is a single ISBN number? In the US, it’s $125. 10 are $250 or $25 a piece. If you want one for only a dollar, you have to spend $1000 for 1000 ISBNs.

Do you have a spare grand lying around? $250 is a little less than my car payment. $125 is not quite so bad, but it’s a 500% markup over a block of ten and 12,500% on 1000. Tell me how this is not a scam.

Most independent authors I know don’t have that kind of cash lying around. Or if they do, it’s a tough thing to convince a spouse that this is worth a mortgage payment to buy 1000 ISBNs. There are free options, of course, but then your publisher is not you or your imprint. It’s Smashwords. Or Lightning Source. Or Amazon. Or CreateSpace. See a pattern? Hope so, because this just keeps going.

We’re told time and again we need an ISBN to sell books if we self-publish. This is true. It’s a unique identifier that retailers and libraries use to tell one book from another. So if two authors named John Smith write books called The Greatest Story Evah, different genres, different covers, different text, you can still tell them apart. However, most indie authors need only a handful, and it’s a lot easier to convince Amazon-phobic bookstores to stock your paperback if the ISBN tells them an imprint or an author published it than Amazon or one of its subsidiaries. It’s wonderful that Amazon and Smashwords and Barnes & Noble offer the free option. But really, let’s look at the pricing structure.

It’s a scam, pure and simple. If I work in a business where it’s considered more professional to own the identifier, why should I buy $1000 worth of numbers, most of which I’ll never use? Moreover, how can Bowker justify $125?

“Well, if you own it, you’ll likely make that back.”

There’s no guarantee. Granted, these days, I could easily find $250 to buy 10 ISBNs. You go explain that to my wife when the numbers don’t support that expense. But let’s say I can do this. Let’s say I’ve convinced Nita that spending about $500 – That’s probably a handful of utility bills each month, but by no means all of them – is a good investment, that we don’t need to move it to savings or retirement, that we really didn’t want to take that vacation anyway.

And $125 for a single? Where is the justification for that. I understand volume pricing. I totally get that. But how do you justify $125 vs. $25 or even $1.

I have a handful of suggestions:

  • Since self-pubishing and small press are now the norm, not the exception, Bowker should lower its price. Yes, it’s a business that needs to make a profit. So sell single ISBN’s for $50, pairs of ISBNs for $75. That’s an ebook and a print edition. Very doable on all but the tightest budgets.
  • Allow groups of authors, small publishers, or even writers groups to buy ISBNs en masse. 10 people or more can afford $1000 for that $1 ISBN than 1 person.
  • Take away Bowker’s monopoly. This is an antitrust issue. Internet domain names are no longer under one registrar. Why should ISBN’s.
  • Take away Bowker’s authority altogether. In Canada, ISBNs are free. Why? It’s the same system, an international format governed by treaty. So why is it $125 in Detroit and free in Windsor, two cities separated solely by a river? Make this a function of the Copyright Office.

The current system is outdated, restrictive, and predatory. Time for it to go.