[Since this post was originally published Bowker has changed their website, their marketing approach, and some of the business practices I objected to. Links which could not be updated have been removed and the text revised where necessary. — MB.]
I don’t know much about ISBN numbers (which is redundant, because the ‘N’ in ISBN stands for ‘number’), but I thought I knew their basic function, and I had some vague sense that I knew how they were doled out. Having hopped from link to link to here to here, however, I realized I was wrong about everything.
I don’t use ISBN’s* much at all, if ever. I’ve had a few friends request one from me regarding a book I mentioned, and I now know that’s the best way to make sure you end up with the same version of a book that someone else is talking about. It might not be the most recent version, but it will be the same, because ISBN’s are only given out once and never reissued.
But that little tidbit was only the first domino to fall in my head. I used to think that ISBN’s were given out in some way that was vaguely associated with the copyright process. Or maybe I thought it was in some way vaguely associated with getting a bar code. (Because it’s all so vague, I can’t remember.)
But it turns out that none of that is correct. ISBN’s are not part of a governmental process. Or at least I don’t think they are. Then again I can’t ever keep the U.S. Post Office’s governmental status straight, so don’t quote me.
If you do a search for ISBN, the first hit you’ll see will be ISBN.org. It’s not a dot-gov site, but it [previously had] the look and feel of some weakly-funded governmental web site, and the opening text did nothing to discourage this conclusion:
Welcome to the U.S. ISBN Agency, the official source for ISBNs in the United States.
Maybe it’s just me, but it was very, very hard not to read the words ‘U.S. ISBN Agency’, and ‘official’ as being related to the government. The very next sentence, however, provided a sharp redirect:
R.R. Bowker is the U.S. ISBN Agency in the United States, responsible for assigning ISBNs as well as providing information and advice on the uses of the ISBN system to publishers and the publishing industry in general.
So there’s something called the U.S. ISBN Agency. And R.R. Bowker is that thing. Which makes it sound very much to me like the function of the U.S. ISBN Agency has been contracted out to R.R. Bowker, but then again maybe that’s not right.
To check up I fled to Wikepedia, hoping all the while that the ISBN entry had not been subcontracted to R.R. Bowker. Instead I found that the page had been taken over by a horde of mathematicians, and as such contained no useful information.
After numerous additional searches, all trying to document the governmental or non-governmental status of ISBN or Bowker, I concluded with no direct evidence whatsoever that ISBN’s were not a function of the U.S. government. At which point I headed back to the Bowker site to try to learn more.
As I said above, I had some vague sense that ISBN’s were like bar code numbers for books, but of course books also have bar codes these days. What’s the difference? Here’s the answer, straight from the [now retired] R.R. Bowker FAQ page:
Is an ISBN the same thing as a bar code?
This is a popular misconception. The bar code you see on the back of a book is derived from an ISBN, but the two are not the same. An ISBN is only a number. A bar code is a visual method used to convey an ISBN to a computer using scanning technology during a sales or inventory transaction process. An ISBN and a bar code are two different things.
So there you have it. Except of course for the fact that a bar code also has a number, and that a bar code number is derived from an ISBN. But still, R.R. Bowker is officially telling me that “an ISBN and a bar code are two different things,” so they’re two different things.
I continued looking through the Bowker FAQ, but at some point a wire got crossed, then another. I kept having the vague feeling that I’d read some of the answers before — a kind of literary deja vu — and then at some other point I realized I had read some of the answers before. For example, here’s one Bowker FAQ entry:
What is the purpose of an ISBN?
The purpose of the ISBN is to establish and identify one title or one unique edition of a title from one specific publisher. An ISBN allows for more efficient marketing and cataloging of products by booksellers, libraries, universities, wholesalers, and distributors.
And here’s an entry from the ISBN.org FAQ:
What is the purpose of an ISBN?
The purpose of the ISBN is to establish and identify one title or edition of a title from one specific publisher and is unique to that edition, allowing for more efficient marketing of products by booksellers, libraries, universities, wholesalers and distributors.
Assuming that the similarities are not the result of chance or plagiarism, it seemed to me that when R.R. Bowker said it was the U.S. ISBN Agency, it really meant it. So I dug into the ISBN site again, and came up with this on the About page:
We at the Bowker agencies take standards very seriously, and we are very happy that you are visiting our web site.
At which pointed I noticed that even though I was on the ISBN.org site, my browser was displaying the following information in the title bar:
So I clicked back over to the ISBN.org FAQ, and this is what I found there:
At which point I decided that ISBN.org was really just a front for all things R.R. Bowker, and that any confusion about that point was probably intentional, albeit sloppily implemented.
My curiosity sated, and with the vague feeling that someone was trying to dupe me gagged and locked in closet, I went back to the R.R. Bowker FAQ still looking to better my understanding of all things ISBN. For example, are ISBN’s required? Is there some compulsory or regulatory aspect which requires me to get an ISBN if I publish or self-publish a book?
Here’s R.R. Bowker (aka ISBN.org) on that point:
Do I really need an ISBN?
If you are selling your book on your own, you are not required to have an ISBN. However, if you want to sell your book online or in bookstores, place it with distributors and wholesalers, or put it in libraries, then you’ll need to have an ISBN.
Maddening, isn’t it? If I want to sell a book on my own, I’m “not required” to have an ISBN. But if I want to sell a book online or in bookstores, or through distributors or wholesalers, or put it in a library, I’ll “need to have” an ISBN. But why the change in wording? Why doesn’t it just say I’m required to have an ISBN to put my book in a library, instead of that I’ll ‘need to have’ an ISBN? And what does R.R. Bowker mean by ‘sell a book online’? Is that through my own site, or through something like Amazon.com, or both?
Try as I might, gentle reader, I could not answer those questions despite everything I read on the R.R. Bowker/ISBN.org sites. About the only thing I did find that clarified anything for me was this, from the ISBN.org FAQ, under the heading, Who Can Assign ISBNs to a Publisher?:
There are over 160 ISBN Agencies worldwide, and each ISBN Agency is appointed as the exclusive agent responsible for assigning ISBNs to publishers residing in their country or geographic territory. The United States ISBN Agency is the only source authorized to assign ISBNs to publishers supplying an address in the United States, U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam and Puerto Rico and its database establishes the publisher of record associated with each prefix.
Assuming I read that right, R.R. Bowker is really just the territorial representative of a larger group which dispenses ISBN numbers planet-wide. (That larger group would be the ‘I’ in ISBN: international.) Bowker owns the U.S. ISBN market. And they sell product to that market, including ISBN’s. Which are nothing like bar codes. Except that a bar code is often derived from an ISBN number.
Grasping at straws I decided to get to the nitty gritty: the most basic of questions that a would-be independent author/potential-self-publisher-in-some-future-capacity might want to know.
How much does an ISBN number cost?
Answer #1, from the ISBN.org FAQ:
How much does it cost to get an ISBN?
There is a service fee to process all ISBN applications. Service fee information is contained on the application. Priority and Express processing involve an additional fee.
NOTE: The processing service charge is NON-REFUNDABLE.
Not helpful. Answer #2, from the R.R. Bowker FAQ — “How to Get an ISBN section:
How much does it cost to register an ISBN?
Pricing information can be found on the ISBN website.
Just kill me. R.R. Bowker is ISBN.org, and yet the R.R. Bowker site can’t tell me what an ISBN costs? Really? Because if I read the ISBN.org FAQ correctly — and at this point I’m not even sure of my name — they can’t tell me either. Or at least they can’t link me to the page on their own site that I had to go to the R.R. Bowker site to link back to. (These are the people who are keeping all book titles and versions straight for planet Earth?)
Pressing on, I clicked the R.R. Bowker pricing information link on the ISBN.org site and learned that I can buy ISBN’s in batches of 10 ($275 US), 100 ($995 US) or 1000 ($1,750), and that I can pay more for priority processing and express processing. I learned absolutely nothing about what someone like me would pay to buy a single ISBN, or even if that’s possible.
But I’m not a quitter. (I’m a whiner, but I’m in recovery.)
So I dug in my heels and read through the entire R.R. Bowker FAQ. During which I learned this:
Do I need a bar code?
You will need a bar code if you are going to sell your book in stores. There are several different bar code systems in the United States. The kind of bar code used in bookstores is called the EAN 13 bar code. You can purchase an EAN 13 bar code at the time you order your ISBN or you can get one afterward from a bar code supplier, or through Bowker Bar Code Services.
What products are eligible for ISBNs?
ISBNs may be assigned to books and certain other items commonly found in bookstores. Non-book items eligible for ISBNs include e-books, audio books, calendars, bookmarks, software, greeting cards, and instructional and documentary DVDs and videos. ISBNs may never be assigned to music CDs, articles of clothing, foods, medicine, or stuffed animals, among other items.
And then, finally, I stumbled onto [another now-defunct] page, where I clicked on “Purchase an ISBN prefix for your Title”, which took me to a site called MyIdentifiers.com, which I had never seen before.
So I backed up a click to the previous R.R. bowker FAQ page and instead clicked on “Visit the ISBN webSite”, which you know took me not to ISBN.org, but — yes! — to MyIdentifiers.com.
[This is, honest to god, a true story.]
The good news was that MyIdentifiers.com didn’t just have an FAQ, it had a “Publishing FAQ”, and for my money it puts all of the other R.R. Bowker/ISBN.org FAQ’s to shame. In fact, it’s yet another great publishing-industry example of how an FAQ should be done and done right.
Unfortunately, because it’s so exhaustive in every detail, I was unable to find the specific place where the MyIdentifiers.com Publishing FAQ talks about price, but I’m sure it’s in there. The search function on my browser couldn’t find it when searching for ‘cost’ and ‘price’, but I’m sure that was a brower compatibility issue and no omission on the part of R.R. Bowker/ISBN.org/MyIdentifiers.com.
So there you have it. Whatever I thought I didn’t know before, I’m now armed to the teeth with uncertainties I never dreamed of.
To the extent that you may have questions yourself, I urge you to stock up on a canned food, lay in a supply of potable water, then check out these sites yourself. Do not, however, click the MyIdentifiers button marked “Digital Object Identifiers“. I made that mistake and went mad for an hour.
* Yes, I still use an apostrophe in plural acronyms. No, I’m not going to change. Why? Because I think “B-52s” reads like a variant of the B-52, whereas “B-52’s” is clearly not a variant but a plural.
— Mark Barrett