In preparing to publish my first print-on-demand book I’ve had to confront a number of issues. Along with formatting and pricing and cover design I’ve gone back and forth about the ISBN ownership question. In the end I’ve come to a conclusion about ISBN’s that surprises me a bit, but I think I’m right. And if I’m not right, I don’t think it will cost me anything.
If you don’t know much about ISBN’s, don’t feel bad. I didn’t know anything about them until a year ago, when I set out to learn what I could. It’s a measure of how naive I was that I thought ISBN’s were some sort of quasi-governmental tracking number. In fact, ISBN’s are a product sold by the monopolistic R.R. Bowker company (which doesn’t go out of its way to make clear that it is not, in fact, a quasi-governmental agency).
I don’t dispute the publishing industry’s need for something like an ISBN. Given that a single book can be published in different versions and editions, and in different languages and countries, there obviously needs to be some way to differentiate between all those variations. If you want the Romanian large-print edition of Moby Dick, you need some means of ordering that ensures you get the version you’re expecting. The ISBN system makes that possible.
I’m also not against the idea that a for-profit company services the ISBN market. I don’t like monopolies, and R.R. Bowker is clearly a monopoly. But every publisher, bookseller and book manufacturer relies on the ISBN numbering system, and until that changes — or somebody shoves the Sherman Anti-Trust Act down Bowker’s throat — there’s no point in fighting the beast. (Some of you are wondering how multiple companies could hand out ISBN’s without the whole system collapsing. It’s a fair question, answered in full by the various companies registering domain names all over the world.)
Self-Publishing and the ISBN
As someone on the outside looking in, I understand that I need to adapt to the current system. I also understand that the ISBN system wasn’t designed with self-publishing authors in mind, even though Bowker is aggressively promoting ISBN sales to individual authors as that market explodes. If a print-on-demand publisher requires that my book have an ISBN in order to be published, then that’s the end of that conversation.
I’ve also followed a lot of conversations about the importance of the ISBN to the self-published author, and I’m not in any position to dispute the general consensus, which is that the ISBN number of your book is important to success in the marketplace. Still, as a self-publishing author I think it’s important to remember that what I’m doing is not what most people in the greater publishing industry are doing.
I may be looking to use the same sales channels that everybody else is using, and I may be packaging my content in the same delivery vehicle (a book), but in terms of scale there are significant difference that shouldn’t be ignored. I don’t have an assistant or department dedicated to managing ISBN’s. I don’t have plans for multiple versions of my book. I don’t plan to market my book in a way that will drive sales in one big pulse. And most importantly, I don’t have any way to pass along my ISBN costs to someone else.
The ISBN Question
The question, then, is not whether to use an ISBN because use is compelled. For me, and for many people publishing through services like CreateSpace, the question is whether to buy ISBN’s directly from Bowker or to use ISBN’s provided by the print-on-demand manufacturer. Purchasing one’s own ISBN means ownership and control of the associated metadata. But there’s cost involved, and for many people that cost may not be trivial. CreateSpace provides ISBN’s free to people using its service, but it owns those numbers and the associated metadata.
It’s not an easy question to answer. I went back and forth on this issue for over a year. My instinct is to always make sure I own and control the information that matters to my writing career. Because there’s nothing more central to that ethos than controlling one’s own copyrights, it seems to me that owning one’s own ISBN’s (and controlling the associated metadata) is a good idea.
But. In what I can only describe as a surprise I recently decided that my instinct in this case is wrong. Or, more accurately, the instinct is a good one, but reality is at odds with my philosophical beliefs. The question is not whether I should buy my own ISBN’s or not, but whether the expense is worth it. All things being equal, yes: I would want to own my own ISBN numbers. But all things aren’t equal.
The ISBN Answer
Currently, a single ISBN costs $125. Whatever Bowker’s direct costs in delivering that computer-generated number to me, $125 is not a small amount.
As I said in the previous post, any potential publishing expense can be judged relative to the number of copies that need to be sold in order to recoup that expense. Whatever per-copy royalty I expect from my book, buying my own ISBN is going to cost me money and obligate me to make more sales in order to break even. Using the free ISBN provided by CreateSpace will cost me nothing. And the more I think about self-publishing, and how critical it is for self-published authors to control their costs, the more convinced I am that cost is the only criteria that matters in this case.
Now, at this point proponents of owning one’s own ISBN’s would point out that a block of ten ISBN’s can be purchased from Bowker for $250, or a per-number cost of $25. And yes, I agree that’s a substantial savings over the monpolistically inflated and absolutely indefensible single-ISBN cost of $125. But in order to achieve those savings the self-published author is obligated to double their up-front ISBN expense, meaning twice as many copies will need to be sold to recoup that initial $250 expense.
So that’s my answer. If the choice is between a free (or inclusive) ISBN and an ISBN that I have to pay for myself, then I’m taking the free ISBN on that basis alone. As a self-publishing author I think there are reasons to doubt the value of ISBN ownership all together, and I detail those below. But the bottom line for me is that every penny I save on publishing costs means fewer books I’ll need to sell in order to make a profit, and from a business perspective I can’t deny that logic.
The Value of an ISBN
Again: the question is not whether to have an ISBN, it’s whether to pay for one. I’m making a judgment based on dollars alone — a judgment I believe best protects my interests as an author and business person. I’m not giving ownership of my copyrights away, or in any way letting someone control my work. I’m not locking myself into a proprietary relationship with CreateSpace, because at any point I can buy my own ISBN and release a new edition using that identifier. What I’m doing is saving money.
Those who advocate for author ownership of ISBN’s would say that I’m either putting myself at risk or losing the ability to control my sales channel, but I don’t see that. I’ve looked, I’ve listened to all the arguments, and right now, with my book, I can’t see any value in owning my own ISBN’s that compensates me adequately for the cost.
- How many people are ever going to ask for my book at a bookstore or search for it online using an ISBN number? I say none, ever.
- How many times have I ever used an ISBN to order or locate a book? Never. Not once in my entire life.
- How many times have I gone to a bookstore looking for a book and had someone ask me for an ISBN? Never.
- How many times have I heard an independent author say that ISBN ownership was critical to their success? Almost never. (The only examples I can recall involve vanity publishers who used control of an ISBN to push an author around. Yes, in such instances I sure it was a relief to be able to buy one’s own ISBN, but I’m not coming from a place of abuse.)
- The people advocating for direct ownership of ISBN’s are either R.R. Bowker or people who make their living selling metadata services to authors and publishers. I don’t fault these people for their views, and I don’t discount their expertise, but I’m not in the business of making other people rich at the expense of my authorial health.
- As already noted, if something changes and I need my own ISBN, I can create a new edition of my book and buy an ISBN. The choice I’m making now will not prevent me from doing anything in the future.
- Making my book available is the most important thing. It opens doors with readers and makes my work available to people who might be looking for content. If somebody else wants to publish my work or translate it or adapt it in another medium then I can revisit the question of ISBN ownership at that time, if its even necessary. In the meantime I’m not out $125, or $250 if I do the ‘smart’ thing.
- The ISBN system was created in the pre-internet days. It solves a problem related to tracking and inventory, not a problem related to marketing and sales. The modern internet search engine, primed with a few keywords, can now connect 99.99% of the people who want to find my title with a point of sale. What else do I need?
Speaking of internet searches, this is a good time to remind readers that the importance and utility of your online presence and author platform obliterates the importance of questions like ISBN ownership. Given the choice between spending $125 on a year of site hosting or an ISBN, the greater value is in the site hosting by a factor of a zillion.
The Internet as Metadata
As testament to that fact, if you type ‘Mark Barrett’ into the Google search bar you’ll see that I show up on the second page of hits. Type in ‘Mark Barrett’ + ‘writer’ and I show up as the first hit on the first page, and on five of the ten hits on that page. Type in ‘Mark Barrett’ + ‘story’ and I’m again the first hit, as well as four of the first ten. Type in ‘Mark Barrett’ + ‘elm’ (from the title of my short story collection, The Year of the Elm), and I show up as the first six hits on the first page. Finally, type in Ditchwalk (as if you somehow couldn’t remember how to find my site from that word) and my site or my name or something about a post I wrote shows up in nine of the first ten hits.
As an independent author (or artist of any kind) you will almost always struggle to meet your economic needs. It’s the nature of the beast, and the price to be paid for following your heart and staying true to your convictions. Every dollar you can avoid spending keeps your dreams alive and makes it possible to write another day, hour or minute. Spending money on an ISBN when you don’t have to makes no sense to me. If I’m wrong about that, if something changes, or if my decision hurts me in some way I’ll follow up. But for the time being, that money is staying in my pocket.
* Bowker sells ISBN’s in various blocks. The largest block is 1,000 ISBN’s for $1,000, or a dollar each. That’s how CreateSpace can provide a free ISBN to me: it only costs them a buck and they can easily recoup that cost in their fees. I see no reason why Bowker should be able to prohibit a third-party registrar from purchasing ISBN’s in blocks of 1,000 and then selling them singly or in groups for whatever the market would bear. I’m sure Bowker would fight the idea tooth and nail (and probably already has), but given how quickly the self-publishing movement has grown and evolved, even over the past year, I think it’s an idea whose time has come. Either that, or Bowker’s monopoly should be given a much closer look by the United States Department of Justice.
— Mark Barrett
Brad J. Murray says
You should note that your research is only valid in the United States. In most other countries a government institution (Library and Archives Canada, for example) controls that country’s block of addresses and usually provides them for free or a nominal fee. It was a US choice to sell the block to a private company.
Might be hard to get the government to act on this monopoly since they created it.
Thanks for the explanation about how things work in civilized societies. 🙂
There’s no end to efforts to privatize and profit from every aspect of governance in the United States. Prisons, parking meters, toll roads — it’s routine, if not also accelerating as municipalities packing about revenue shortfalls.
A few years back there was even an attempt to privatize Social Security, and this on the heels of the dot-com bust and in the looming shadow of what would become the housing bubble and Global Economic Collapse (TM). Many U.S. regulatory agencies are also at the same time charged with ensuring the financial success of entire industries. That’s why the FAA can’t be trusted to look into what caused a plane crash. That job belongs to the NTSB, which has no obligation to protect profits, corporations or jobs.
Like every town held hostage for decades by a single monopolistic cable-TV provider, the internet is providing relief from such forced relationships and limited choices. I don’t know whether the U.S. government would ever voluntarily review Bowker’s status and business practices, but I’m pretty confident the status quo is not going to stand, any more than NetSol’s monopoly on domain names held after a while. Sooner or later somebody with a competing profit motive is going to take the issue to court and try to open the market for ISBN’s to competition.
David Derrico says
I think you’re right on. I just can’t find a single reason to pay for my own ISBN (as opposed to using the free one CreateSpace or Smashwords will provide me) that’s worth $250 (10 is the minimum I would need for 3 novels, and multiple formats of each, probably I’d need to spring for 100 for $500). The only thing I can even think of is being able to publish directly through Apple (they require an ISBN, while Amazon and B&N do not), but considering how low my Apple sales are, I’m much better off getting on the iBook Store through Smashwords and saving the money.
And, as you say, you can always decide to spring for an ISBN at some point if you really need it, but you’ll never get whatever money you send to Bowker back.
The whole ISBN thing is a scam. Brad, thanks for pointing out that other countries do a much better job of protecting their citizens from being preyed on by monopolistic companies backed by the government — surely in exchange for some bribe or campaign contribution.
Thanks for passing along your own experience. Trying to meet the terms of every sales channel is a nightmare, but I see two possible solutions over time. First, companies like Apple may either offer their own ISBN’s or omit the requirement altogether. Second, authors may simply skip sites that prove to be too much work, which, in turn, increases the likelihood that those sites may adjust their requirements in order to retain/gain market share.
For me, I’m not looking to be everywhere, or to try to push my way to the front of the pack in a market saturated with content. Rather, I’m trying to make sure that my content can be found and purchased relatively easily somewhere, for those people who are looking for it.
April L Hamilton says
I’ve seen plenty of self-publishers argue that the reason you must own your own ISBNs is that it’s the only way you will be listed as “Publisher of Record” in Bowker’s Books in Print catalog. But in legal terms, it doesn’t necessarily matter who’s listed as “Publisher of Record” in Bowker’s catalog, because the legal definition of “Publisher of Record” is not “whoever’s listed as Publisher of Record in Bowker’s Books in Print”.
The way the courts see it, at least in the U.S., whoever had the most control over the content of the book and the most responsibility for bringing it to market is the “Publisher of Record”, and *that’s* the person or entity who’s on the hook for any litigation brought regarding a given book.
A copyright attorney I’ve consulted says that if an intellectual property theft action were to be brought against one of my Createspace books, all of which have Createspace-owned ISBNs, *I* would be the defendant in the suit, *not* Createspace. This is because CS explicitly states it is not to be listed as Publisher for any of its author-publisher clients’ books, neither on the copyright page nor on the book’s bookseller product pages. CS will not produce your book if it lists CS on its copyright page or in your book’s project setup pages.
While being the registered owner of your book’s ISBN *is* necessary to get your book listed with the U.S. Library of Congress, the value of such a listing is worthless to negligible for most self-publishers, since all it does is make your book available for order by libraries, learning institutions and government entities. The vast, vast majority of self-published books will never be ordered by any of those outfits anyway.
It used to be true that you had to be the registered owner of your book’s ISBN to get the book distributed through retail outlets that order from the major wholesale catalogs, but even *that* isn’t the case any longer. Createspace offers expanded distro that will get your book listed in those catalogs at no cost, and plenty of other POD service providers offer the same service on a fee basis.
The only reason I can see for an individual indie author who’s only publishing his or her own books (as opposed to publishing works by other authors too, in which case he/she really ought to set up a proper imprint and buy ISBNs in blocks) to be the registered owner of his or her ISBN is if a company he/she wants to work with for production or distribution of the book requires it. Otherwise, it’s probably immaterial.
(Having said that though, I do think it’s probably only a matter of time before all ebooks are required by retailers to have an ISBN, so I will most likely purchase ISBNs for any books I self-publish in the future if I plan to release them in both print and digital editions)
Thanks for the legal clarifications — as I also hastily remind my readers that you are not an attorney, and therefor cannot be sued for your comments here. 😛
It’s interesting to confront the issue of the ‘publisher of record’ in the sense that the name is also an artifact of the pre-self-publishing movement. As I’m always pointing out, this comment and the blog post it references were both published by me, but it almost seems absurd (and redundant) to describe me as the ‘publisher of record’.
As to how this all shakes out down the road, you might be right that more sites/channels will require ownership of one’s own ISBN, and I’m sure Bowker is working toward that goal behind the scenes. Between then and now, however, it’s hard for me to imagine that price pressures and the threat of competition/litigation won’t bring the single-copy cost of an ISBN down. There’s nothing supporting the current price other than what Bowker thinks it can get away with.
Given that it doesn’t cost me anything to wait and see if that’s the case, that’s part of my approach to the problem. Give the market time to catch up with reality.
I thank you. Your last two paragraphs sum up the wisdom of purchasing one’s own ISBN. If money is he issue, don’t even go down the road of justifying one’s reason to get a free number verses owning one or more.
The wise and prudent author sees their work as worth whatever it takes to be and stay *THIERS*
Mike Holman says
As April noted, some printers require ISBNs. I chose Lightning Source and it was necessary to have an ISBN.
Fortunately, being Canadian meant that I can get as many ISBNs as I want for free. 🙂
Thanks for the info. I think at some point I’ll move to Lightning Source. Or at least I hope to have that need.
As for Canada, between you and Brad you’ve made your case. I am officially open to being adopted by a Canadian family. 🙂
Declan stanley says
Another reason for UK and Irish authors not to buy ISBN’s is that the publisher of a book is required to deposit a copy of each edition with the British Library and, in the case of an Irish author, with the libraries of 14 Irish universities. Which is yet another expense avoided by taking the free ISBN from CreateSpace, SmashWords, etc.
That Irish-author requirement is quaint, adorable, and completely crazy.
It’s going to be interesting to see how self-publishing, and the non-necessity of so many of these older practices, will shake out in the next few years. There will certainly be attempts to maintain the status quo, as there always are, but I see dams bursting everywhere. There’s just too much content breaking free.
John Smith says
Not true—a common misconception. Even printed publications without an ISBN are required to be sent to the legal deposit in the UK. It’s just that publishers that do such (publish without an ISBN) are commonly (but I stress not always) small-time, and unlikely to know about the legal deposit laws and requirements. The reason that the British Library don’t chase them up and eventually fine said publishers? They are extremely unlikely to ever come across or in any way find out about such an obscure book—they simply don’t know that is has so much as been created and will never be any the wiser. (Just so you know, I confirmed this with the British Library a couple of years back after an argument and bet one day with a friend!)
Joel Jenkins says
I’ve gone both routes: purchasing a block of ISBNs directly from Bowker and getting them through Createspace. The only downside of getting them through Createspace is Amazon will list Createspace as the publisher.
The downside of getting them through Bowker is the hefty cost and it’s also a pain and a hassle to register specific titles at Bowker when you attach the ISBN to your book.
There are so many obstacles and obligations confronting the self-publishing author, I tend to think the right choice in most instances is the path of least resistance (including financial costs). That doesn’t free self-publishing authors from a responsibility to understand all aspects of the business, but I do think it properly puts emphasis on protecting writing time and maximizing revenue.
Frankie Sachs says
I guess I’m in the minority, but I use ISBNs to look up books. Not all the time, but often enough. Google and search is good if you want in the ballpark, but if you want to make sure you’re getting the exact edition you’re looking for (third vs. fifth, for instance) then you want ISBN. Especially if you’re dealing with out of print second hand books, where sometimes the listings are a little vague or confusing (like they may say 3rd edition, but the publication year is listed as the year the 2nd edition was published).
More often, I use it to make sure I’m getting the right format. Trade paperback vs. mass market, for instance.
In the context you describe I would probably use an ISBN as well. It’s clearly a useful identifier if you’re searching at a granular level.
On the tangential point of vague listings, I’m continually surprised by how convoluted and confusing Amazon’s product listings are, including books. As Amazon has turned itself into an Ebay-like marketplace, making its web space available to other sellers, its ease-of-use from the customer’s perspective seems to have diminished. I don’t know how much time I’ve wasted trying to figure out who I’m actually buying from, whether the book is new or used, and whether or not I’m getting gouged on the price, but it’s more than I wanted to by a significant amount.
That’s yet another reason why my intention is to use search and my own site to try to help people find my products. Everybody else (Bowker, Amazon, etc.) seems to be focused on forcing customers to use proprietary tools, even if nobody wants to.
We here in the USA should do like Canada on this one.
I don’t think it’s an issue of socialism v. capitalism as much as it is an issue of unfair preference if the government had the power to choose Bowker then the Congress probably did wrong (unfortunately not terribly uncommon for our current law-makers, throw them all out, the vote does have power, etc.), anyway, this is an interesting issue, and $125 is unfair to small entrprenuers who choose this sector.
Since I decided to use a free, assigned ISBN from CreateSpace I haven’t had a single regret. I can’t imagine doing anything different in the future, and I remain unable to see the value of the ISBN system at its current monopolistic price.
Interesting. I googled around to find how R R Bowker got such a sweetheart deal to monpolize ISBNs. Can’t find a scrap of information about it anywhere. Worth writing to your congressman to ask what the deal is with this? Unlikely they will be able to kick Bowker’s ass off their monopoly, but they can at least explain to you why they have been able to keep it. Usual deal: If enough self-publishers and indy authors SCREAM LOUDLY to their congressmen then something will happen.
I think it probably happened as most such things happen. The U.S. Government needed a single reliable provider to deal with this ancillary issue, so they gave someone the right to control the process in monopolistic fashion. And you can see the need for such unitary control: without it there would be competing and conflicting databases everywhere.
Today, however, as I suggested in the post, it’s just not that mission critical. If you’ve got the title and the name of the author — or even part of it, or the subject and maybe a short quote or some keywords — you can probably find what you’re looking for. And in a relatively short amount of time everything will be available via print-on-demand or online.
Either way, I think it’s a monopoly whose time has come and gone.
Jim West says
There may be more to ISBNs than we realize, I’m just wondering. Perhaps there is some labyrinthian rule structure underlying literature and ISNBs that goes back to the total censorship set in England, just before the Reconstruction period, with the organization and control of literature perhaps influenced by the church’s experience.
Another inexplicable monopolistic power is granted to the publisher of “Sole Proprietor Form X201”, Blumberg Corporation.
Question: Which version of WordPress are you using, if you don’t mind saying.
Nathaniel B. Nicks says
Re: BOWKER’S MONOPOLY on America’s rights and privileges of fair and open competition in the arena of Print in America.
First: Is it TRUE that the infamous“ISBN numbering system“ a privileged monopoly sanctioned by the U.S. Government?
Secondly: If this is true, should not the U.S. Congress create and stimulate the creation of a freely competitive, non-governmental, non-politically oriented free enterprise entity to compete with the monopolistic Bowker? If not, then Bowker should be banished or mandated by the U.S. Government to encourage and assist U.S.and foreign business entities (who are U.S. Citizens ), to freely and openly compete with those who presently dominate the privilege of Fair Competition.
I incurred a problem with Bowker’s ISBN application process, to register my new book “RUFUS, Born In Mississippi To Raze Hell”tm.(c) 2016 Nathaniel B. Nicks, when certain irrelevant information was not allowed in the registration process, like my personal access code to a website. Might I recommend that all Authors/Authors be allowed to create their own “IDTRAKER” tm. ©2016 Nathaniel B. Nicks, to replace ISBN and registered with all necessary and related authorities, thus dissolving the monopolistic and unfair competition in the industry.
Nathaniel B. Nicks