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.) [ Read more ]