The Great ISBN Swindle

David NicolNevermind the shysters, here’s the monopolies.  Ooh check out all those pseudo-punk references there.  But that’s what it’s like being an independent author.  To self publish is to be counter to the establishment, just like punk did in the 1970’s.  Indie authors get similarly bad press to the punks of yesteryear not only from the big publishing houses, but also from some established authors.  They miss the point that, just like punk, there’s a market for it.  People are getting fed up with being told to what to buy, and independent authors produce works that readers want to read.  If they didn’t then there wouldn’t be any indie authors.

Not only do we have to watch out for dubious companies (and individuals) offering services that don’t necessarily live up to the marketing hype, but on top of that self publishers have to navigate the murky waters of business.  For those wanting project the most professional identity to readers, agents, publishers and distributors an ISBN is pretty essential.

What’s an ISBN?

An ISBN (International Standard Book Number) is a unique number in a database.  Without it a book essentially doesn’t exist.  It’s not indexed and therefore not searchable on the standard database for libraries and book stores.  That’s not to say that getting an ISBN is difficult.  It’s not.  Anyone can get one.

So what’s the big deal?  I hear you cry.  Well my lovelies, the big deal is the big cost, or the little cost if you follow this train of thought to its conclusion.  ISBN’s can be expensive.  They are operated in some countries by a single company for profit.  For example, in Australia an ISBN costs $AUS 95 for a new publisher ($AUS 40 after that), or $AUS 2,750 per 1000.

In the US, Bowker are responsible for ISBN distribution, and they charge $US 125 per ISBN.  However, hop over the border to Canada and ISBNs are free in order to promote Canadian culture.

So where’s the swindle?

In the countries where you have to pay for an ISBN, in single numbers and even for less than ten, they are quite expensive.  Don’t forget that it’s just a number, an entry on a database, not a gold ingot.  ISBNs are like domain names back in the 1990’s.  They were expensive because they were only available from a small number of outlets.  ICANN charged a registration fee, but the registrars charged customers well over the odds in addition to those fees.  That’s the ISBN business model in many countries right now.

For example, in the US, one ISBN is $125.  1000 ISBNs are $1250.  That’s $1 each if you buy in bulk.  Surely it’s more labour intensive to administer 1000 of anything, than it is to administer a single iteration?  So why would an individual cost be so high?  To put people off maybe?

For those in countries where ISBNs are expensive, or only available in blocks (such as the UK where you have to purchase 10 ISBNs at a time) the alternative is to pay for an ISBN via a third party company.  If you do that then your book shows up as being published by the company you purchased the ISBN from.  That’s not much of an issue, and there’s nothing preventing you from purchasing an ISBN directly in the future to replace the phantom publisher.

If you do decide to buy an ISBN via a third party then make sure that part of the agreement is that they DO NOT have any commercial rights over your book, or that you have to record them as publisher for a certain amount of time.

Do I need an ISBN?

If you only intend to publish online then an ISBN may be superfluous to your requirements and an unnecessary expenditure.  Even if you do print your book you don’t need an ISBN on there.  However, if you want it to be available through any traditional avenue, including your local library, you’ll need that all important number.

That little barcode sitting on the back of your book makes all the difference between being a wannabe and bona fide author in the eyes of many people, so it’s something to consider, if not right now, but definitely in the future.

What do you think of the subject of ISBNs?  Do you have an ISBN that you sourced yourself?
Leave a comment below.

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