The Work

ISBN pricing at Bowker

This topic just arose on Twitter and I thought it would be useful to address two questions: (1) the cost of a single ISBN vs packages (2) the cost of ISBNs in the US vs overseas.

First, why a single ISBN costs $125, while packages of 10 or more are cheaper. Bowker doesn’t encourage the purchase of a single ISBN, and that’s reflected in the pricing. The truth is, most books are published in multiple formats these days – ebook, hardcover, paperback. And each one needs to be separately identified in the book supply chain – which requires each separately tradable product to be assigned an ISBN. So anyone purchasing a single ISBN is more inclined to re-use it for another product or format of a product – which really causes headaches to the supply chain, as it overwrites historical data and confuses retailers. We price packages of ISBNs at a lower per-ISBN price because we want to actively discourage the confusion that results in someone re-using an ISBN. However, we also recognize that occasionally, a single ISBN purchase is warranted, so we do allow for it.

It’s interesting to note that in the UK, purchase of a single ISBN is not even possible. Initial packages start with 10 ISBNs.

Second, why the cost of ISBNs in the US is higher than it is in other countries. Outside the US (and the UK, and a few other countries), ISBNs are issued by organizations with governmental support – national libraries, for example. In the US, ISBNs are issued by a private company (Bowker/ProQuest, where I am an employee); in the UK, ISBNs are issued by Nielsen. So in some countries, ISBNs are essentially subsidized by taxes. Unfortunately that is not the case in the US. You can find the appropriate person to email about that here.

I hope this helps explain things.


9 thoughts on “ISBN pricing at Bowker

  1. Perhaps, rather than making the issuing of nothing more than a unique identifier, (which costs what, a few cents at most), prohibitively expensive to try to discourage reuse, why not make them so cheap that there’s no good reason to reuse them? Seems like a good example of monopoly pricing.

    Here in Canada, they’re free. Yes, they’re issued by the government, so we pay for it in our taxes, but seriously, how much is that likely to cost? I’m sure it’s all automated, so the cost is that of running one small server, the disk space to store the info, backups, etc. As part of the operation of a larger organization, it’s probably a small fraction of a cent per taxpayer per year.

    1. Much is automated (bulk uploads from most publishing houses), but in the case of self-published authors or micro-publishers, we expend a truly huge amount of manual work. I sit right next to these guys – they are on the phone or email constantly, chasing information and answering questions about the publishing process and metadata. The barrier to entry into the book industry has lowered significantly – which is a good thing! – but what that means is that people who have no prior experience with publishing are now issuing books with insufficient understanding of the supply chain and how distributors, aggregators, retailers, and libraries depend on this data.

      Most of what the ISBN team in the US does is education. It’s not simply a matter of chucking data into a system – we also have to educate the publisher as to how to use the data and how others will use it as well. It’s always the fraction of the whole that needs the most intensive manual work, and the cost of that work is actually amortized over the whole.

      I wish it were all automated. But sadly, it’s less a question of monopoly pricing than operating on a cost-recovery basis for the amount of time we spend educating folks about how the data gets used downstream and why the requirements are the way they are. We’re happy to do it, but that effort can’t be automated.

      1. Interesting. If there is that much effort involved, the price does make more sense. I haven’t used the Canadian one yet, but as I understand it, it’s just a web form. I might be more or less on my own if there were pieces of data where I didn’t understand what they were asking for.

  2. In that case, it seems to me that a more equitable way to handle the situation is to price the FIRST ISBN to reflect the education aspect, and then subsequent ones with the expectation that the education stuck.

    The difference in price per-ISBN between 1, 10, 100, and 1000 seems to show a bias in the direction of large publishers.

    1. Yeah, we’ve thought about that, but it boils down to the cost of processing the subsequent data. There’s more manual effort with fewer ISBNs – because they tend to come in a variety of formats. Those who buy ISBNs in bulk tend to be able to supply the associated metadata in an easily process-able format (ONIX, ASCII, Excel). Those who purchase fewer ISBNs tend to have less experience with the data in the supply chain, and so we have to do a lot of hand-holding. Because the barrier to entry to publishing is now so low (which, again, is a very good thing!), there are lots of publishers flooding into the supply chain who are unfamiliar with its requirements. Two things happen as a result: the supply chain adapts to the newcomers, and the newcomers adapt to the traditions of the supply chain. Bowker lowered its prices for ISBNs significantly a few years ago. But we realistically can’t lower them more right now, because the cost of processing the data from publishers who publish fewer books is actually rather high.

      In other words, it may well appear to be a bias in the direction of large publishers, but only because they can supply the metadata in a way that’s easy for us to ingest. Which boils down to resources on the publisher side, but we’ll negotiate with smaller publishers if they can make ingestion easy. The price of adhering to the standard should never interfere with its adoption, and we do work with publishers if needed.

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