self-publishedEver wonder how many self-published titles are on the market?

1,000? 10,000? 100,000?

It’s even higher than that.

Just last year, Bowker said 391,000 ISBNs were purchased for self-published titles – a 59 percent increase from 2011, according to a release from the company on Digital Book World. In 2012, 40 percent of percent of ISBNs were for self-published titles compared to 2007 when it was just 11 percent.

“The most successful self-publishers don’t view themselves as writers only, but as business owners,” said Beat Barblan, Bowker Director of Identifier Services, in the company’s press release. “They invest in their businesses, hiring experts to fill skill gaps and that’s building a thriving new service infrastructure in publishing.”

In addition, more than 80 percent of self-published titles that went to market came from just eight companies. Bowker cited Smashwords and CreateSpace as two examples.

ISBNs are used to identify an edition of a book. One ISBN costs $125, but costs less when bought in bulk.

A full report will be available next week.


  1. Unfortunately, in most cases these self-publishing authors are being ripped off by Bowker with its outrageous ISBN prices. Here’s what those prices currently are.

    1 for $125
    10 for $250
    100 for $575
    1000 for $1000

    About thirteen years ago, I picked up a set of 1,000 ISBNs for $600, rightly guessing that 100 would be too few. I’ve now used almost 80. That 1,000 will outlast me, even though each title now means 4 ISBNs.

    The 66% increase in price in lots of a 1,000 is bad enough, particularly since the cost of what Bowker supplies, access to a digital database, has almost certain dropped dramatically.

    But still worse is what has happened to the small quantity prices. I seem to recall about $4 for a single ISBN purchase, but I’ll give Bowker the benefit of doubt and assume that’s the per ISBN cost for a quantity of ten. Do the numbers. That makes the price for ten was then roughly $40 versus the current price of $125, an over-300% increase. There’s no way that can be justified in our current low-single-digit inflation. It’s simply a gigantic rip-off for often impoverished authors who have no other choice, with Bowker having a monopoly on US ISBNs.

    I’ve sometimes wondered what’s going on at Bowker. Laying aside the most obviously answer, that the company is run by the heartless, greedy and sadistic, there are other options.

    1. Someone who did book databases for Amazon in the late 1990s told me that Bowker’s owners want to get their profits up so they can sell it for a fat profit. That could be the case, but it doesn’t quite explain the hideous increase in the single ISBN price versus the merely greedy increase in lots of 1,000.

    2. More plausible is a suspicion that came to me when Bowker was desperate to convince the major publishers to insist that ebooks have ISBNs assigned, publishers who buy their ISBNs in lots of 10,000 for pocket change each. My suspicion is that their support came with a hidden clause–that Bowker would make self-publishing and small publishing more expensive by making the cost of just a few ISBNs sky high. If the DOJ were to investigate collusion and conspiracy there, I’d support them.

    And that burden is very much a factor with authors. When I’ve tried to convince fellow writers to grit their teeth and buy a larger, lifetime set of ISBNs, I’ve not had much success. Even getting them to buy 10 for $250 rather than one for $125 is hard. They can’t seem to think beyond their next book. They’re not only getting ripped off, they’re letting themselves get ripped off.

    Keep in mind that to do a print edition plus a full set of digital editions takes either four or five ISBNs. (Five if you give the CreateSpace edition its own ISBN.) In 1999 when I bought my ISBN’s for far less, one ISBN covered one title. Now it takes four or five much more expensive ISBNs to do that. Then, a quantity of ten purchase could cover even a busy writer’s output for a decade. Now it barely covers two titles..

    Some might suggest a third option, that there’s a huge initial sign-up cost for ISBNs that Bowker must absorb, mostly the labor involved. That’s nonsense. I’ve gone through the process myself. There’s nothing more involved in selling a single ISBN than there is in selling a song on the iTunes store. If Apple can sell you a song for 99 cents, Bowker can sell you one ISBN for that same price. (The lots of 1,000 price is $1 each.) After all, it is the customer who does the work, filling out their name, address and so forth in Bowker’s database. All Bowker does is process a financial transaction.

    What’s still worse is that Bowker now offers publishers and authors much less that what they offered about 1990. Then, they were virtually the only comprehensive source of information about books in print. If a bookstore wanted to locate a book, it went to Bowkers for publisher information.

    Now, Bowkers is almost irrelevant. Bookstores don’t check Bowker for the publisher’s address. They go to a large, centralized wholesaler such as Ingram. For customers buying a printed book online, Bowker is even less relevant, since they just see what Amazon or B&N has. And finally, for those buying ebooks, not only is Bowker is utterly irrelevant, so is that ISBN. Amazon doesn’t even bother with it. For my Kindle ebooks, searching Amazon for the ISBN will display the Kindle edition, but the book detail page doesn’t even give that title’s ISBN, just Amazon’s own ASIN.

    In fact, Bowker has become so irrelevant, I’ve become woefully neglectful of updating entries in their database. The combination of a tedious and time-consuming data entry process with the fact that I suspect no one is looking for my books there, makes the effort seem pointless. All the places my books are sold either get the information directly from me (Amazon and Apple) or through my distributor (Ingram and Smashwords). All Bowker does is supply is a number–along with these once-in-a-while statistics about how many people they’ve ripped off.

    With Bowker offering much less but pricing what It sells far higher, I wonder why it’s still around. ISBNs are free in countries such as Canada. Why do they have to be so expensive here? Why can’t the international agency that regulates ISBNs step in and at least give Bowker a single competitor?

    –Michael W. Perry, Inkling Books

  2. Thanks for the comment, Michael.

    When I was writing this many of your thoughts were in the back of my mind. I kept thinking about the prices of ISBNs and, also, is it even worth it? Do writers need ISBNs anymore?

    However, that’s something I need to do more research on. I don’t have enough information right now to make an opinion on that. But, wow, it is expensive.

  3. Michael: Kudos. You have hit the nail on the head. Any monopoly in a marketplace is ultimately abused. The difference in pricing breaks is ridiculous.
    Steph: Yes, only free for use at Smashwords. If you want to go elsewhere with that title you’ll need to supply your own.
    And while they are not technically needed to self-pub now at any of the big online stores, they are a good investment for authors to make their titles more discoverable in the future.

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