How the numbers are stacked against indies and small publishers

Recently, I typed a bunch of numbers into a web form, in order to purchase a bunch of numbers to stick on my books. In exchange for this privilege, an inordinate amount of numbers were subtracted from my bank account.

In other words, I purchased some ISBNs.

ISBN stands for ‘International Standard Book Number’. Yet, in spite of their International and Standardised nature, there is nothing standard about how ISBNs are sold – or priced – internationally.

In researching ISBNs for my forthcoming book, Number Eight Crispy Chicken, I first of all compared the US and Australia. Both countries have ISBNs administered by the commercial company Bowker (RR Bowker in the US, and Thorpe-Bowker in Australia).

Yet, (aside from the UK, where IBSN services are provided by Nielsen), every other country on the Wikipedia list appears to have the National Library, an NGO, or a government department in charge of ISBN administration.

So, how do these commercial options stack up?

To my absolute shock, Australia’s prices for ISBNs – for the most part – are significantly lower than those in the US, and even more so once you take currency conversion into account.

In the US, a single ISBN will cost a whopping $125. Compare that to the still expensive (but less so) $44 in Australia (which works out to $30 USD).

Our American friends are paying over four times what I would a single ISBN.

Why? It’s the same amount of numbers!

The benefits of bulk

Perhaps unsurprisingly, if you buy more than one ISBN, the price per identifier goes down. A set of 10 (which the site recommends for those looking to publish a single book in multiple formats) in the US will cost $295. That is, for just over the cost of two single ISBNs, you can get a whole 10. That works out to $29.50 each.

In Australia, the discount is even more significant. Buying a pack of 10 will cost exactly double the single ISBN price, or $88 ($60 USD). That brings the individual price down to just $6 US per ISBN.

Which means that our American friends are paying essentially five times the price for the same number of numbers.

For an indie publisher, 100 ISBNs are recommended – enough to publish several books in multiple formats. In the US, this will cost you $575, which works out to $5.75 each. If you’ll recall, this is approximately the unit price Australians can obtain ISBNs for in the 10 pack. But the discount is once again more favourable for Australians, who can pay $480 ($330 USD) for a 100 pack – meaning a unit price of $3.30 USD.

Bulking up with the big boys

It’s at the 1000 units mark that things really start to go funny. This is the amount recommended for publishers – it’s too many for most indies to think about using for their own books, much less to afford.

But for those who can afford to buy in such bulk, the savings are enormous.

In Australia, a 1000 pack of ISBNs will cost you $3,035 ($2,088USD) or $3.04 ($2.09) each. That’s a tiny fraction of the $44 an individual ISBN would cost a first-time indie author.

In the US, however, a 1000 pack costs just $1,500. Or $1.50 each.

Compare that to the ridiculous $125 an individual ISBN costs in the states.

An indie purchasing a single ISBN must pay more than eighty times the cost a publisher can acquire these numbers for.

And it gets worse – truly big publishers get their ISBNs for even less.

Cost of individual ISBNs (in USD) based on bulk discounts

Bulk discounts are nothing new.
But they are rarely a good idea.

Here are some reasons why:

Bulk discounts on basic necessities (like foodstuffs, toilet paper, sanitary goods) unfairly penalise the poorest members of society. People without enough money or storage space to buy up food or toiletries in bulk are forced to pay double or more the cost that the rich do for the exact same toilet paper, flour, tissues, frozen spinach, or tampons.

Bulk discounts on unnecessary items (like the cat ear headbands I examined in my post on children’s clothing) encourage waste by making it more cost-effective to purchase items that are not needed, and in many cases, will not be used. Some products are even made impossible to purchase singularly, and will be sold only in bulk – one common example is the six pack sticky tape which, instead of containing a single dispenser and five refills, will have six sticky tape dispensers, each of which will be thrown away after use.

While bulk discounts are frequently socially and/or environmentally detrimental, the business case for them is obvious. The economies of scale mean it is more cost effective for 10kg of rice to be put in a single bag and sold to a single consumer, than for 10kg of rice to be placed into 10 separate 1kg bags, transported and shelved, and sold individually to 10 different customers in 10 separate transactions. Manufacturers and retailers can pass on a portion of these savings to consumers, in a win-win for the seller and the buyer (although, as mentioned above, those outside of the transaction, who cannot afford to buy in bulk, usually come off worse).

An exception to the rule

When it comes to the sale of non-physical items, like ISBNs, those numbers required to uniquely identify a book or other publication, those same arguments cannot be made.

It costs the company no more to assign one number or 10, 10 instead of 100, 100 instead of 1000.

There is no big warehouse of numbers that needs to be maintained. No shipping costs. No store person to guide me through the transaction. So why should a bulk discount apply, other than sheer profiteering?

No excuse

Yes, I’ll accept that there are some additional costs involved when dealing with multiple customers instead of one large customer, maintaining accounts, dealing with inquiries etc. But since Thorpe-Bowker charges a $55 account fee, which is a flat rate applied to all, regardless of their independent or commercial status, regardless of the size of the order, this cannot account for the discrepancies in charges.

Hurdles, hoops, and gatekeepers

This additional charge makes purchasing ISBNs even more prohibitive for indies and small publishers. It means that the indie author wanting to purchase a single ISBN must pay $99, not $44. And even when paying in bulk, an indie purchasing 10 ISBNs will find the $55 charge brings the cost up from $8.80 to $14.30 per unit.

For the publisher able to afford 1,000 ISBNs, this fee is absolutely negligible, working out to just over 5c extra per ISBN.

How is it fair that big publishers need spend $3 or less on ISBNs, while indies pay up to $99?

Charging such enormous amounts for such tiny numbers of, well, numbers, is nothing more than naked profiteering, and yet another example of how the industry is set up to favour the old boys.

It is also an excellent example of why such natural monopolies should not be left to commercial companies, and should instead be administered by the government (as indeed they are in the majority of countries).

I cannot think of any legitimate reason for it to cost more to register your book than to register yourself as a driver, particularly considering the greater need for human interaction and work in the process.

Are ISBNs really necessary?

Of course, companies like Smashwords and Amazon have made it easier for indies to publish books without having to purchase their own ISBNs. However, many major distributors refuse to carry books without them, and many reviewers, libraries and bookstores do the same.

Have you purchased your own ISBNs? What is the experience like in your country? Or, if you published without an ISBN, have you experienced any #bookbigotry because of it?

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