Monday, May 20, 2013

How much for an ISBN?

Dear Representative Simpson,

Mine is not an earth-shattering question. There are certainly more pressing issues confronting this country. But it's still a question I'd like an answer to:

Why do ISBNs cost co much?

That's short for International Standard Book Number, the 13-digit, unique number assigned to every book published in the world. It's used for book cataloging and merchandising purposes, giving each book a unique identifier that can be used to track it wherever it goes or wherever it's sold.

For all intents and purposes, if you publish a book, you want an ISBN. Even in the world of self-publishing, they're important for distribution. Want your book sold at Amazon or through Apple? One of the first questions they ask is what is your ISBN.

So my question: Why do ISBNs cost so much?

There is one place in the United States -- one place -- where ISBNs can be obtained. To buy one number costs $125. And it makes sense for an author to have at least five ISBNs per book -- because if you want to publish a physical book, you need an ISBN (one for hardback, one for soft cover) and if you want to publish ebooks, it's one ISBN per format. That adds up quickly, even when you can get bulk rates for blocks of ten, one hundred, and one thousand ISBNs. (One thousand, by the way, costs $1,000 -- or one per number. So why charge $125 for the first one?)

The publishing world is seeing a paradigm shift, as traditional publishers no longer mono0polize the publishing world. Self-publishing is now a viable option for most anyone with only a little bit of computer savvy and the right story to tell. Yet the cost of ISBNs feels like a hurdle. Buying ten ISBNs will cost an author $25 per number. I know this seems silly to complain about -- certainly self-publishing removes so many hurdles for the individual publisher that paying a fee for a number that will help the book be featured in the best online catalogs and stores is a small price to pay.

I just don't know why it can't be smaller.

Are these number made of rare earth elements? Or is this just bureaucracy, inflating prices because, surprise, there's no competition for such numbers.

The pricing doesn't make sense. Numbers aren't rare. Of course, I've never understood why web domains have to cost so much either. Nor why people could parade into Indian territory, declare they own the land, and then sell it as if they'd created the Earth in six days themselves. No matter.

Ebooks are going for cheap, especially for new authors. Even a 99 cent ebook is stretching it for some, though the price point commitment of at least 99 cents but preferably $2.99 per book is what's being recommended all over the place. So the number of books to be sold to recoup the cost varies, but isn't insurmountable. I get the arguments.

Certainly this is a complicated issue. I'm certain there are a lot of ins and outs and international implications that make issuing ISBNs a complicated process that costs money. But still, there's got to be some padding going on here. What can I, as a citizen, do to affect a reduction in ISBN prices? Or am I just stuck?

I jokingly suggested to a fellow unpublished author that we buy a block of 100, or a thousand, and start our own press. Maybe that's not as farfetched an idea as it sounds. Every business has to start with some kind of investment.

So I guess the real question is why do they cost so much? Because complaining probably won't suddenlly cause the distributor to set them at gumball machine prices.

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