It Just Got Even More Expensive To Make Your Book “Visible”

image - iStockphoto / Matt_Gibson
image – iStockphoto / Matt_Gibson

BOSTON, Massachusetts — Bowker, the US agency for ISBNs, has raised the cost of a pack of 10 of these book “identifier” codes, from $250 to $295.

And thus, it just became even costlier for an American self-publishing author to buy the universal identifier(s) needed to make a book “visible” to book-market tracking services.

Ironically, some observers will say that the move further hobbles the ISBN, itself. Its validity already is being called into question, as pricing and an association with old-industry “gatekeeping” continue to erode its usage. For some time now, the ISBN has been unable to give us a full picture of titles active in the market.

On Tuesday in Berlin at Klopotek’s highly regarded annual Publishers’ Forum, industry consultant Brian O’Leary will call on the international community to consider changing “the roles of standards and their governing bodies.”

And what specific example will he go to first? — ISBNs and how they are sold to entrepreneurial authors. O’Leary has provided me with an advance copy of his paper, which expands on his concept of “an architecture of collaboration” in world publishing. In discussing a global need for new “transparency and openness in the [publishing] supply chain,” O’Leary will tell the audience in Germany:

Independent authors represent what I’ve called “the single largest experiment in the history of publishing.” But the results of this experiment are largely invisible to us. Why? Consider the cost of identifiers in markets like the United States, where a single ISBN costs $125, while a bundle of 1,000 can be obtained for $1 each.

This discriminatory pricing means that most new entrants are not included or analyzed as part of whatever supply chain we have. We need to make ISBNs and other identifiers universally affordable. We also need to open up access to the data, so that a wider audience can hope to understand and respond to changes in the marketplace.

“Identifiers” And The Cost Of Undoing Business

When O’Leary says that “most new entrants are not included or analyzed” by the use of ISBNs, he means that many self-publishing authors, in particular, elect not to buy them. And without ISBNs, their books can’t be “seen” moving through the bookish market system.

Indeed, Bowker has just proved O’Leary’s point in what is sure to be felt by many authors as a slap in the face.

The author corps has argued against what it perceives as the unfairness of Bowker’s pricing of ISBNs — even as journalists (this one included) keep arguing that authors must use ISBNs because without those “identifiers,” the tracking systems of publishing cannot register the books and cannot tell how big the industry is, nor who is active in it.

It surprises many outside the business to learn that publishing actually does not know how many books are out there. We don’t know how many books are self-published. We don’t know how many authors are engaging in the marketplace. Imagine the auto industry without its serial numbers, unable to count or identify its cars — that’s book publishing today.

I’ve asked Beat Barblan, Bowker’s Director of Identifiers, for a statement as to why the company has made this increase in the most affordable ISBN offering for authors, the 10-pack, especially at a time when the company has been so universally embarrassed for what O’Leary terms its “discriminatory pricing.”

Barblan is one of the most congenial and responsive sources a journalist could ask for. He has come right back to me with a statement so that I can give you Bowker’s rationale for this price change.

Quoting Barblan’s answer to me, in full:

We did increase the price of only the 10-ISBN offer. We have not increased the price of entry (single ISBN) nor any of the other prices. The 10-ISBN price (10 for the price of 2),  had been a discount that we kept going long after the initial time period expected to ease the cost of purchasing ISBNs for multiple formats.

Individual author/publishers pay more than companies that purchase large quantities of ISBNs due to the increased cost to us of managing small numbers of ISBN and the relative metadata, as well as providing customer service to individuals.

Will that answer from the cordial Barblan mollify our authors?

“When The Computers Come To Read Your  Book”

Here in Boston at the Grub Street writing program’s annual conference led by Eve Bridburg, The Muse  and the Marketplace, these 800+ writer-attendees are being told by me and other speakers at every turn that they must pay attention to their “metadata.” That’s the coded information read by digital tracking systems to surface your book in a search, to give it “discoverability.”

Even in a two-hour Town Hall on the status and future of literary fiction in the digital age, many of us were taken with the a panelist’s line, “When the Computers Come to Read Your Book” — surely a sci-fi title headed soon to an Amazon listing near you, right? But also the reality of the “machine reading” that now controls content categorization in listings.

Rachel Fershleiser of Tumblr and Kathy Meis of Bublish spoke to the pivotal importance of metadata and to the corresponding dilemma of more artistically positioned authors of literary work who simply may have no head for such digital exigencies.

In case you’re new to the subject of book “identifiers” and what the Bowker change means, here are a few points of background:

  • If self-publishers are to function as full “literary citizens” and responsibly move their content through the marketplace, they frequently are told, then they must join the business in using the universally established International Standard Book Number, the ISBN.
  • An international organization licences in-country sales (or in some nations, government-subsidized issuance) of ISBNs.
  • That international body has licensed Bowker to do the job in the United States. Thus all publishers and all entrepreneurial authors must go to Bowker to get these important identifiers — not just because some systems (libraries, booksellers, others) use them to find and catalog titles but also because research organizations use them to “see” how many books are out there.

So you didn’t know you were writing an invisible book? You are if you don’t put an ISBN on it — the industry can’t see it, can’t count it as one of the products now in play in the glutted market of literature. Amazon’s ASIN is an internal tracker, not one the rest of the industry can use. Without an ISBN, The System doesn’t know you’re there.

Some authors reject using ISBNs on the notion that they’re a device of the pre-digital publishing industry, those “gatekeepers” you can hear some militant entrepreneurial authors disparage.

Many writers have told me, however, that if the price of ISBNs were more reasonable and fairer in comparison to the price paid by publishers (who can buy 1,000 at a time for a dollar each), they’d buy them.

The absurd element here — as O’Leary is making clear — is that entrepreneurial authors, the smallest-business element of the industry! the industry!, are being penalized by the ISBN’s pricing. And the larger, corporate entities in the business, whether independent houses or the mighty Big Five publishers, are getting the best deal.

Consider the $295 Bowker now is charging an author for 10 ISBNs. The rate a publishing company pays for those same 10 ISBNs is $10.

As O’Leary notes, one ISBN costs the publisher $1. One ISBN costs the author who doesn’t buy the 10 pack $125.

See Why The Authors Are Angry?

If until now, you haven’t understood why some authors feel that the US publishing industry is stacking things against them, here is one good place to look for some understanding.

My appreciation for Barblan aside, Bowker’s folks have made this move silently. I had to spot this, myself, and then confirm it with Barblan. They didn’t announce that they were hiking the 10-pack price.

Apparently, they’re willing to suffer the rancor they’re building in the author community and to see their own identifier compromised even more by the ill will that causes writers to reject it.

And when does all this start to reach the readers?

It’s the authors who have the ear of the readership. While major publishing companies scramble to learn how to market directly to their reader-consumers, the authors — those community-building, digitally engaged, fiercely interactive, entrepreneurial authors — are the ones those companies are trying to emulate. Many authors consider audience-cultivation their key weapon in a growing digital commercial arsenal.

Wouldn’t it seem that the industry would want to welcome, support, and make less costly, not more the integration of entrepreneurial authors into a business that so badly needs their keen agility in the digital marketplace? Thought Catalog Logo Mark

Porter Anderson / @Porter_Anderson is a journalist focused on books and the industry! the industry! of publishing.

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