At Frankfurt Book Fair: Is The ISBN Still Worth Its Barcode?

 iStockphoto / tobi
iStockphoto / tobi

ISBN Fail: We Cannot Count Thousands Of Books

FRANKFURT AM MAIN, Germany — As I’m reporting here at the 66th Frankfurt Book Fair today in The Bookseller’s Show Daily, the United Kingdom’s ISBN Agency, Nielsen, will open an online ISBN-buying service for writers in February.

For more, please also see today’s sidebar with US ISBN chief Beat Barblan of ProQuest’s Bowker at The FutureBook.

Don’t run past  this: the move to e-sales of ISBNs in the UK is about a lot more than convenience: The ISBN is fighting for its half-decade life as the primary quantifier of the world book industry. And so far, it’s losing the battle.

In the United States, ISBN chief Beat Barblan says Bowker has had its Web commerce facility for six years at, while in the UK authors have had to procure ISBNs by telephone or in email exchanges. So effective is the ease and  speed of the US ‘ online access, Barblan says, that authors from other countries that supply ISBNs without charge will come to the US online site and pay for ISBNs voluntarily “because with us they don’t have to wait a month” to get them.

If online availability can give the 49-year-old International Standard Book Number (ISBN) new traction, it might help slow the venerable identifier’s fading effectiveness.

The ISBN still can identify a book as a unique work described by its metadata very well. But it no longer can tell us the size and contours of the publishing marketplace because thousands upon thousands of works are being produced without ISBNs attached.

As The Bookseller editor Philip Jones has put it, we’re left studying our own marketplace “by candlelight.”

The ISBN is fighting for its half-decade life as the primary quantifier of the world’s book industry. And so far, it’s losing the battle.

A year ago at the time of the Frankfurt Book Fair, Bowker issued a press release announcing that ebooks “continue to gain on print, comprising 40 percent of the ISBNs that were self-published in 2012, up from just 11 percent in 2007.”

The phrasing was important. 2012 had logged 391,000 “self-published ISBNs.” That’s all we could be sure of. How many more uncounted books were out there? We have no clue.

Simon Skinner
Simon Skinner

“We’ve almost been disambiguated from our own market,” says Simon Skinner, Nielsen BookData’s sales director in charge of the ISBN programme for the UK — where Nielsen is the designated ISBN-administration agency, as Bowker is for the US.

“And one of the things we don’t do particularly well as an organisation,” Skinner says, “is tell or explain or educate self-publishers about what their ISBNs are doing. If I were just going and spending what seems to be a lot of money for a number, I might think, ‘Crikey, that’s a lot of money for a number.’ But it’s much more. [The author] is getting set up in this book-trace system” by using an ISBN to identify his or her work.

Authors may not realize is that designated ISBN agencies for countries such as Nielsen for the UK and Bowker for the US are not profiting from their ISBN administration.

“We only operate on a cost-recovery basis,” Skinner says. “The rules the international agency lay down are that this is not intended to be [a way to make] a profit.”

Nevertheless, it is the price charged individual authors for ISBNs that has proved the biggest barrier to the identifier’s continued industry-wide usage and a frequent flash point of anti-establishment anger among some self-publishing authors.

  • In the US, a publishing house can purchase 1,000 ISBN’s for $1 each. The individual author’s best price is around $29 each, and that’s available only when buying a pack of 10 ISBN’s for $295. A single ISBN costs $125.
  • In the UK, Skinner says that in February, Nielsen will for the first time sell a single ISBN for about £30 with a one-time £40 setup fee. The pack of 10 ISBNs sold in the UK so far costs £110 (roughly $180) plus VAT.

Why the discrepancy between what publishers pay and what self-publishers pay?

As Bowker’s Beat Barblan in the US has put it, it’s “due to the increased cost to us of managing small numbers of ISBNs and the relative metadata, as well as providing customer service to individuals.” In other words, the large-batch nature of a single publisher’s 1,000 ISBNs makes them less labour-intensive than the processing of single-author accounts.

Brian O'Leary
Brian O’Leary

But as reasonable as that explanation is, Bowker’s and Nielsen’s resulting cost structure appears to be pricing the ISBN right into irrelevancy.

While in some nations, the registration agencies are seated in ministries or library systems that cover the costs, the prices being charged by commercially based agencies appear to be the problem.

“Discriminatory pricing” is the term used by industry commentator Brian O’Leary in Berlin at Klopotek’s Publishers’ Forum in May.

The Bowker and Nielsen pricing for small buys of ISBNs, he said, mean “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. [And in the process] 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.”

Can This Be Pinned On Amazon?

Even by the standards of the self-publishing author community — where the same questions seem to be asked and answered in an everlasting cycle of newcomers’ need to know — ISBN confusion has proven especially tenacious. Almost four years ago, in November 2010, the  highly regarded blogger and book designer J.F. Bookman’s ISBN 101 For Self-Publishers laid out key thinking and guidance on the matter closely aligned to current thinking.

Skinner says that Nielsen’s February debut of its own online ISBN-buying service for UK writers and publishers is, in part, an effort to close that education gap.

In the States, Bowker has coupled its online sales of ISBNs with to help inform authors and to offer — at additional cost — a menu of various associated publishing services through commercial partners, such as format conversion with Data Conversion Laboratory (DCL) and distribution with Vook.

Until Nielsen’s online facility is in place, UK authors must work by email or by telephone to get ISBNs for their self-published books. Skinner says that typical phone calls run between 20 and 40 minutes each because authors have so many questions they need to ask the Nielsen ISBN team.

“A lot of self-publishing authors have simply bypassed the need for the ISBN and created an ecosystem that you can operate in quite comfortably.” Simon Skinner, Nielsen

And both he and the International ISBN Agency’s executive director, Stella Griffiths — also based in London — say they hope the convenience of online ISBN availability might help prompt more self-publishing authors to buy the identifiers.

One of the greatest problems you hear commonly cited, however, is a perceived stance on the part of Amazon that’s not supportive of the ISBN.

As the largest platform for self-published books, Amazon procures and applies ISBNs to self-published print books made through its CreateSpace programme. It does not apply ISBNs for ebooks created through its Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) programme, which is where the bulk of self-publishing is happening.

While Amazon officials declined a request for a direct statement for this story, however, the company does not appear to discourage ISBN usage nor to encourage it.

Here’s a quick explainer of how Amazon and some other key platforms describe their positions on the ISBN:

  • Amazon. An author is free to obtain and apply ISBNs for digital works, ebooks, published through Amazon. But the understanding for many years has been that ISBNs are “required” only on books in the print world where bookstores, distributors, libraries, and others use them as a means of inventory tracking. Thus, Amazon CreateSpace’s ISBNs go onto its print books, but Amazon KDP does not apply them to ebooks. Amazon’s KDP informational page reads: An ISBN (International Standard Book Number) is not required to publish content with Kindle Direct Publishing. Once your content is published on the KDP web site, will assign it a 10-digit ASIN (Amazon Standard Identification Number), which is unique to the eBook, and is an identification number for the Kindle Book on If you already have an ISBN for your eBook, you’ll be able to enter it during the publishing process. — Key to understanding this fully is recognition that while Amazon’s ASIN serves well as an internal inventory number, it’s not meant to be visible or meaningful outside the company. It’s a single store’s stock number, basically. Some authors are confused on this point, wrongly believing that the ASIN does what the ISBN does. It does not.
  • Barnes & Noble Nook Press. Similarly, the BN ID that Barnes & Noble’s Nook Press platform uses is an internal stock number but it is no substitute for an ISBN: at Nook Press, the author is welcome but not required to add an ISBN. From Nook Press’ FAQ: You do NOT need an ISBN to sell your NOOK Book through NOOK Press. If you don’t have an ISBN, just click “No” beneath “Do you have an eBook-specific ISBN?” on Title & Description page. Note: NOOK will always assign a unique identifier, known as the BN ID, to your NOOK Book when it is put On Sale as a NOOK Book. This is not an ISBN. Instead, it is B&N’s own internal number for use in the B&N system. This number is displayed here for your reference. It will also display as the “BN ID” in the Product Details section of your NOOK Book’s customer product page.
  • Kobo Writing Life. Kobo’s self-publishing platform’s information for authors takes a comparatively pro-ISBN stance, explaining that a book’s potential sales visibility is raised by the ISBN: You will be able to publish through Kobo without an eISBN, but we strongly advise that you have one so you can take full advantage of Kobo’s partnership with leading retailers around the world. eISBNs are a requirement of a number of our international retail partners and the inclusion of an eISBN enables your book to be available from all of our eBook retail partners, so the inclusion of an eISBN will allow us to distribute your eBook through all possible channels.
  • Smashwords. This platform is even more supportive of authors using ISBNs on ebooks, its distribution information reading: If you’re a serious author or publisher, you want your books included in Smashwords Premium Catalog. Both Apple and Kobo require you have an ISBN, which you can obtain or assign in the Smashwords Dashboard’s ISBN Manager.
  • Apple’s iBooks Store. iBooks commentary on ISBNs reads: An ISBN is recommended but not required for any book you are offering on the iBooks Store. An ISBN uniquely identifies the book and its current edition, and helps you to ensure that you are marketing the right book. The ISBN is also required for reporting your book’s sales to industry reporting agencies and charting organizations.

It’s those “industry reporting” and “charting” functions that the deepening loss of ISBN usage has disrupted.

Even without “the likes of Amazon Kindle” actively discouraging ISBN use, Skinner says, “a lot of self-publishing authors have simply bypassed the need for the ISBN and created an ecosystem that you can operate in quite comfortably.

“You can publish, you can sell,” Skinner says, “you can make money entirely within the Amazon ecosystem and you never need go outside of that, and of course that negates the need for an ISBN” — as long as your ambitions begin and end with sales at Amazon.

So it is that Skinner and Nielsen hope the ease of online purchasing of ISBNs might help UK-based authors more readily consider buying ISBNs.

“The idea is that it’s easier for a self-published author to get a number online” rather than going to the phone or using email. “We want to try to drop the barrier, make it easier, in hopes that author thinking ‘shall I or shant I?’ will be more inclined to take up the offer.”

How Did Bowker And Nielsen Come To Be ISBN Agencies?

Some authors are unclear on how a country’s administration of the ISBN may be handled. Those who are prone to see such formalities as holdovers of traditional publishing “gatekeeping” can believe that Bowker in the US and/or Nielsen in the UK and Ireland created the ISBN as a profitable land-grab of sorts — not realizing that the companies are chosen by the international body and are tasked to provide the ISBN service without profiting.

Stella Griffiths
Stella Griffiths

Griffiths says that at the time of the ISBN’s development, originally at Trinity College, Dublin, in the mid-1960s, it was in fact thanks to Nielsen’s and Bowker’s expressing interest in being appointed their national agencies that the ISBN system could find its footing at all in the UK and US.

“Those appointments” of Bowker and Nielsen by the international agency “go back a very long time and they were very helpful in developing the system. These organisations helped ensure that the ISBN was implemented as well as it could have been. They were very much a part of the original history of the ISBN and it wouldn’t be what it is today if [Bowker and Nielsen] hadn’t picked up the ball and run with it.”

In many cases, a national library system becomes the administrator of a country’s ISBNs. “But the Library of Congress” in the US “showed no interest” in handling it at the outset, Griffiths says.

And this is why the United States’ neighbor to the north has not one but two in-country ISBN agencies designated by the international — Library and Archives Canada for no-cost ISBNs in English, Bibilothèque et Arcchives nationales du Québec for French-language work — while the States’ ISBNs are administered by a corporate entity that stepped up to the plate.

“To join us — to join in and get the most out of the system — there are some costs that are going to be involved.” Stella Griffiths, International ISBN Agency

Today, the Publishers’ International ISBN Directory (PIID) — published by Berlin’s De Gruyter Saur and London’s International ISBN Agency –carries prefixes from more than 200 countries. It has been known, as the international agency’s site puts it, as “the most comprehensive up-t0-date reference tool for the book-trade and the library world” available. Increasingly, however, its ability to fully represent a world of books is crumbling along with the ISBN’s compromised ubiquity.

And yet Griffiths understands the cost-covering needs to charge for ISBNs as Nielsen and Bowker do, even as individual authors complain that the prices they face are too high or, as O’Leary puts it, discriminatory.

“The data you might receive from someone who’s publishing their own book might need more crafting,” Griffiths says. “Bowker and Nielsen need to spend more time improving that data” in the small accounts of single authors. By contrast, “an organisation whose whole business is about publishing, sees its metadata as very important to it and it spends more time making sure it’s accurate.”

Is It Worth Undermining The ISBN?

When asked what it means to see the ISBN’s efficacy as an industry-defining tool — the one universal counter of books we have — Griffiths shows that the crisis is very much on her and her colleagues’ minds.

“I do take on board what you’re saying,” she says. “And I can’t obviously say to you what pricing should be changed” or not.”

We are, as it happens, up against the line that divides the national agencies and their pricing structures and the international body’s ability to appoint those country agencies but not dictate to them what they will charge.

“We do not dictate prices” to the country agencies, Griffith clarifies on behalf of the international body. “We monitor prices that are charged but we do not dictate them. The situation in the US is different from what it is in Uganda, or Estonia, or Serbia.

“Even some countries where the national library is the provider will charge because they’re not able to cover their costs” in administering the ISBN with government funding. “Obviously the charge will probably be at a much lower level” in such cases “than with Bowker, which depends entirely on covering its costs” by what it an charge for the ISBN. “Bowker has no other funding.

Beat Barblan
Beat Barblan

“What I will say to you, however, is that I do know Beat Barblan” — Bowker’s director of identifier services — “spends a great deal of time on self-publishing authors and talking and thinking about what they need. We have reviewed pricing two or three times in the last few years, and they [Bowker] have tried several models.

“In all honesty, I don’t think it could ever be realistic,” she says, “that Bowker could charge a dollar per ISBN” for self-publishers as it does with large publishers on their 1,000-ISBN buys. “It would be very difficult to justify this because there’s a massive difference in the investment of the self-publisher and that of the major publisher.”

Griffiths’ most pointed response is that we’re looking at a moment when the maturing self-publishing community needs to meet the identifiers at least half-way and accept that engagement in the industry as a writer and publisher means incurring some cost.

“If authors want to sell on a more competitive trading field, then ISBN will help discoverability and visibility of their book. it will help them have more accurate metadata attached to that number. It will help them potentially sell more copies of their book.”

Griffiths is concerned that many self-publishers may tend to be overly dependent on community blogging and other informal exchanges of information that promote an anti-traditional-publishing bias and in some way relate the ISBN to that bias. In fact, the ISBN is not a creature of established publishing. It is not administered by publishers. But this is one of the elements of the scene that may not be clear,

“I don’t want to put this too bluntly, but to join us — to join in and get the most out of the system — there are some costs that are going to be involved…The pricing is not something that goes unnoticed or un-talked-about. Beat and I do talk about it from time to time, we’re in a dialog about it. But more than that, I can’t really say.”

Ironically, new developments in associated identifiers can bring more and more quality to the metadata connected to an ISBN. As Skinner notes, “The ISBN is a still a very good identifier of a unique work.”

“And at the end of the day…with better metadata, you sell more books,” Griffiths says. “That’s the most powerful reason to use the ISBN.”

But bottom line, then, is that the system of ISBN administration in countries that do not provide the identifier as a cultural service is simply not set up for the rise of the digital self-publisher and has so far been unable to effectively communicate the identifier’s value to an independent-minded new community of growing importance.

For the first time in its decades of history, Frankfurt Book Fair has a specific programme laid on in association with Authoright in Halle 4 for self-publishing authors. And the Publishing Perspectives Stage in Halle 8 will focus on authors’ issues, self-publishing in particular, on Saturday. More about these events is here.

And even as these events go forward, the ISBN’s ability to reflect the size and scale of the industry hangs in question, struggling as its effectiveness is eroded by the needs of a client base, self-publishers, that no one saw coming.

At a time when world publishing is hobbled without the data it needs to understand its own range, reach, and readership, the ISBN is unhelpfully but demonstrably in trouble. 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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