A Million Indie Titles Were Published Last Year, and Other Nonsense

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From The Digital Reader:

There are two frequently repeated misconceptions about the ebook market that continue to be repeated no matter how often they are debunked.

The first is that AAP publisher ebook revenue is the sum of global ebook sales, and the second is that ISBN registrations equals the number of titles published by indie authors each year.

The first misconception still hasn’t died out despite numerous repetitions – including in every AAP press release – explaining that the AAP stats reflect publisher revenues, not what consumers paid to retailers, and that the stats reflect less than half the market (indies and non-AAP publishers account for the rest).

The misconception about ISBNs, on the other hand, looked like it had died out a couple years ago after countless repetitions pointing out that an ISBN is not required to bring an ebook to market, so a lot of authors don’t bother getting one and thus the reported stats about ISBNs registered every year don’t mean what you think they mean.

Alas, Bowker, the company that administers ISBNs in the US, seems determined to revive this misconception. For reasons known only to them, earlier this week they misrepresented their annual report on ISBN registrations:

According to the latest report from ProQuest affiliate Bowker, self-publishing grew at a rate of more than 28 percent in 2017, up from an 8 percent increase during the prior year. The total number of self-published titles grew from 786,935 to 1,009,188, surpassing the million mark for the first time.

. . . .

While the statistics are factually correct, Bowker’s description is utter hokum.

Here’s some background for those just hearing about this issue for the first time.

  • An ISBN is more or less a serial number for  a book. You must get one for a print book or it can’t be distributed, but the same is not true for an ebook (although there are benefits to getting an ISBN for an ebook).
  • ISBN registrations are handled by a different agency in each country. In the US, that is Bowker.
  • Since Bowker charges for ISBNs, a lot of authors save money by not getting an ISBN for their ebook.
  • Bowker only license ISBNs in the US, and nowhere else, sothey can’t tell you the number of ISBNs registered by self-published authors in, say, Canada.

This means that Bowker’s claim of a million indie titles published is a miscount that ignores the entire rest of the world as well as the majority of ebooks published in any given year.

Link to the rest at The Digital Reader

In PG’s ineffably humble opinion, Bowker is a classic example of a monopolist straining to hold on to its monopoly long after whatever usefulness the underlying service may have once provided has disappeared.

The ISBN number feels like a relic of the mainframe age when full-text search was barely imagined. If you wanted to find a particular book, the mainframe would deliver you the relevant information if you properly entered a ten-digit ISBN number.

Then the bar code reader was invented and (halleluiah!) you could scan a bar code instead of mistyping the ISBN number twice before getting it right.

Demonstrating that it will never fall behind the times, the International ISBN Agency decreed that an ISBN number must have 13 digits in 2007.

ISBN issuance is country-specific, in that ISBNs are issued by the ISBN registration agency that is responsible for that country or territory. In some countries, ISBN’s are issued by non-profit or government entities and don’t cost very much. In the United States, Bowker, a for-profit (and how) company holds the exclusive rights to issue ISBN numbers.

Large publishing companies pay less for each ISBN number than small publishers do. The smaller the publisher, the higher the likely per-ISBN price is.

Indie authors will be happy to know that Bowker has not forgotten them. It offers “simple solutions for the self-publisher . . . Whether you are just starting out, or a seasoned professional, we have a solution to fit your needs” To show how well it understands self-publishers, Bowker has some cool and sophisticated self-publishing clip-art on its landing page.

For only $395, you can obtain ten (count ’em ten!) ISBN numbers and two bar codes!!!!

That’s about $40 bucks per ISBN, the issuance of which requires less than 1/1000 (or maybe 1/1000000000000) of a second for one of Bowker’s computers.

As far as bar codes are concerned, you can generate ISBN bar codes online at no cost. PG is certain that Bowker claims its bar codes are better, but if a bar code scanner reads your free ISBN bar code, whoever may want to order your book via ISBN will be happy.

Speaking of which, who actually uses ISBN bar codes? Physical bookstores and libraries.

How many indie authors make $395 selling their books (at a large discount from list price) to physical bookstores and libraries?

“I am so impressed that your ebook has a 13-digit ISBN number!” said no reader to an indie author ever.

Speaking of costs, Canadian ISBN numbers are free for Canadian publishers and self-publishers, demonstrating that Canadians understand the true worth of an ISBN number.


20 thoughts on “A Million Indie Titles Were Published Last Year, and Other Nonsense”

  1. I went through the trouble of setting up an account with Collections Canada and generated an ISBN for my first title, years ago. That was the only time I’ve used an ISBN. All I have to do is click a button and enter my titles but I just can’t be bothered.
    It’s just a number…

  2. “In PG’s ineffably humble opinion, Bowker is a classic example of a monopolist straining to hold on to its monopoly long after whatever usefulness the underlying service may have once provided has disappeared.”

    So true. And they’re still overpriced at a nickle each.

  3. So long as Amazon insists we must have an ISBN for print and audio, even if exclusively sold on Amazon, indies will have to play the game.

    Whether we pay up direct or use a “free” Amazon supplied ISBN the money still goes to the monopoly purveyor.

    It’s worth noting that A-Pub itself uses the same Bowker ISBN for both its print and ebooks.

    • Whether we pay up direct or use a “free” Amazon supplied ISBN the money still goes to the monopoly purveyor.

      It’s Amazon’s own money that goes to Bowker, and they buy ISBNs in such quantities that you may be sure they are getting the absolute rock-bottom rate. In lots of 1,000, they cost $1 apiece if Amazon is paying Bowker full price. To Amazon, or even to the smallest indie author, a dollar per title is a rounding error.

      • Fully price isn’t $1 anymore when buying 1000. Nope, good ‘ole Bowker now charges $1.50 per when buying a block of 1000.

        They run sales infrequently, but still, it’s a lot of money.

    • “In this country (USA), ISBNs costs money (free (subsidized) in Canada). Tough. It’s a cost of doing business. Start small until you’re sure you’re going to keep writing, then suck it up. Otherwise you’re playing with one hand tied behind your back.”

      Suck it up? That sounds like a trad-pub crack when you object to their crap contract. And if Canada can have free ISBNs, why can’t the US?

      “Amazon won’t be around forever. How many retailers are? How’s Sears doing, these days? The book trade, however, will never go away. The key to longevity is aligning with best practices in the book trade.”

      Seems they haven’t noticed the ‘best practices in the book trade’ aren’t helping trad-pub as more writers turn indie.

      “Someone objected that no one looks for a book by its ISBN number these days, but search engines have nothing to do with it. The strength of the ISBN is commerce, not discoverability.”

      Without discoverability there is no commerce – so why do I care if I have something that won’t help my readers find me?

      • 1) It’s not a conspiracy against you or indies.

        2) It’s not all about indies.

        3) Each country gets to make its own decisions about whether to subsidize ISBNs or not. I hear Canada is accepting immigrants.

        4) See (2).

        • No, just a ‘this is the way it was done – it was good enough in the past so it should be good enough now’ piece.

          Except how it ‘was’ done is no longer the only way it ‘can be’ done. Anyone writing romance or fiction knows that. The gatekeeping publishers of old and their agents no longer dictate what the readers can fins to read, their commerce machine no longer controls the buying of a/e/books.

          Unless ‘needed’ (which in many cases it isn’t) an ISBN is just an added expense – one that most starting out won’t find at all useful – so why push it? If later after selling thousands of their a/e/books they think they want to do something that needs ISBNs they can go get/apply some, but this sounds to much like telling people they can’t drive a car without extra bling on it.

          As far as conspiracies, I don’t worry about them so much as I wonder why someone’s pushing me and others to go buy something, far too often there’s a reason/excuse they won’t mention/don’t want you to know …

  4. Talked to a fellow indie yesterday. There is a huge Bookfair in the works. The committee wants every local author to submit their paper books for the event. This is being pushed really hard in our area, where there are several publish-for-pay companies.

    But there’s a catch.

    Said books can’t use a Create Space or Amazon ISBN. “You must have a REAL ISBN to enter.”

    I just shook my head. I’ve got 5 paperbacks and I can’t submit any of them to this event.

    • “This is being pushed really hard in our area, where there are several publish-for-pay companies.”

      Maybe they figure if an indie wasted their money on “REAL ISBN”s they’ll waste even more money on vanity press.

      (It may actually be a GOOD thing you can’t submit your works – deities know what rights grabs they have hidden in the fine print.)


  5. I ponied up and bought a block of 10 ISBNs from Bowker, and I use them for both ebooks and pbooks. Yes, the cost (compared to Canada) is an irritant. But I do it because I want my books to be — and appear — professional. The cost of ISBNs and Bookland EANs (for pbooks) is just a cost of doing business… and being professional.

    Going the cheap route is a hallmark of amateurs — something I want to avoid at all costs (pun intended). And it’s stupid to use a so-called “free” ISBN provided by a non-Bowker entity that you don’t actually own and control.

    I will be buying Bookland EAN barcodes for each pbook, too. No getting around that, IMHO. Bowker charges $25 per EAN barcode. Again, cost of doing business. But it’s far, far cheaper than signing up with a vanity “publisher” like ASI and its various, nefarious imprints.

    • Added…

      Of course, looking professional is more than just ISBNs and EAN barcodes. An enticing title and cover, well written and edited content, and polished formatting are also critical.

      • You can write for bookstores or you can write for readers. One requires an expensive obsolete ISBN, the other requires a good story.

        • ISBNs are hardly obsolete. They’re required for selling books in a number of venues other than just Amazon online. It’s about discoverability, accessibility, and availability, which are prerequisites for sellability.

          BTW, I don’t write “good stories.” I write non-fiction. And my choice is to use ISBNs and EANs. You can choose to do whatever you want.

  6. I’m confused. Unless you already ‘know’ the ISBN for a book, how does knowing the ISBN help you find/buy a book? And since any ‘new/corrected/updated’ version of the same book gets a new ISBN, how would you know to look for the other ISBNs if the only one you know is out-of-stock?

    “It’s about discoverability, accessibility, and availability, which are prerequisites for sellability.”

    None of which are helped/aided by an ISBN (and these days most people are looking for things on Amazon for a/e/books, so whatever they’re using will be the easiest way to find/buy it.)


    • ISBN isn’t about readers.
      Or about ebook storesm
      It’s about getting into the old school pbook channels.

      • “It’s about getting into the old school pbook channels.”

        Oh, those channels that like to ignore indies and any Amazon books in the first place?

        No problem then.


  7. ISBNs are for print books.

    Totally useless for digital books: they are not needed on ebooks, and not needed on audiobooks.

    None of the biggest ebook or audiobook retailers care about ’em or use ’em.

    Readers sure couldn’t care less about ’em.

    Some indie authors may feel a need to put them on their ebooks to feel more “legit” — but if so, they should also make sure to buy LCC (Library of Congress) numbers for each book, and a whole bunch of other sad, outdated signifiers that no modern bookbuyer or modern bookseller even cares about.

    Otherwise, someone might think they are — *gulp* — self-published or something… 😉

  8. Here in New Zealand, ISBNs are free from our National Library and you can get a separate one for every format: hard cover, paperback, Kindle, iBook, epub etc.

    The only “cost” is that they ask you to send them a copy in each format, whereupon they’re archived and indexed in a national database.

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