Why do indie authors have to pay a multi-national for an ISBN?

I don’t know about you, but having to pay for a bar code (ISBN) for an ebook ranks up there with making a special a trip to the shops to buy kitchen roll.  One of the reasons for leaving Amazon’s KDP Select in the first place was that as an indie author, I resented having to be exclusive to a big multi-national.  I suspect that Cara, our feisty champion of the underdog in Revolution Earth would have had something not very complimentary to say about that!

But to give Amazon credit, they have got round the ISBN problem, for ebooks at least, with their own digital version of ISBN – called an ASIN, that they issue you for free when you publish an ebook.  And when you publish a print book through CreateSpace (an Amazon company) they also issue you with a free ISBN.

You don’t need a ISBN to publish on the Kobo Writing Life digital platform either but you really should get one, as this will enable better international distribution. Now in Canada, where Kobo Writing Life is based, ISBNs are free for authors but if you live in the US, Australia or the UK you have to pay for them.

In the UK and Ireland,  ‘Nielsen Holdings N.V. (NYSENLSN) , an American global information and measurement company with headquarters in New York (USA) and Diemen (Netherlands)‘ (source: Wikipedia) have the exclusive contract (or, to put it another way, monopoly on issuing ISBNs to publishers in these countries).

Given that Cara would, no doubt also have had something to say about indie publishers living where I live, having no choice but to pay another multi-national for a bar code when authors based in Canada, New Zealand and South Africa can get theirs free from their respective governments, I thought I would write to this stock exchange listed company (active in over 100 countries and employing approximately 34,000 people worldwide with total revenues at $5.6 billion in 2012[1].) (Wikipedia) whether or not they would consider giving indie authors publishing ebooks a discount.

Lambert Nagle: I wonder though, now that the ebook
revolution is here to stay and so many of us authors who have to
purchase ISBNs are very small outfits who, (in my case only need at
most 5 ISBN numbers as I am only publishing one ebook) that you might
consider reducing the price for people like us?

Nielsen have the monopoly on IBSN numbers in the UK – we have no
alternative but to go through you – when Canadian and New Zealand
authors can get theirs for free through government agencies.

As you can imagine, Nielsen were thrilled to hear from me and did in fact write back – completely ignoring my argument – that they really hadn’t got to grips with the ebook revolution and that the ISBN system might need tweaking for ebooks.  And instead, gave me the company spiel, how a company listed on the stock exchange justified squeezing money out of us indie authors.

Nielsen: Countries whose ISBN Agencies issue ISBNs for free are issuing them through government agencies, and the cost is covered by the government.  Where the ISBN Agencies are run commercially, the organisation running that Agency needs to cover the cost of not only the fee payable to the International ISBN Agency (which is based on the amount of publishing done in that country, and comes to 40 thousand+ euros annually) but carrying out the mandated tasks that the International Agency requires.

Each year the UK ISBN Agency registers approximately 3,000 new publishers, providing these and many other previously-registered publishers with ISBN prefixes. Creating and maintaining unique and unambiguous publisher records is the key responsibility of the Agency. In addition, the Agency provides advice by telephone and email to a much greater number of enquirers about the ISBN system and the book supply chain for which it is used. The rules of the ISBN system, requirements of Legal Deposit, advice on bar-coding, sources of industry training and statistics and many other queries are all dealt with by the Agency.

However, an even greater mandated responsibility of each national ISBN Agency is to operate (or delegate the operation of) a bibliographic database. The charge made for assigning an ISBN prefix reflects not only the cost of recording the publisher name, address and contact details (and reflecting any changes made thereafter) and issuing a set of globally-unique product identifiers, but it also contributes towards the further task of maintaining comprehensive and timely bibliographic information about the several million different products within the English Language book trade.

I hope this explains the reasons why Nielsen has to charge for ISBNs.

Hmm, all it explains to me is that the explosion in the number of ebooks being published must be filling Nielsen’s coffers nicely and that there must be many other authors out there who are being forced to pay for more ISBN numbers than they need.

I think it’s about time the whole ISBN system was shaken up and replaced with a more equitable system. What do you think?

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