5. The Argument and Complaint — an ISBN essay


An International Standard Book Number (ISBN) should be free. Instead, there is an international conspiracy involving monopolistic practices and restraint of trade in the arcane, obscure realm of book numbering.

In many countries including Canada an ISBN is free. But in the United States  if you want one, you will pay more than one hundred dollars.

Bowker is the primary seller of ISBNs throughout the world. They have no legal right to distribute ISBNs. The United States should remove Bowker’s monopoly and arbitrary pricing structure for this necessary number.

“Profiting from the identification of books is fascinating and bizarre and in need of sunlight,” said Robert Manor, former newspaper reporter, when told of the practice.

The Way It Is Today

There is nothing wrong with international standards. Books practically demand an internationally accepted method of tracking and referencing.

In fact, all books require a number, known as an International Standard Book Number (ISBN), which identifies, on the surface and underneath the surface in what is known as metadata, the author, publisher, country of origin and a variety of other information. Without an ISBN, bookstores will not sell, libraries will not carry and a book will not be found in a recognized book database.

The ISBN grew out of a post World War II gathering of countries under the rubric of the International Standards Organization (ISO) which are now used as identifiers for all items created by humankind world wide.

An ISBN is the specific ISO for books and monographs and is defined as a 13-digit number assigned by standard book numbering agencies to control and facilitate activities within the publishing industry. ISBNs were ten digits long until 2006. ISBNs are assigned based on the geographical location of the publisher, not the printing company.

An ISBN is a five part number.

1. The current 13 digit ISBN begins with the prefix “978.”
2. Next is the group or country identifier aka the country code.
3. The next six or seven digits is the publisher root aka publisher’s  prefix. This identifies a particular publisher within a group.
4. The title identifier for a particular title or edition of a title.
5. The final digit is a check digit which validates the ISBN.

None of this can be read without access to the metadata. However from the length of the publisher root, it may be ascertained whether a large or small block of ISBN numbers was purchased by that particular publisher.

The International ISBN Agency in the United Kingdom is the global agency which manages ISBNs. There are 151 sub-agencies. The international agency has given the right to distribute these numbers to all sub-agents. It is not known whether the sub-agents pay a fee to be a distributor or not.

For example, Bowker and Thorpe-Bowker are the only authorized sub-agents which may distribute ISBNs in the U. S. and Australia. The Canadian ISBN office is part of the Library and Archives Evaluation and Acquisition Branch of the government. In the UK the Nielsen Book company, which has offices in the U. S., assigns ISBNs to publishers based anywhere in the British Isles including Orkney, Shetland, Isle of Man, Isle of Wight and the Channel Islands. Of the 14 British Overseas Territories only Bermuda and Gibraltar have their own national ISBN agencies. Vietnam has its own ISBN agency.

There are two pricing systems among the 151 sub-agencies: Free or Fee. Where there is a fee, the price is uniform for all areas after adjusting for currency exchange rates.

Every book or monograph requires at least one ISBN, but most require several. A print version in hard cover and soft followed up by a second or third edition require separate ISBNs for each. A self-published author with ten titles can easily exceed the need for 100 ISBNs.

There is a prejudice among libraries and book sellers against self-publishers. There are several reasons for this, but the result is the self-published author is often denied bookstore access based solely on the fact their book is not from a large publishing house.

A bookstore will not carry and a library will not order a self-published book which can be identified in the metadata or in the number itself which indicates whether or not the publisher acquired a large or small block of numbers.

Self publishers, aka author publishers, are one of the largest areas of growth within publishing today. They are also the least likely to be able to afford the high price of a single ISBN nor will they typically purchase large blocks of numbers.

Nicholas Wood of the International ISBN Agency recently wrote in an email, “Normally, if the service of providing ISBNs is not supported by government or other funding, then fees may be required in order to be able to continue to offer the service. This charge should only be provided on a cost-recovery basis.”

That statement suggests there is an accounting method by which it may be determined what “a cost-recovery basis” is or is not. But because it appears, instead, that all sub-agents charge the same amount, it is more likely that a predetermined or fixed price system is in place.


The International ISBN Agency in the United Kingdom is a world wide monopoly in restraint of trade in the book publishing business and is a price fixer.

It has created monopolies in every country. Where Bowker is the sole seller in the U. S., Neilson is their equal in the UK. They sell ISBNs in England, have offices in the U. S., but do not provide ISBNs here.

It is restraint of trade in that where it is not free, artificially high prices are placed on single numbers or a block of ten numbers, $125 for one, $295 for ten which equals $29.50 each. Larger quantity purchases, which self-publishers can ill afford, have reduced per ISBN number costs: $575 for 100 which equals $5.75 each, $1,000 for 1,000 numbers which equals $1.00 per ISBN.

This is an amazing discount for large purchasers, a precipitous drop not accounted for in the cost of goods sold. Large publishers can afford such quantity purchases and the price per number drops even further. In fact, the price drops well below $1 each. This is what Bowker tells prospective purchasers:

“Do You Need 10,000 or More ISBNs? If you are a USA based publisher and buying more than 1,000 ISBNs, we have programs designed to fit your needs. Whether that be ONIX uploads, pricing for ISBN blocks of 10,000 / 100,000/ or even a million.”

A representative at Bowker who coordinates customer relations said that the most common purchase is a block of ten numbers.

The current pricing structure penalizes and restricts those least able to afford a small quantity of ISBNs, the self publisher. Yet this is a fast growing segment of the market never visualized by the ISO founders.

As the publishing industry has progressed, self publishers are enriching the American monopolist, Bowker, far out of align with any soi-disant “cost-recovery basis.”

Bowker is in the business of selling ISBNs and in selling self publishing as a publishing industry alternative. There is an inherent conflict of interest in that Bowker sells the number that a self-publisher must have and wants to sell the self-publisher the means of publishing.


Take the ISBNs away from Bowker. The process should have been a function of the Federal Government from the very beginning. Yet somewhere in the history of the dissemination of ISBNs, our government abrogated responsibility and allowed a privately held company to prosper from a business no one anticipated would be profitable.

If the Federal Government does not want to create another cost for its citizens to bear, it is allowed to make money on the distribution of ISBNs which cover the costs of that distribution. There is nothing in the Constitution that says the government shall not profit from its ventures.