At Frankfurt Book Fair: 'You gave me unlucky ISBN numbers'

At Frankfurt Book Fair: 'You gave me unlucky ISBN numbers'

"Prices should allow ready participation in all types of publishers" Ironically, that clarification of the mandate from the International ISBN Agency runs right into this comment in the United States:

I wouldn't be allowed to answer a question about, 'Are you making a profit or aren't you making a profit?'

That's Beat Barblan, Bowker's director of identifiers and the chief of the ISBN agency in the United States. What he's describing is the stance of ProQuest, as the parent company of Bowker, on what's appropriate and what isn't for public comment.

Barblan -- among the most affable, personable people in the industry -- is explaining that he's constrained in defining what the controversial cost of ISBNs means to the company's coffers.

But I can give him that helpful comment from the International ISBN Agency head Stella Griffiths.

She describes what one of her organisation's appointed national agencies for the issuance and administration of the ISBN can do financially under the world body's regulations this way:

Any charges that are levied [for an ISBN] are to cover the direct costs of providing the service and may also include some element for overheads. As far as ISBN is concerned, prices should allow ready participation in the standard (and, even more importantly, access to the supply chain) by all types of publishers in line with average incomes/living costs in the respective countries.

As we're reporting today in The Bookseller's Frankfurt Book Fair Show Daily and at Thought Catalog in New York City, the United Kingdom's ISBN Agency, Nielsen, will open an online ISBN-buying service for UK writers in February.

That move is about a lot more than convenience: the ISBN is fighting to stay relevant. And so far, it's losing the battle.

In the United States, Barblan reminds us that Bowker has had its own Web commerce facility for six years at, while in the UK authors have had to procure ISBNs by telephone or in email exchanges. Can the relative convenience of online access in the UK give the 49-year-old International Standard Book Number (ISBN) new traction? Can it help slow the venerable identifier's slow fade as what once was a powerful tool for "counting the industry"?

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."

"We don't get a time from the US Government"

"There are a couple of key points I'm trying to address," Barblan says, "and one of them, of course, is 'How come  you're charging for an ISBN when it's free in a lot of places?" Barblan is referring to the fact that the ISBN is, in some countries, paid for by government subsidies for cultural work.

Note that under some national jurisdictions that may not mean full payment -- an author or publisher might still have to pay something for an ISBN, but not the full price required to cover its administration. In the US, as in the UK, authors and publishers are charged fully -- and controversially -- at different rates. Independent authors pay more, even for 10-pack ISBN deals, because their smaller accounts are more labour-intensive for the designated national agencies (Bowker in the US, Nielsen in the UK) than are the large-publishing-house accounts that get their ISBNs at bulk-rate prices.

"We don't get a dime from the US Government," Barblan tells me in a conversation about the issue.

"A hundred percent of what we use to cover our costs -- of not just everybody who works at the agency...but all the IT staff that works on the Web site, which is considerable, as well as portions of HR [human resources], and portions of Legal." In other words, for Bowker to cover its expenses in handling the ISBN under the international agency's policy of a non-profit premise, there's more than might readily meet the eye.

As a subset of ProQuest's and Bowker's operations, we can infer, the US ISBN Agency is covering costs beyond simple metadata input and maintenance.

"You gave me an ISBN that has the number 666 in it"

"We get sued for the most absurd things you've ever heard of," Barblan says. And that would account, of course, for his agency's responsibility to carry a part of his corporations legal-department costs.

We get sued for things like, 'Hey, you gave me unlucky [ISBN] numbers.' Or 'You gave me an ISBN that has the number 666 in it, and that's the devil's number, so I want a change on my number.' Typically what ends up happening is that it never ends up going to court, of course, but we have to get our lawyers involved, we have to respond, we have to do all those things that we would typically do to not go to court.

More common but costly elements of ISBN administration -- certainly than defence against charges of Satanic ISBN assignments -- are cases, Barblan says, in which a small publishing company might be led by co-founders who eventually "have a falling out." If one partner in a small publisher -- in Barblan's hypothetical example -- jumps in and changes the metadata related to that company's ISBNs, the other partner then may turn to Bowker, the agency, and ask, "Well why did you let my co-founder change the metadata?"

Neither Bowker nor Barblan can be expected to have any idea of whether a vested partner in a publishing firm should be making changes in the metadata, but suddenly can find itself having to contend with the questions from one or the other unhappy publishing partner.

"All of which is to say," says Barblan, "that we have to cover way more than one would imagine it costs to just be 'handing out numbers and charging for them,'" as many people see the task of the ISBN agency.

"Whether you're Random House or just an individual"

"The other thing I'd say is that we've built a pretty phenomenally user-friendly site" that enables an author or publisher to make purchases directly, 24 hours per day, for immediate acquisition and use of ISBNs.

"I don't know of another ISBN agency out there," he says, "that you can come to -- anybody, whether you're Random House or just an individual -- and say, 'I want an ISBN or a pack of 10 ISBNs and I want it now and I want to be able to upload my metadata and I want to do it right now.' You can do that" at Bowker's site "in two minutes."

Not until February, when Nielsen starts operating its online ISBN offering for the UK, will Bowker's US agency have a peer in this.

So effective is the ease and  speed of Bowker's 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 "because with us they don't have to wait a month" to get them. "They tell us, 'Yeah, it's free where I am, but it takes a month to get it." (Barblan notes, however, that non-US citizens cannot buy ISBNs from the US agency -- the regulations require an author or publisher to purchase ISBNs his or her own country.)

Barblan is not immune by any means to frequently voiced concerns about the costs of ISBNs to authors today.

"I can't dispute that the idea of $125 for a single ISBN seems high" when a major publisher can get that same ISBN for a dollar as part of a $1,000/1,000-ISBN bulk buy.

"But on the other hand, we've built a large part of this system toward the ability to get a single ISBN. In many countries, you can't get a single one. "

He's correct that until now, even in the UK, the smallest offer is a pack of ten (although in February, Nielsen will for the first time offer a single-ISBN buy with a setup charge).

"In fact," Barblan says, "I've always discouraged people -- 'Don't buy one ISBN.' We've had it because people wanted it, we felt obliged to do it. But it's incredibly costly. Because we have to deal with one person. "

"We'll maintain that metadata forever"

And here's a point, in parting, that may be one the ISBN's detractors haven't considered: "You pay us once, we'll have that metadata for you 30 years from now." Barblan is pointing out that the ISBN purchase, a one-time cost, lasts forever. It is maintained in perpetuity.

You pay once, you'll never pay us again. You come back 30 years later to make a change, that metadata is there, it  wont cost you a penny to make that change. We'll maintain that metadata forever and we'll continue to distribute it forever.

Ultimately, Barblan and the ISBN worldwide, are facing the incursion into the industry of huge, unprecedented numbers of publishers -- authors and small operations -- that may not know or care about such values as perpetual metadata maintenance and access.

The services and their values that Barblan is describing make a lot of sense to many in the industry who are concerned that valid and useful tracking, and the ability to quantify the industry's output, are important.

To many in the self-publishing sector, who have no desire to be counted as part of literature and its cultural presence, the idea of paying for an identifier is nonsensical and (to hear some of them resist it) offensive --as so many digitally empowered newcomers to the field seem to find all such industry-led concepts offensive.

This is disruption not of commercialism but of an industry and a culture's understanding of itself, quantification of itself. And, with an untold number of self-published books already uncounted, there's no way of knowing just how deeply in the dark we already are working.

The major publishers' accounts, Barblan says, actually do pay a great deal of the freight of the ISBN overall because they work in such large numbers. Bowker has been running a $20-off special on the ISBN 10-pack in the US to try to help independent authors with the cost. The 10-pack there costs $295 -- $29 per ISBN -- and the special drops it to $275, or $27 per ISBN.

"We're trying to see what we can do in the's an ongoing battle," Barblan says.

"But the bottom line is, we have to fully finance what we're doing." While he can't show us a final number because those corporate controls prevent his exposure of proprietary data, "it's a lot more costly to do this than anybody thinks. "In fact, it's a lot more than I thought" it would cost "when I came into this position. It's so easy to think, 'You just give me numbers and charge me so much.' But it's so much more than that."

What's clear is that Barblan's concern matches that of many of us watching the identifier's degradation by inconsistent use: "We've got to figure out a way to be sure the standard gets adopted correctly."

Or we're going to need a lot more of those candles that The Bookseller's Philip Jones talks about us using today to try to see what we're doing in publishing.

Main image provided by Frankfurt Book Fair

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