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

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.

Self-publishing of print books increased by 38 percent in 2017 for a total of 879,587. This is the fifth consecutive year of print growth – driven by a 50 percent increase at CreateSpace, a self-publishing platform. Self-published ebooks decreased by 13 percent, continuing a downward trend for the third successive year. Two service providers, Smashwords and Lulu, accounted for 105,037 ebook titles, 81 percent of the ebook total of 129,601.

As the numbers confirm, self-publishing continues to grow each year. According to Beat Barblan, Director of Identifier Services at Bowker, "Self-publishing shows no signs of slowing down and continues to grow at a steady rate. CreateSpace was very popular in 2017 – and now that its customers are moving to the new Kindle Direct Publishing platform, we don’t expect any decline in self-publishing."

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.

To put it simply, folks, we have no clue how many ISBNs were registered by indie authors, much less the number of titles published by said authors.


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The Rodent October 12, 2018 um 6:50 pm

Well, "can’t be distributed" seems a bit strong. I think it’s more like: most corporations that distribute (new) books in exchange for money will not handle books that don’t have ISBNs. But that’s just customary in the industry, it’s not a legal requirement or anything… 😉

Mark Williams – The New Publishing Standard October 13, 2018 um 3:25 am

For all realistic purposes they can’t be distributed, as Amazon’s CreateSpace/KDP print (along with all the other facilitators) insist on an ISBN, even if the book is only to be sold on Amazon.

This creates the incongruity whereby BookStat states CreateSpace is the 15th largest print publisher by revenue (Author Earnings Jan 018) when the reality is that, apart from A-Pub titles, the CreateSpace titles are not Amazon publications.

Further, while not requiring ebooks to have ISBNs, Amazon uses the Bowker print-allocated ISBN inside the A-Pub ebooks in blatant disregard of Bowker rules that ebooks must carry their own identifier.

Will Entrekin October 15, 2018 um 8:54 am

"Further, while not requiring ebooks to have ISBNs, Amazon uses the Bowker print-allocated ISBN inside the A-Pub ebooks in blatant disregard of Bowker rules that ebooks must carry their own identifier."

I’m a little confused by all this. What do you mean by A-Pub ebooks? You mean books published by Amazon’s imprints? Not books indie published through CreateSpace and then KDP, right?

Bowker’s rules seem like an extension of Bowker’s monopoly on US ISBNs. One per format, right? So one hardcover, one mmpb, one trade pb, one ePub, one .mobi, one .pdf, one .txt, etc. And if I remember right there was a Bowker recommendation that the ePubs for different stores (e.g., Apple Books versus Kobo) should each have their own.

Sorry, it’s been a while since I last looked into ISBNs, which just shows how much authors need them in the digital space (not at all).

A Million Indie Titles Were Published Last Year, and Other Nonsense – Books in General – – The Passive Voice October 14, 2018 um 1:26 pm

[…] Link to the rest at The Digital Reader […]

Dena October 14, 2018 um 1:47 pm

Something they probably haven’t factored in is how many of those ISBN numbers were issued to no-content books like notebooks and sketchbooks. CreateSpace saw a huge influx of people publishing hundreds of blank books each week (and in some cases, each day) in 2017. All of these would be given an ISBN number and could have altered Bowker’s stats.

Nate Hoffelder October 14, 2018 um 3:32 pm

There’s also the duplication between print and digital copies of a title.

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