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No, You Can’t Track the Growth of Self-Pub by Counting ISBNs

8450658439_09d364f586[1]The most accurate statement I can make about the growth rate of the indie/author segment of the publishing industry is that it is nebulous at best. This part of the industry is so fuzzy that it can’t be counted, but that hasn’t stopped anyone from trying.

Digital Book World, for example, summarized a press release yesterday which assumed that ISBNs were an accurate measure of growth. The pr was from Bowker, and under the title "Self-Publishing Maturing, Up 17% Last Year in the U.S. ", DBW wrote:

The self-publishing market is entering a new stage of maturity after an initial boom several years ago, according to Bowker’s latest analysis of ISBN registrations in the U.S. from 2008 through 2013.

To be sure, not all self-published authors obtain ISBNs for their work, but among those that have done so to date, their output of titles is increasing. The number of ISBNs registered in 2013 rose nearly 17% from the previous year.

That growth comes not from ebooks, which actually dropped 1.6% during that period, but from print titles, which rose 29%.

Bowker researchers conclude that the self-publishing market is “stabilizing as the trend of self-publisher as business-owner, rather than writer only, continues.”

I will freely admit that I don’t have a clue how to measure the growth of the indie author, but one thing I can tell you is that ISBNs aren’t a valid measure.  ISBNs have about as much relation to measuring the growth of the publishing industry as standardized test scores have to measuring academic progress – in other words, very little.

Sure, many authors get ISBNs for their books, but there are also an unknown number of holdouts, including Hugh Howey, who insists they are not necessary.

As one commenter put it:

It’s far higher than 17%. Most self-pubbers either use free, POD assigned ISBNs or, for ebooks, don’t use any at all. Also, many self-pubbers use publishing house names, so there’s no real way to know if they’re self-published.

And that’s not the only point of inaccuracy; even what data Bowker does have about ISBN use may not be accurate. Another commenter on that DBW post noted that " many indie authors use the free ISBN provide by CreateSpace in their ebooks, contrary to the clear guidelines that ebooks and print books require a separate ISBN each", attributing this move to the cost of ISBNs. This goes against Bowker’s rules, but he pointed out that even Amazon assigns a single ISBN to both a print and digital edition.

To put it simply, no one knows the complete state of the publishing industry, and anyone who claims to do so is selling you something. (In the case of Bowker, they’re giving it away; the report is free.)

image  by Neon Tommy

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Smart Debut Author October 9, 2014 um 6:39 pm

Pretty much anything from DBW can be safely ignored… and Bowker’s numbers are more or less a bad joke at this point.

The vast majority of indies — including multimillion-selling-indies — don’t use ISBNs. And right now, those "invisible" self-published ebooks comprise a third of the ebooks sold in the U.S. and a fifth of the consumers dollars spent on ebooks.

But hey, if the anxious little mice of the old-school publishing industry want to whisper to each other than self-published sales are "stabilizing," why should we argue different?

Let’s just show them some sympathy.

Nate Hoffelder October 9, 2014 um 6:54 pm

No argument here. I was initially going to be much more snarky when commenting on DBW, but then I toned it down. I decided I’d rather convince people than be snarky.

D.B. Hebbard October 9, 2014 um 7:03 pm

Yep, I have a bunch of those suckers (ISBNs). Guess they will be used for those rare times when we do a print book.

Smart Debut Author October 9, 2014 um 7:47 pm

Yeah, snarking’s fun… but you’re right: a lot of folks dismiss the substance of a comment if they don’t like the style. 🙂

Nate Hoffelder October 9, 2014 um 8:07 pm

My very first thought (this one I squashed, firmly) was to tweet a response implying that DBW also believed that standardized test scores accurately measured academic progress.

I think it would have been pretty funny, but the actual post is better.

Smart Debut Author October 9, 2014 um 10:11 pm

Or you could have tweeted that DBW also believed that they could accurately measure author incomes by asking a bunch of self-selected survey respondents who had never finished a book how much money they earned… but that sounds so stupid that no one would have believed it. 😉

Nate Hoffelder October 9, 2014 um 10:23 pm

hehehehe The burn, it hurts.

Maria (BearMountainBooks) October 9, 2014 um 9:30 pm

I get an ISBN for print books WHEN I do a print book. For ebooks? Why bother? B&N and Kobo and Amazon assign a number and that’s good enough for me. Smashwords requires you buy one from them in order to upload to Apple and used to require it for Sony. It’s one of the reasons I don’t use Smash for any of my latest releases. I actually haven’t found a satisfactory way to publish to Apple because I don’t own an Apple device and the avenues I’ve tried all have roadblocks that I don’t want to deal with.

The last book I published was DragonKin–and I haven’t done a print book yet. I may not do a print book. But the point is, I don’t bother with ISBNs for the ebooks. I don’t find them necessary with my current retail strategy and I don’t expect that to change anytime soon. So you can’t judge my output on ISBNs and I know that to be true of many authors. I edit on the side and most new authors want a print book. After the second or third or some random number, many don’t bother with print and that means they don’t buy an ISBN.

Nate Hoffelder October 9, 2014 um 9:38 pm

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard this from authors.

What’s more, Apple doesn’t even require an ISBN any more, thus eliminating the sole reason you would need one.

Maria (BearMountainBooks) October 9, 2014 um 9:45 pm

It’s cheaper all around to avoid Bowker. And Apple doesn’t need their numbers to track ebooks–no one does, and that’s a good thing. It’s another piece of the industry that was completely controlled by one entity and doesn’t need to be.

From a business perspective, some books do well in print and some don’t. We have to balance whether to bother–just like trad publishers are doing. It’s neat to have print, but it’s generally not a necessity unless a book is selling very, very well.

Ebook Bargains UK October 10, 2014 um 4:24 am

Apple may not require an ISBN if you go direct, but that’s only possible if you have the i-equipment to do so. For anyone going through Smashwords you either need your own ISBN or Smashwords will use one of theirs.

If you want to be distributed through Ingram or OverDrive, or get into Google Play, you need ISBNs.

When looking at the high-profile hold-outs like Hugh Howey its worth looking at their actual distribution, which is very limited.

They may sell in big numbers in the handful of places they are sold, but they are not widely available.

As Konrath sobbed to Lee Child – "It’s not fair. You’re sold everywhere and I’m not."

Maria (BearMountainBooks) October 10, 2014 um 8:50 am

The point in wide distribution is to widely sell and be read. If he accomplished that without being widely distributed, I’d say mission accomplished. His readers may be different readers than some distributions, but he is doing just fine. And not being distributed everywhere just means he has room to grow when he chooses. He’ll have the resources to accomplish it too, if he has a good business plan.

Will Entrekin October 10, 2014 um 8:56 am

"An ISBN isn’t required to submit a book to Google Books or to sell a book on Google Play."

Smart Debut Author October 10, 2014 um 10:03 am

Being widely read beats being "widely available" any day.

Nate Hoffelder October 10, 2014 um 10:07 am

Indeed. Revenue is more important, and it’s always worth remembering that sometimes the added cost of supporting extra sales channels aren’t justified by the sales.

Mackay Bell October 10, 2014 um 10:07 pm

Having a print version doesn’t mean you’re going to suddenly get on every airport bookstore rack like Lee Child. What Konrath was talking about is that Lee Child had insiders willing to push millions of his books out into the marketplace (with the ability to return unsold ones). Anyone who thinks having an ISBN gets you any closer to a mass market is fooling themselves.

R. Scot Johns October 10, 2014 um 10:27 am

Bowker may be giving the report away free, but the ISBN’s certainly are not. If they really want to accurately track publishing output they should provide free ISBNs like they do in Canada, and then charge for the report of collated data for those who want it. As it is, the report is invalid, and ISBNs are priced beyond the reach of most self-pubs, and therefore not an accurate reflection of the current market, so neither one is a good deal.

Will Entrekin October 10, 2014 um 10:36 am

I totally agree that ISBNs should be free to authors. However, I question the idea of "free" ISBNs. As I understand it, authors are charged for ISBNs in the US and UK, but other countries' governments subsidize ISBNs. So while authors don’t have to pay for ISBNs in Canada, there is still cost associated with assigning/maintaining them.

What I want to know is how that part is determined. Did Bowker win some sort of bid after the US government decided not to spend money maintaining ISBNs (given the way the US views government-subsidized arts, like the NEA and public television broadcasting [disclaimer: my wife works at one of the latter], it wouldn’t be a stretch to think that not only would they refuse to undertake it but that people would actively petition for the government not to do so)?

I may be misunderstanding the implementation.

But what I don’t misunderstand, and which agrees with most of the comments here, is that ISBNs aren’t necessary to sell through the major digital retailers, and I’m thrilled more and more authors know that every day.

Maria (BearMountainBooks) October 10, 2014 um 10:45 am

I don’t mind paying for ISBNs. I’d just like to be able to buy them one at a time for 10 dollars like most places "resell" them after buying batches. I have no gripe with that small fee–it’s efficient, does the job and works. But having to buy 10 or 20 at a time to get that price locks out a lot of indies from doing it. It also probably costs them money. They could sell more of them if they opened up that low price to everyone. As it is, I just generally do without it.

Nate, you are so right on the business comment–channels and revenue.

R. Scot Johns October 10, 2014 um 12:19 pm

Yeah, that wasn’t really an accurate comparison, since what I meant was that Bowker themselves should provide the ISBNs free and generate operating funds by selling the collected and analyzed data based on this more widespread distribution. This would make the data more accurate, which is to everyone’s benefit.

Bowker has no affiliation with the U.S. government, nor ever has. Nor does Neilson have any connection with the U.K. government. They hold their privilege from the International ISBN Agency, based in London, as do all administers of these numbers, including governmental agencies themselves, such as Canada (where presumably no independent entity stepped forward to undertake the process). But you are also correct that those agencies affiliated with a governing body do garner their operating budgets through taxation via governmental subsidies.

Will Entrekin October 10, 2014 um 1:35 pm

Yeah, I understand. Like I said, I wonder about the bid process. Like, the International ISBN Agency (let’s call it the IIA here) administers the numbers. So I’m curious about what determines who maintains the numbers in each country. Like, does the IIA go to the government first and offer services there, and private companies like Bowker or Nielsen only step in when the government doesn’t, or is it the reverse? So I wonder whether it defaults to the government if no independent entity steps forth, or if it’s the reverse and independent entities propose bids after the government declines.

Also, if the latter: when? How long is Bowker’s administration tenure? Can someone else bid to be able to administer ISBNs?

R. Scot Johns October 10, 2014 um 2:22 pm

Well, as with most things, it’s much more complicated than that. Remember, first, that the ISBN standard has only been around since 1972, but earlier systems of standardization have been in place much longer. The company that became Bowker was founded in the late 1800’s, publishing "Books In Print" since 1870, as well as "Publisher’s Weekly" and a number of others. This made them a natural choice as an administrator of ISBNs in the States (although the Library of Congress might likely have had a reasonable claim as well).

In addition, all ISBN agencies must be subsidiary members of the International Standards Organization (ISO), of which the U.S. representative is the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), who actually act as an intermediary representative between ISO and Bowker, by acting as a voluntary accreditation board that regulates American National Standards (ANS). There can be only one ISO agent per country, and since the U.S. representative is an independent body, it naturally fell outside governmental authority.

ANSI, by the way, was founded in 1916 as an impartial independent (i.e. non-governmental) national board to regulate and oversee U.S. industrial and engineering standards, in order to assure consistency of things like pipe thread size and material tensile strengths throughout the industry. Electronic standards are a relatively new addition, and consequently still more or less in a state of flux.

How one might acquire the rights to take over the administration of an ISBN region is beyond me. I can’t imagine it’s even an option, since it would inherently cause a lot of upheaval to the system, with potential for data loss or corruption in transition. Probably the first agency that was established in each country is the one that will hold it in perpetuity, unless and until such time as that agent withdraws its tenure voluntarily (or possibly administers it so poorly that a change is required, although that has not happened to my knowledge).

Tony Hursh October 10, 2014 um 3:08 pm

"possibly administers it so poorly that a change is required, although that has not happened to my knowledge'

Selling machine-generated codes for $125.00 in quantity one and $0.125 in quantity 100,000 is pretty poor administration, IMO.

If there’s any legitimate business reason for that, I can’t imagine what it could possibly be.

Maybe there was some justification for that back in the day when a human clerk had to set up a physical file folder for each new customer, but that hasn’t been the case for several decades.

R. Scot Johns October 10, 2014 um 4:16 pm

I won’t argue with that. After all, I’m the one saying they should be free! But mind you I didn’t say we weren’t due for a change in administration, just that it hadn’t happened in any jurisdiction yet that I know of.

I would argue, however, that the price differential doesn’t necessarily reflect poor economics, since from a business perspective it’s certainly better to sell 1000 of something for $1000 ($1500 as of October 1st) rather than one of something for $125, since it essentially costs you the same amount of effort in each case (and nothing in terms of raw materials). And since until just recently Bowker’s sole client base consisted of mainstream publishers who needed large quantities of ISBNs, one might presume this was a marketing ploy designed to make their product appear more valuable in larger quantities. (One might also wonder if it was also a concerted effort to prevent vanity self-publishing, but that’s a topic for another post).

However, since we do live in a supply and demand society, I would also point out that demand has definitely lagged of late in the ISBN trade here in the States.

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