The Case for ISBNs
Yesterday’s story about Bowker’s doomed efforts to measure the ebook market through ISBN registrations reminded me of a related story which had been languishing in my draft folder.
Just about everyone agrees that indie authors generally don’t use ISBNs on their ebooks. I’ve been pointing that out for almost four years, and it’s not hard to find a dozen posts why authors shouldn’t bother with ISBNs.
But have you ever considered the case_for_ ISBNs?
An ISBN is effectively a serial number for a book. A print book must have an ISBN or it can’t be sold in most bookstores (nor even on the bookstore’s website), but Amazon and the other major ebook retailers don’t require that an ebook have an ISBN, and so some indie authors think an ISBN has no value.
In some ways they are right, but at the same time they are also wrong.
Yes, few distribution channels require an ISBN, but at the same time revenue from those distribution channels can justify the cost of buying ISBNs.
Author Karen Myers presented a business case in favor of ISBNs a few weeks back in the comment section at The Passive Voice. She bought a thousand ISBNs from Bowker for $1,000, and has so far used 80 of them.
Myers has argued that one should buy an ISBN as a way of future-proofing, but also that there is a business case to justify the expense.
Here’s what Myers wrote about future-proofing in 2014. It’s all about controlling one’s identity because otherwise Amazon, Kobo, et al will control you:
Consider the following situation:
- I publish a book, digital only. I don’t bother with an ISBN number.
- I distribute it on Amazon, which assigns it an ASIN number, an Amazon product code.
- I distribute it on Barnes & Noble, which assigns it an EAN number, a B&N product code.
- I distribute it on Kobo, which assigns it an ISBN number owned by Kobo, so my book will appear to be published by Kobo, not me.
- I distribute it on Smashwords, which assigns it an ISBN number owned by Smashwords, so my book will appear to be published by Smashwords, not me.
With the exception of Smashwords, none of these identifiers appear within the eBook itself.
And now, let twenty years go by… Barnes & Noble and Smashwords are out of business. Amazon changes its product code conventions and no longer uses ASIN numbers. There is no searchable database made available by Amazon for the old ASIN numbers. Kobo, which owns the ISBN it provided, controls what the Bowker Books In Print or successor database contains and updates the information about your book in ways you would not approve of, and since you have no ISBN number of your own that’s the only record of your book in Books In Print. Someone who chanced across a reference to your book based on an old copy from Barnes & Noble can’t find it because the B&N identifier is no longer alive, and may or may not connect it with a Kobo record in Books In Print which has a completely different identifier.
That is a cogent argument, and so is Myers' point on the cost-benefit of buying ISBNs.
Yes, everyone says that authors don’t need an ISBN to reach the vast majority of the ebook market, but as it turns out that is an over-generalization. It may be true for the market as a whole but it is not necessarily true for an individual author.
Myers revealed over on TPV that:
Print is 21% of my units sold, and more than half of that is from physical stores and other vendors requiring ISBNs. All of my audio sales are through a distributor that requires ISBNs. About 5% of my ebook sales are through distributors that require ISBNs, and that includes libraries.
Those are modest numbers — about 16% overall — but those are all sales that would not have occurred without ISBNs.
So a one-time, $1,000 investment has enabled 16% of Myers' units sold. I can’t speak for you but that strikes me as a good return on the investment.
Myers has shown that buying ISBNs is on par with hiring professionals to edit and finish a book. The two are similar in that authors theoretically don’t need either an ISBN or paid assistance, but a judicious investment can pay off in increased revenue.
That may not win over those who argue against ISBNs on ideological grounds, but any author who approaches book publishing as a business needs to look past the ideology and look at the figures.
The math says that buying ISBNs can pay off, so to hell with the ideology.