Time to bury the ISBN?


This is a guest post from Ricardo Fayet. Ricardo is an avid reader and startup enthusiast who has been studying the publishing industry with interest for several years. He co-founded Reedsy, to help authors collaborate with publishing professionals.



The latest AuthorEarnings reports from indie author Hugh Howey and his collaborator “data guy” unleashed a new debate in the publishing industry, this time focused on ISBNs for eBooks. “30% of the ebooks being purchased in the U.S. do not use ISBN numbers,” writes Howey–a statistic that forces us to question the validity of all data that comes out of ISBN tracking. He goes on to say that “the ISBN is dead. It’s just not buried yet.” Is it really time for each of us to grab a shovel?

Pulling the plug  on the main source of data income in the publishing industry isn’t as easy as sweeping it under the rug (or underground). This data tracked by ISBNs serves publishers, publishing-related companies, bookstores, journalists, etc. The problem is that most of this “data”, for the sales of electronic formats, comes from one company, Amazon, which is not going to reveal it any time soon. Though AuthorEarnings offers a glimpse of what’s happening at the book sales behemoth, the reports are generated by a two-man, highly unofficial  initiative. Howey & Co.  basically “crawl” Amazon’s bestsellers lists with an algorithm (to determine what book is in which position) then use comparatives to estimate each book’s sales according to its ranking. I think it’s genius, and pretty accurate at that, but there’s no statistical way to guarantee a variance on these estimates.

Obviously, a system that directly tracks the sale of each ebook (like the ISBN) is much more accurate, as long as all books sold have such a tracker. But an ISBN is not required to publish an ebook on Amazon, and authors or publishers have to pay if they want their titles to have one. The result is that a lot of independent authors and publishers just don’t bother–and why would they? The ISBN doesn’t impact their sales in any way, and as entities, some publishers are too small to care about global data on book sales.

The fact is, there’s a tremendous discrepancy between the people who benefit from ISBNs and those paying for them. But Bowker and Nielsen, the two agencies in charge of ISBN generation and distribution in the US and the UK (respectively), are not allowed to “profit from the ISBN”. This is stipulated by the International ISBN Agency, which appoints national agencies like Bowker or Nielsen. So everything these agencies “charge” for the tracking of ebooks is only meant to cover their costs.

The business model seems fairly straightforward: ISBN agencies determine their costs and pass them along to author or publishers. Problem is, the eruption of independent publishing has made this model obsolete. Perhaps if these agencies had the freedom to profit directly from the ISBN, they’d have found a more “intelligent” business model already. For example: collecting the data for free, then selling it to those who want it (publishers, businesses, media outlets, etc.).

To those who opine that data should be free, I say no, it certainly shouldn’t be. Gathering data is neither costless nor effortless. It’s a “job”, and the people doing it should be rewarded for it properly. However, France and Canada provide interesting case studies here. In both these countries, ISBNs are free…and government subsidized. It makes sense; harnessing data on a wide-reaching industry is actually something of public interest.

The US and UK governments don’t think so, which is certainly understandable, and let’s not get too political – however, the current model just doesn’t make sense. So instead of discussing whether ISBNs should be buried, we should be putting our efforts into building another system, and putting the currently outdated model to rest.


  1. I saw Ricardo’s post in Linkedln and came here to read the entire article.
    Thank you for taking your time writing it.
    It is a subject that interests me from some time. Writing for the moment ebooks, I already decided to don’t waste money on ISBN, but it’s a comfortable feeling knowing that others are thinking about it also.
    Thanks again. I will follow both websites because you provide useful information.

    1. Thanks a lot for the kind words, M.C.
      We have been putting a lot of effort in terms of content over at the Reedsy blog (and here) so it’s good to know people find it useful!

  2. Just to add a little clarity…

    The tracking of sales for electronic formats and the tracking of ISBNs, and their associated metadata, are not the same thing. They are related…sort of.

    The registering, and acquisition, of an ISBN for a particular work, or format of a work, is done through an ISBN agency – Bowker in the US, Nielsen in the UK, Library and Archives Canada in Canada, etc… In some countries you pay to acquire an ISBN and in some you don’t. Usually you need to provide some metadata either at the time of registering and/or later when you want get the book ‘discovered’. Some of those same ISBN agencies also run services to aggregate that metadata and make it available to the industry (ecommerce site, bookstores, libraries, research, etc.). They usually, but not always, sell this information.

    Some of the same companies that monitor book sales are also the same ones that issue ISBNs (ie. Nielsen), but not every company that issues ISBNs monitors sales. They are separate activities from one another.

    So, these agencies/companies do have ‘intelligent business models’ and do exactly what you are suggesting. I think you may be suggesting that author/publishers shouldn’t have to pay for the acquiring ISBNs? A very good suggestion.

    1. Thanks for the clarification, Noah, it’s definitely welcome as it’s hard to put down all those dynamics into 500-ish words.

      I’ve taken the example of Nielsen and Bowker because they’re the two main ISBN agencies (UK and US) and because both are similar in their business model. They do indeed sell the data as I suggest they should do in the article. What I also say, however, is that they are bound by a non-for-profit regulation on ISBN-related book data collection and sale. And this pushes them to adopt a business model where they make authors/publishers pay. Instead, they should be able, imo, to profit from the ISBN, and:
      1- Make it free for authors and publishers to acquire ISBNs
      2- Sell the data for a higher price

      The current business model is not intelligent because, as they make authors/publishers pay to have data collected on them, many simply don’t do it. This means that the overall collected data is totally unreliable. Which, of course, means it’s not sell-able, because no one believes in it anymore. That’s the devil’s circle they’re in atm.

  3. The problem here is that the ISBN wasn’t introduced for the purpose of tracking sales, but, in part, to enable bookstores to find where to order a book not held in stock, subject to a customer request for that book. This is long before e-books came into existence. It is therefor wrong to argue that ISBNs should be scrapped because they don’t do something they weren’t designed to do.

  4. An ISBN costs $125. This is a shocking price for a first-time author to pay. When I first started self-publishing, I went to Bowker’s website to buy my ISBN and discovered the bulk price for those same ISBNs is very cheap for publishers — only $1 each when you buy 1,000. I did some more research and discovered that long ago — in the 1970s when Bowker launched the ISBN — ISBNs were free. That’s right. They cost nothing. They did a free promo offer in order to get all the publishers on board. Needless to say, it was a successful marketing move. Today, everyone believes they need an ISBN for their books. But it’s shameful that Bowker charges such an expensive price for inexperienced first-time authors. I believe self-publishers should be getting encouraged to start their new book publishing adventure by getting a cheap identifier for their book, but instead Bowker makes it cost-prohibitive. I think it would be great to introduce a new identifier that is cheap or free for self-publishers. I would be in full support of a new identifier system and welcome discussion about this topic. My facebook page is https://www.facebook.com/isbnagency if you want to reach out to me there about this topic. In the meantime, Bowker is still working hard to prevent self-publishers in the most lucrative markets such as the US and UK from getting a cheap identifier for their book.

Comments are closed.