For a small publisher, the ISBN is an expensive irritation. The book world relies on the International Standard Book Number for greasing the wheels of distribution and discoverability. The need for a numerical identifier is obvious, and the ISBN—in its 10- or 13-digit iterations—serves that purpose. The problem is that there are country-specific monopolies on issuing ISBNs. The U.S. monopolist is Bowker, a firm founded in the nineteenth century that has, since the late 1960s, traded hands among a series of multinationals. Elsevier’s parent company bought Bowker from Xerox (!) in the mid-1980s, then sold the firm to Cambridge Information Group, the owner of database provider ProQuest, in 2001. Bowker, now positioned as a ProQuest affiliate, is the official U.S. ISBN agency, so the firm can charge usurious rates. At a laughably outdated website, publishers can buy a single ISBN for $125, 10 for $295, and so on. We opted for 100 ISBNs, for $575, since the next tier—for a thousand numbers—costs $1500. One hundred sounds like a lot, though the IDs can get depleted fast since publishers are expected to assign a unique ISBN for every version of a book: one for digital, another for cloth, and so on. Throughout the purchase—alas—we were inundated with upselling pitches for various add-on services, none of which we acquired.
The process for assigning ISBNs is straightforward. In the online form, you are prompted to enter metadata like the title, language, authors & contributors, and format. Though ebooks are supported, the system is plainly designed with printed titles in mind. One major metadata category is “Sales & Pricing,” with required fields like “Target Audience,” country-by-country pricing, and “Sales Rights”. So it’s a bit of a shoehorn, but shouldn’t take more than 10 minutes. We will update the post once we’ve completed the form for a forthcoming title.
We don’t plan to print any of our titles, so we faced an obvious question: Why not just issue DOIs (for the whole book and for individual chapters)? The reason is discoverability: the Directory of Open Access Books requires an ISBN for listing (among other criteria). Likewise, the creation of MARC and Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication records—a process that we are still exploring and will post about—seems to require an ISBN too. So Bowker, and its mid-1990s website, are unavoidable.