In the United States, ISBNs are issued exclusively by R. R. Bowker, a private company that used to be best known for publishing Books in Print. Their prices are heavily skewed in favour of large publishers: a single ISBN costs $125, a block of 10 $250, but if you are buying thousands, you can get them for as little as $1 each. (By way of contrast, in Canada ISBNs are issued by a government agency, and you can get them for free — if you can navigate the website, which is bureaucratic beyond the dreams of Byzantines.)
A certain Mark inquires, in a comment at The Passive Voice, why this private-sector monopoly is allowed to continue:
What’s wrong with letting a governmental agency register these numbers for free? They don’t charge for Social Security Numbers. Why ISBNs?
Because, my dear fellow, it’s 1970. Computers are massively expensive beasts, mostly owned by government agencies, universities, and big businesses. There is no way for a member of the general public to get direct access to a computer — thank goodness! Imagine the damage they might do.
So if we set up a Federal agency to hand out ISBNs, we would need to spend millions on yet another IBM mainframe to handle the data, and then we’d need to hire dozens of technicians to run the mainframe, and scores of clerks to handle paper applications from publishers, and a battalion of bureaucrats to manage the technicians and the clerks. And you know there’s no money for that in the budget — not in this economy, or in this political climate — not to benefit a parcel of big New York publishers who can easily pay the cost themselves.
Instead, it will be far better to let the private sector handle it, and charge the cost to the publishers by selling them the ISBNs. And since this is Washington, and 1970, we’ll make the arrangement permanent. Because after all, everything has already been invented. Hasn’t it?