Hysterical raisins: The ISBN

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?

My response:

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?


  1. hmmm. . . . hmm. . . I wonder if a block of self-publishing authors could band together and buy a block of thousands.

    • They can. Only problem is picking the name that, in Bowker’s opinion, will be the publisher of all the books with those numbers.

      This is why Smashwords can give you a perfectly legit ISBN for nothing — they bought a huge block of them. They’ll be listed as the publisher, though.

  2. deiseach says:

    Certainly, since this is fundamentally a book-keeping and inventory tagging system, it seems contrary to the Great Spirit of Capitalism for it to be a private commercial monopoly – let everyone issue their own ISBNs and compete on price and convenience, and the market will sort it out!

    Yes, I understand why that wouldn’t work; too many variant forms and confusion would reign, which is why (if these things are not required by law but do seem to be necessary on the grounds of ‘have one or we won’t stock your book’) it seems it would make more sense to permit a national library or some other department issue these in return for a (small) annual fee.

    As it is, it seems to combine the worst features of centralised planning and monopoly without the conveniences of commercial competition and choice.

    • ISBNs in the English-speaking countries can begin with either 0 or 1; within that set, subsets of numbers are farmed out to different national agencies (some governmental, like Library and Archives Canada, some private, like Bowker). I’m not sure what central agency is responsible for dividing the numbers up among countries, but it may be the ISO, which is responsible for the ISBN standard as a whole (ISO 2108).

      That being so, there is absolutely no reason why subsets of numbers could not be farmed out to more than one agency in a given country — and those agencies could then compete for publishers’ business based on price and service.

  3. My google fu isn’t quite up to finding the name, but IIRC the numbering system for the precedents in US law is privately owned.

    • This, again, makes perfect sense in view of when that system was established. It was, after all, primarily for the benefit of lawyers, who could stand to pay the fees. And given that it was set up a long time before 1970, and based on paper records long before computers were thought of, it’s probably just as well that the government didn’t set up a bureaucracy to run it.

      (Silly point of historical trivia: In France, right down to the end of the Third Republic in 1940, government accounts were kept by old-fashioned single-entry bookkeeping, a method that private industry ditched in the days of the Medicis — and the entries were written in the ledgers, so I’m told, with quill pens. There are no immovable objects in nature, but the closest thing to one is a bureaucracy determined not to change.)

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