Yes, we scan! UK book barcodes (ISBNs) take a great leap online

Is the International Standard Book Number really ‘the single, most important item needed to publish a book’?

That’s what Nielsen, the monopoly supplier of ISBNs in the UK, thinks. Personally, I reckon it’s way behind many other factors.

As you probably know, you do not need an ISBN to publish an ebook, which has meant a massive parallel publishing world emerging where expensive ISBNs simply are not used. This has meant companies such as Nielsen missing out on a massive growth market and also being unable to quantify the publishing market accurately any more as they rely on ISBNs to count sales.

You also don’t need an independent ISBN to publish a print book, although it comes in handy if you go outside Amazon’s CreateSpace service and it is required if you want wider distribution through the book trade through companies such as Ingram.

Surveys of the publishing industry have been wildly inaccurate for years now as they have only counted sales of books with ISBNs, which are largely those from traditional book publishers.

That was until Hugh Howey’s Author Earnings’ operation sprang into action with the inimitable Data Guy running deep spider searches into the netherworld of ebooks and coming up with some startling figures which graphically revealed the massive extent of the non-ISBN indie publishing market.

Now Nielsen Book is launching a so-called ISBN Store in the UK and Ireland in mid-August ‘to provide a one-stop-shop for publishers and self-published authors to purchase ISBNs and other services’. It doesn’t give a website address for the store but the present service is at Nielsen ISBN Agency.

I suppose we should welcome this move dragging ISBNs in the UK into the late 20th Century, as at present there is a ridiculous process with Nielsen in the UK where ‘new publishers’ actually have to complete an application form and send it to Nielsen for their consideration. This amazingly takes around 10 days, although this can be ‘fast-tracked’ to three days for a fee and even faster-tracked to same-day service for another fee.

Then, if and when Nielsen deigns to approve your humble ISBN request (assuming ‘the application form is legible, fully and correctly completed, and is accompanied by the correct fee’), you are then charged the startling cost of £99 for a single ISBN — at the current Brexit exchange rate, that is $130. That’s a lot of cash for a barcode.

To be fair(ish), the cost does come down per ISBN if you buy more than one. For example, if you buy 10, they only cost £149 — $195 (and can even be posted to you ‘for no extra fee’) while 100 will cost £352 — $461, but will, strangely, require an extra fee if you insist on them posting the ISBNs to you.

You can get a cheaper UK ISBN by going to a broker such as Compass Publishing who will offer you a single ISBN for around £35 but you will have to declare Compass to be the publisher of the book. This doesn’t mean you lose any rights but it’s obviously not a great thing to do if you want to be an indie publisher.

So, on the grounds of convenience at least and slashing, I hope, of some bureaucratic red tape, Nielsen’s move is long overdue, but nowhere in its extensive self-congratulatory announcement is there any mention of fees, so I can only presume the present excessive charges will still apply.

Self-publishers and small indie publishers might consider adding ISBNs to their books if they could buy singles at a decent price as most indies are unlikely ever to need 100 ISBNs and thus view the barcodes as largely irrelevant and an optional cost they can do without.

Seemingly without irony, Jonathan Stolper, VP & Global MD of Nielsen Book, said: “We expect to make the ISBN even more relevant and accessible to the publishing sector. Publishers can take advantage of services designed to increase a book’s discoverability by purchasing a subscription to our Nielsen BookData Enhanced service to add rich content to their book record.

‘Our research proves that rich content increases discoverability and sales. Publishers can also purchase our Book2Look widgets, which are an invaluable digital tool for sharing book content with readers, reviewers and bloggers. This is truly a one-stop-shop for publishers and self- published authors.”

If you really want to, you can check out the Book2Look stuff on Nielsen’s dated website but you’d be much better off signing up for the Author Marketing Club instead as they really do have some useful resources and tools.

In the US, of course, Bowker is the monopoly supplier of ISBNs but they have been catering for the self-publishing crowd for a while now and you can even buy ISBNs online in real time.

The fees, unfortunately, are even more expensive than Nielsens in the UK, at $125 for a single ISBN, $250 for 10 and $575 for 100.

As ever, we must look to the great land of Canada as the shining exemplar of good sense. There, supplying ISBNs is a federal service and is free, that’s right, it’s free. It’s not instant but you seem to generally get next-day service and did I mention it’s free? The catch is you do have to be based in Canada but if you want to find out what a decent ISBN system looks like, then go to ISBN Canada.

In this Age of Disruption, it’s a miracle ISBNs have remained unscathed for so long, although I suppose as around half the market ignores them they have been disrupted in a way.

Who Needs An ISBN?

Draft2Digital offers free ISBNs