The Publishing World's Crusade to Protect Monopolies, Stifle Self-Publishers

If you want to publish a book in print and have it appear in any credible catalogue, you will need an ISBN number – a unique 13-digit code that identifies your book from other books in the marketplace (including different formats of the same book in large print or in another language).

If you are looking for an ISBN number, go no further than R.R. Bowker for all your ISBN needs. Well, actually, you can’t go any further. Bowker is the only company allowed to sell ISBN numbers in the United States. The going rate for an ISBN at Bowker is $125, while the competition sells ISBNs for… wait a minute. There is no competition.

In addition to selling ISBN numbers, Bowker provides a variety of data services, including a yearly (public) report on the number of books published divided into a small list of categories. As is typical with a government-sanctioned monopoly, there is no motivation to produce a meaningful (public) report with useful categories. A pathetic category like home economics appears on the list but not politics. Juvenile literature isn’t even divided up into children’s, middle grade, and young adult. Both computers and technology are on the list separately, while sociology and economics are tallied together.

If you wish to see more detailed categories for books in print, you must buy directories from Grey House Publishing, a partner company and the only publisher allowed to print Bowker’s directories. Since the average person does not want to buy a monopoly-printed directory based on monopoly-gathered data, we’ll look at the report Bowker makes available to the public:

(click on the image to get a clearer picture)

Bowker Statistics

Bowker Book Industry Statistics


The category under the subtotal is most intriguing. Called “Non-Traditional,” it includes all reprints (out-of-print titles and public domain works brought back into print by companies like BiblioBazaar, who released 272,930 such titles in 2009 and 1,461,918 in 2010) and all other print-on-demand books (small publishers and self-publishers). BiblioBazaar is not the only company to make reprints available. General Books bought ISBN numbers for 744,376 titles in 2010. The math is getting tricky here, because we don’t actually know how many books were printed by small publishers or self-publishers. Some clues for the 2010 numbers are the two biggest self-publishing outlets: CreateSpace topped the list with 34,243 and Lulu released 11,127. The two biggest pay-for-publishing companies totaled 19,182.

Now my head is spinning, but what I can glean from these numbers is the following for 2010:

Titles Broken Down Into Categories by Bowker 316,480

Reprints Lumped into the Catch-All Category at least 2,206,294

Small, Print on Demand Publishers (Also Lumped) who knows? – *

Self-Published Titles (Lumped Again) at least 64,552

* Using some rough math, based on the above numbers, the new titles released by small, print on demand publishers could easily match or exceed Bowker’s preferred 300,000.

I can understand why Bowker would want to set aside reprints and public domain works. They are not new titles. But leaving out small publishers and self-publishers, lumping them together with reprints, no less, is a deliberate snub.

Well, they don’t know what categories to put them in, right?

Wrong.

Since every single ISBN number must be purchased from Bowker, and Bowker asks for a list of detailed information including book format, number of pages, and category, it should be no problem to include these new titles.

But they don’t.

The only plausible answer as to why they don’t is that Bowker is attempting to keep the riffraff segregated, hoping to contain them. The publishing industry is trying to enforce wistful fantasies that we will return to the period when readers lovingly accepted only that which the industry thought the people should be allowed to read.

One of the arguments for the inevitable demise of the self-publishing trend is that when people tire of “first draft” books they will return to the days when an industry carefully selected and presented titles deemed appropriate for the masses to consume. The reality is that well-written and well-marketed books will work their way to the top, and when people enjoy a book, they don’t care who published it.

Frightening!

Readers now have access to books that may contain politically incorrect material and improper thoughts. Who knows what horrors will be unleashed – public demonstrations, criticism of the government, intolerable flashes of dissent across the country!

It’s mayhem and someone needs to get things under control. Enter government-sanctioned monopoly…

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