Buying Just One ISBN Number or Publishing Too Many Books

I originally posted how to obtain ISBN numbers back in July. It was one of the first subjects I addressed on this self publishing blog and in my book, because as far as the world is concerned, the difference between a publisher and an author is ownership of an ISBN number. During the three month break I took from posting, I got a number of requests from authors asking how they could buy one ISBN number. My stock reply has always been that an ISBN block of 10 numbers only costs around $250, and if you aren’t willing to invest that much in your publishing business, you’re starting out on the wrong foot.

I’m not one of the "publishing experts" who is going to tell you that reviewers study your ISBN number to see what size block you’ve been issued and use that to determine if your book is worthy of reviewing. The reason I’m not going to tell you that is because it’s baloney, nobody examines the hyphen position on ISBN blocks to determine the publisher size. Reviewers have either heard of your publishing company before or they haven’t. My reason for discouraging the purchase of a single ISBN number is that it greatly increases the chance that you’ll be adding profits to Bowker’s bottom line in the future, and I really hate a monopoly.

Bowker doesn’t offer the option to purchase a single ISBN on their website, but some self-publishers have reported that if you write to them or talk to a rep on the phone, they will sell you a single number. The prices I’ve heard vary with rounding, but the last figure I heard was over half the cost of a block of ten numbers. In other words, if you decide to release a hardcover, an easy reading large type edition, a second edition, or another title, you’ve got to go back to the well and buy again. With that very next purchase, even if you only buy one ISBN number, you’re already over the cost of a block of ten. It just strikes me as penny wise and pound foolish.

On the other hand, I have seen a growing phenomena with small publishers who use print-on-demand but who purchased large ISBN blocks and get a little too careless with publishing new books. This can mean publishing books that they don’t really want to invest too much time into, or churning out public domain and out-of-copyright classics on the theory, "What can it hurt?" It can hurt the bottom line of a publishing business to publish too many titles just because it’s not that expensive. I’m not talking about damage to a publisher’s reputation, there aren’t any blacklists for sloppy publishers and it’s a rare customer who checks all the backlist reviews on Amazon before buying a new title.

It hurts the publisher’s bottom line to publish too many books because those inexpensive setup fees add up to something, in the thousands of dollars if you’re talking about dozens of titles. Even more importantly, packaging those titles still takes time, which is time stolen from researching the market for titles with a better chance of success, and marketing those titles already in print. Sometimes I suspect some publishers keep publishing new titles just because they want an excuse not to work at marketing their existing line-up. It’s just easier to keep throwing new ideas at the wall and waiting to see if one sticks – you know – the big trade approach:-)

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