This, I absorbed from my recent review of the costs I have accrued in the past three years for my writing and publishing business: Bowker’s existence is a disgrace to American capitalism and along with Bowker, all monopolies should die.
I am talking about this topic now, because I thought it might be nice to change things up instead of doing all the “Mirror and the Palette” episodes in a row.
Bowker operates in the United States of America. Among many other overpriced nonsense products, it also sells ISBNs. Sells, instead of giving them out for free. ISBNs—which stands for International Standard Book Number. Number. Just a simple number that does its existing on its own—as in, without humans needing to create them. Nevertheless, Bowker sells these.
To this, you might say, “Well, Bowker needs to keep itself afloat somehow. It is a business.”
I would agree with you, if the price that Bowker charges for a single ISBN is anything close to fair. In my world, the maximum you could possibly, possibly charge for a single string of number, in a fair manner, is maybe, generously speaking, ten dollars. Okay? Ten dollars. And that’s not because numbers are exspensive, but because Bowker needs to take care of the hosting, the customer service (which it doesn’t really have, but I’m speaking of hypotheticals here), and maybe it just wants to save up. You know, have a financial reserve. Because, indeed, Bowker is a business.
But it isn’t just any business. That is the problem. It is a monopoly. It is the only agency that sells ISBN numbers in the United States.
Thus, at this time, Bowker is able to sell a single ISBN, which is, again, literally a string of numbers, for…
…one hundred and twenty-five dollars.
Yes. You heard that right. One hundred and twenty-five dollars for a single string of numbers.
The existence of a business like this is a disgrace to American capitalism and along with Bowker, all monopolies should die.
This is an example of something that seems to clearly violate the right to free speech in this country. But surprisingly, I’ve heard no one talk about it in that context. The fact that unless you can pay $125 per single number, or unless you’re willing to pay even more for the bulk option, you cannot publish a print book yourself—how does this not violate the right to free speech?
Although you do not necessarily need an ISBN for an ebook, you very much need an ISBN for a print book that is sold at regular stores. This situation means that if I were a political activist who wants to publish a print book and make it available at regular stores, online or offline, I may not be able to, unless I work with a publisher, which may or may not have a favorable contract for me. Thus, the US government’s total indifference to the existence of a monopoly such as Bowker can very well force some people to make decisions that go against free speech. They might have to make edits that they don’t want to make. Or, because they cannot buy a new ISBN for a new edition, maybe they might not be able to make the edits that they want to make. Worst, they might need to wait around to get published instead of publishing.
In America. Of all countries.
Countless voices, silenced because of this ridiculous fee for single strings of numbers. And no, it doesn’t make the situation better that Bowker gives so-called discounts for bulk purchases. I mean, can you really call something a discount when that thing was so overpriced, to begin with? If the price of an apple is a thousand dollars and they pretend to be generous by giving me a ninety-five percent discount, should I be grateful?
This kind of discounting that Bowker does only means that those who have the money are more likely to voice their opinions than those who don’t have the money.
I don’t know how many people, for this very reason, chose not to publish before the era of Amazon.
Yes, I’m talking about the big bad Amazon. Amazon did great wonderful things for writers in the early days. I’m talking about pre-2010. Because of the likes of Bowker, Amazon was such a beautiful option back then.
Just because Amazon is bordering on monopoly now, in many areas including the publishing side, doesn’t mean that it was born that way. More than ten years ago, when the Kindle first appeared in the market, and when Amazon allowed indies to publish without any gatekeepers, it was a revolution.
Before Amazon, there was no realistic way for people to distribute their work or find other people’s work for next to nothing. Maybe some small group of technologically savvy people had a system, but remember that this was around the time when the iPhone first came out. People used to like their Blackberries. And there were others who didn’t think that they’d ever need anything similar to Blackberries at all. This was before the era of social media. Not everyone is at the pinnacle of technology all the time.
And eventually, Amazon added KDP Print. This allowed (and is still allowing) people—who didn’t have the money to buy ISBNs—to sell nationally in the USA. Later on, Amazon added more countries to KDP. Now, many writers in many countries can take advantage of print production and distribution for no upfront fee.
Meaning, this has been saving people printing costs. Can you imagine, being a prolific author and having to print a thousand or more copies of every single book you write? Inevitably, there’s a minimum number of copies that a printer can print while staying profitable. But with POD systems? No such issues.
Yes, the per book profit for the author as well as a POD provider is lower than in a bulk print run, but in return, there’s no need for storage, and also, more importantly, no need to kill trees for nothing. Seriously, publishing is a highly wasteful business, and POD, in my opinion, is a good thing. Unless you’re publishing nonfiction with lots of beautiful high quality images that require special care in the printing process, for regular fiction, POD is a perfectly viable, tree-saving, space-saving, time-saving, cost-saving option.
And I keep using Amazon as an example because it’s the most frequently attacked provider of such services. Barnes and Noble also provides the same services these days, but it’s only in the United States, I believe. Maybe in Canada? But I’m not sure.
And there are some other POD places. Only, all of them are nowhere near as efficient as Amazon. There is a reason Amazon became this huge in publishing. One of the reasons is that, regardless of whether it feels great to admit it or not, Amazon indeed did provide the best service for a while.
So, it’s fascinating when the old gatekeepers now play the victim. I mean, to some extent there was no avoiding gatekeepers in the past, because physical shelf space was and still is limited. But for them to now come along and be like… “Boohoo Amazon destroyed us”?
It’s partly true, but also, because of the limits of the old gatekeepers many writers were destroyed. And Bowker is one example that is somehow still leading its monopolistic existence without any outcries for its complete and utter destruction.
Amazon’s being big and bad and gradually becoming a modern dinosaur doesn’t make the even more ancient dinosaurs any less big and bad.
With all this said, I do not use Amazon for publishing at this time. I am not not using Amazon because it’s big and bad. I stopped using it because it became so bloated and incompetent, just like the more ancient dinosaurs. I wasted a lot of time with Amazon and its inability to provide support staff that speaks English.
By the way, English is the third language I learned. I am not one of the people who believe that everyone in the world should be required to speak English. But if a person has to use English every day, for work, then hiring them despite their lack of English skills doesn’t make the hiring process more PC.
Anyway, the endless back and forth with so-called support staff who contradict each other, or worse, contradict themselves within a single email, has become the norm at Amazon. I just don’t have time for that anymore. And I don’t have to use Amazon.
But, depending on where you are and what you want, Amazon might still be the best option for you. It is entirely possible, sadly, because, I just gave you an example earlier: if you want to do print books and don’t want upfront costs. Amazon’s POD is there.
For me, the biggest deciding factor in anything is time. When Amazon saved my resources, I was happy with it. But it isn’t doing that anymore, and as it becomes bigger and bigger, things seem to be getting worse—because, monopolies. I would say that Amazon isn’t a proper monopoly like Bowker is, because no one is stopping anyone from leaving Amazon or creating an Amazon competitor. But, an entity doesn’t have to be a proper monopoly to take on the characteristic of one.
So, with that, back to the main star of this episode. Bowker.
Bowker, the one agency in the United States of America that is allowed to sell ISBNs, also does not support languages other than the ones that use the Latin alphabet.
So, basically, if you’re any of the many people in the USA who write in a language other than the Latin languages, congratulations, there is absolutely no way for you to put the title of your book in the Bowker system in the correct way, by which I mean, the original title in the original language.
So, for example, for me, when I write Korean stuff or translate into Korean, then I cannot use a Korean title in the Bowker system. I must either make up an English title or I must use the original English title and then in parentheses, put (Korean translation) or (Korean original).
So, for this thing, for Bowker to be the one agency that distributes ISBNs in the US, to not support non-Latin languages like Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Thai, and so on and so forth? This is… this is un-American.
For the record, I paid a thousand and five hundred dollars for a thousand ISBNs several years ago. I didn’t want other people to be the publisher on record. I didn’t want Amazon to look like it has my book or for Barnes and Noble to be the publisher of my book. I did start out using free ISBNs from those sites, but as soon as I’d proven to myself that I was going to write a lot, I bought the bulk ISBNs.
But not everyone can do that, financially. And also, nobody should have to do this. Bowker doesn’t deserve to get my one thousand and five hundred dollars or anybody else’s one thousand and five hundred dollars. In my life, there were many things that cost more than one thousand and five hundred dollars, but none of them were as pointless as a thousand strings of numbers that Bowker did not… make. They didn’t create anything. They don’t need a factory. It’s a fucking number.
Yeah. What a disgrace. Maybe, if more people know about the stupidity of Bowker, it will have died by the time I use up my thousand ISBNs. Gone extinct. Like dinosaurs should.
Or maybe ISBNs themselves will go extinct. It’s so 90s. It doesn’t matter if ISBNs are free or not.
Yeah. I was reviewing my writing and publishing costs and this… this deserved some talking-about. A thousand and five hundred dollars that I could’ve spent on, truly, anything but a bunch of numbers.
Anyway. My number one drive is to save time.
My secondary drive: save other resources, such as money.
My tertiary drive: move away from dinosaurs for ideological reasons.
These are my priorities. So, I will stop talking about Bowker on this podcast hereafter. But it was worth putting it out there. More people should know about the bullshittery of the publishing industry, and then maybe that ridiculous halo of Publishing with a capital P will die.
Yes. I do believe this: some things just have to die to make the world a better place. And monopolies are, in my opinion, a clear example of that which must die.
- The Mirror and the Palette” by Jennifer Higgie: https://www.simonandschuster.com/books/The-Mirror-and-the-Palette/Jennifer-Higgie/9781643138039
Pizza Cato – Ardie Son (licensed through Artlist)
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