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article imageOp-Ed: The great ISBN rip off

By Alexander Baron     Oct 6, 2013 in Business
Publishing a book used to be an expensive business; today anyone can publish one on a shoestring, but there is a sting in the tail. Back in the late 1980s I went into publishing in a very small way.
I wasn't publishing books at that point, but I figured that even a modest poetry anthology deserved proper distribution, so I looked into registering an ISBN. I knew next to nothing about publishing, but I realised that without one distribution in any meaningful sense would be impossible. As far as I can recall at a distance of more than two decades, I was told by Whitaker that I could have one ISBN free, and that after that I would have to buy a minimum of ten. I did this, and then purchased two separate sets of 100 for around £8.50 plus VAT.
In the UK, ISBNs are now controlled by Nielsen; recently I was contacted by a small publisher about a technical issue. I couldn't answer his query off the cuff, but while researching the answer I found out that there are no freebies anymore, and that the cost of a block of 10 is now a staggering £126.00.
US prices shape up no better at $250.00 for 10. The exchange rate is currently around 62p to the dollar.
When I say there are no freebies anymore, that is not strictly true. An ISBN is not a legal requirement; it used to be that if you published a book or pamphlet - a one off - without an ISBN, and the issuing agency found out about it, it would assign it a number regardless. This is not practical though for regular, even small publishers.
This is not something that affects me anymore as all but a tiny fraction of my work is on-line, and it all goes on-line sooner or later.
What though is going on? What we have here is if not a monopoly then a cartel, albeit an unofficial one. I contacted the Competition Commission who referred me to the Office of Fair Trading, whose response was not helpful. So what is to be done? As Murray Rothbard pointed out in his classic 1984 speech on the Federal Reserve, the only way a monopoly can be preserved is by legislation. There is clearly no legislation here, so there is just as clearly an opening in the market which could be filled by some entrepreneur in India perhaps with its multi-lingual billion strong population, or even by the mighty Google!
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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