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I have a minor dilemma.  I think I have it figured out, but wanted to pass it by my readers to get some other opinions before taking the plunge.

I am going to publish my Greenville book through Cafe Press.  In the book publishing business, the majority of books are assigned an ISBN – International Standard Book Number.  This number, which is unique to each book, helps the publishing industry in distributing and tracking books.  It’s critical for bookstores and online book retailers for ordering and inventory purposes.  Each edition (hard cover, soft cover, later editions) of a book gets its own number, so book people can tell the editions apart.

The ISBN also serves to identify the publisher of each book.  Book publishers buy blocks of ISBNs to assign to the books they publish.  A publisher can purchase as few as ten ISBNs or up to 1,000.  (Oops, just checked the website and it appears that a publisher can now buy one ISBN at a time.  Online publishing must have driven that change.)  There is only one company in the United States that sells ISBNs – R. R. Bowker.  To get ISBNs in other countries, over 160 other businesses have been given exclusive rights to sell ISBNs in their geographic locations.

The cost of 10 ISBNs is $275. One hundred ISBNs go for $995 and 1,000 ISBNs cost $1,750.  As you can see, it behooves a publisher to purchase more ISBNs at a time because of the great cost savings, however, R. R. Bowker recommends only purchasing the amount of ISBNs a publisher plans to use within the next 5 years.  Obviously, I’m not going to be publishing 1,000 books within the next 5 years, nor can I spit out 100 books in that amount of time, so my option is to buy a block of 10.  (Forget one at a time.  It costs $125, which is not cost-effective no matter how you slice it.  Well, okay, I guess it’s cost effective if you only plan to write one tome in your lifetime, but still.)

In addition to buying ISBNs, a publisher must also purchase bar codes to have printed on the backs of books so the purchase price can be scanned by booksellers.  Bowker sells each bar code for $25.  By the time one starts adding up the costs associated with assigning an ISBN to a book, the whole thing looks pretty daunting for a self-publisher.  As an unknown author without the distribution power of a major publisher, I’m realistic about my chances for success in this venture.  Lots of really fine books languish in obscurity through lack of distribution.  Because I’m publishing Greenville as a print-on-demand book through Cafe Press, how likely is it that other retailers will pick it up?  I read an article about Amazon not wanting to handle print-on-demand books from other suppliers because it wants writers to use its print-on-demand services, so that avenue looks to be out.

So, then, if I’ve chosen a limited venue for selling my books, is it worth the expense to purchase ISBNs, along with the requisite bar codes?

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