The Madness of Bowker’s My Identifiers

There’s quite a bit that’s annoying me of late and that probably won’t surprise anyone.  Hell, my wife refers to me as Eeyore.  But as the publisher of a small press (, I have to say that the folks at Bowker and are pretty damn high on my list right now.  And, no, that’s not the list of people I’d like buy a drink for.

For those not in the know, is where small publishers and self-publishers (or “indie publishers,” as many now call them) go to buy their ISBNs, which are those long numbers you find on the backs or spines of books.  They are the Social Security numbers of books, I guess, a unique identifier for every edition.  And they are expensive!  A single one is $125.  Buy ten for only $295.  I bought 100 for $575.

Now, buying an ISBN is easy, but filling in the assignment forms is not.  For starters, the website is abysmally slow and it looks like it was designed by someone who grew up building interfaces for DOS computers.  Seriously, the actual forms and their design is ugly. And the way they function is ugly, too.

It includes drop-down lists that you can’t skip through by physically entering the number, e.g., you have to scroll through all of the 1900s to get to 2014.  And date fields that are separated into month day and year, so you have to use the drop-down list to get to all three individually.  Want to manually enter the date?  Fuggedaboutit! is the perfect example of a monopoly in action.  You see, Bowker is the only source for ISBNs in the United States, which means every publisher and author has to do business with it.  I’m sure the major publishers don’t work with My Identifiers but they still have to work with Bowker.  So why would Bowker invest in making the site work better?  It doesn’t have to!

As a small publisher, I work with a lot of outlets, including CreateSpace, Lightning Source, ePubDirect, Google, Kobo, Nook, and other sites.  Some of these sites will take a spreadsheet and import it.  It is an automated process.  Others may also or instead take an ONIX file, which is a specific type of data file used in the book business.  And Bowker, technically, can take either one, but they won’t.

You see, Bowker requires small publishers such as mine to use their clunky, crappy My Identifiers website to update information.  If I published over 100 titles per year, I could send a spreadsheet.  If I were to send an ONIX file, Bowker would take it and import it, but only once per year:

If he is going to be producing ONIX then we would take the file but only load it once a year since he has 40 titles.  He would be able to make any changes in prices or anything else through MYID.

But, as stated, sucks.  Yes, that’s the only word for it.  Dating websites from the ’90s looked and functioned better.  Here’s a company will a full monopoly, but it can’t put in the money to have a site that looks and operates better than  How about  Pathetic.

Now the thing I’ve yet to mention is that whatever you put into My Identifiers is what becomes listed in Books in Print. Anyone under forty probably doesn’t remember Books in Print.  These were large volumes that you would find in any bookstore, publishing house, or library and literally listed every book in print, its publisher, ISBN, etc.  They were essential.  But they were also essentially made redundant by Amazon, which became the absolute go-to database to determine anything you wanted to know about any book in print.

Still, for actual bookstores that order books, the Bowker database is important and you do want accurate data in there.  But even that is near impossible if you use My Identifiers.  The “help” information is hard to understand or missing.  Lets take a look at some of it:

On the first page, there are fields for title, sub-title, description, etc.  All easy enough.  It tells you the description has to be 350 words max, but it does not count the words for you.  Twitter gives me a running total of characters, WordPress gives me a running total of words, but MyID, with a requirement of only 350 words, cannot.  Seriously?

Also unclear is whether or not the field takes HTML codes.  Now, if you go to Bookwire, you can see how data put into Bowker’s database appears.  Based on the way things appear here, the answer is apparently no. But it would be nice if they specified.  And it would be nice if it did take HTML.  After all, every publisher is selling books online and using HTML in book descriptions makes them more attractive and easier to read.

Next, they ask for an “original publication date.” I have actually been told that this is (1) the date the edition is first published by me as the publisher and (2) the date it was first ever published by any publisher.  Consider what that means with reissues:  Is the pub date 2014 or 1955?  Your guess is as good as mine.

“Language” is self-explanatory, but wouldn’t it make sense for the sole keeper of US ISBNs to put “English” at the top of the list?  They do not and so you get to scrooooollllllllll down to find it.  You can’t even just hit “E” to get to that part of the list.

There is also a field for an LCCN, which is another trip through the tulips of confusion.  What is an LCCN?  Per Google, “The Library of Congress Control Number (LCCN) is a unique identification number that the Library of Congress assigns to titles that it is likely to acquire.”  Actually, when you get the LCCN, you agree to send them “a complimentary copy of the best edition of the book immediately.  The preassignment of an LCCN does not guarantee that the Library will catalog the title to which it has been preassigned. Upon receipt, however, your complimentary copy will be reviewed by the Library’s selection officers.”

Why bother? you might ask.  Do you want libraries to buy your book?  Librarians use the LCCN to access the associated bibliographic record in the Library of Congress’s database or to obtain information on various book titles in other databases.

The contributor page is pretty self-explanatory, but I presume the the biography field will not accept HTML.

Now you are in format and size.  Enjoy!

There are dozens of format, packaging, cataloging, and other details on this page.  You will likely be shocked that so many options exist and many will make no sense to you whatsoever.  I mean, I know what a “US Open Market edition” is (I think), but most self-publishers will not.  (It’s either an edition published by a US publisher for sale in the Open Market, e.g., Europe, or it’s an edition by a UK publisher for sale in the US when the US is considered an Open Market [which is almost never, so I bet the first]).

Also, note the level of detail. It wants the number of pages.  Seems simple, right?  But hover over the help icon and you learn you should not count front matter or index pages!

Filling in all of these forms is, I’m sure, important if you are publishing hundreds or thousands of books and want all of this information available should, say, a big distributor want it.  As a small press publisher, I’ve never touched any of them.

Next we get to the sales and pricing page.  Bowker allows you to set prices in several territories.  Interestingly, the only Euro country listed is Spain.  Now, here, again, are a lot of drop-down lists that you must go through one-by-one until you want to scream.  Sure, they could have a date field you could copy and paste into.  They could have an option to use the same pub date for all territories and save you a headache.  They could have a template that you could prefill and apply to new titles.  They could . . . but they do not.

Now, Bowker does have a cloning feature, where you can take an existing ISBN and clone the information to another ISBN, which could be good if you are doing, say, an eBook and print edition of the same book.  But so much of the info is different in two such editions that I’m not sure it makes sense to bother.  If you have a lot of eBooks at the same price, I guess you could clone one for another, but you’d still have a ton of editing to do.

Again, this page contains myriad fields, most of which will feel like Greek.  Thankfully, there are help indicators telling you can ignore certain fields if you are self-publishing.  I’m not, but I still ignore those.

So, what’s the bottom line?  I didn’t want to go into therapy, so I wrote this blog?  No.  The bottom line is that Bowker should be ashamed of the technological backwater that is and needs to do more to make this site both understandable to small and independent publishers, but also make the process of adding and updating information easier.

I asked Bowker via email for a complete export of all of the data I had put into My Identifiers, hoping to edit it and reload.  This is the sort of thing I can do myself on Google Play without talking to anyone.  I got back an email from Bowker offering to do it, but at a cost of $25.  W . . . T . . . F?

Bowker also charges for bar codes that you need to put on your covers to sell your books, which is sort of like charging you for salt water from the ocean.  There are many free sites to get such things.  And it offers bookselling widgets and self-publishing services on the same site that it practices its monopoly over the issuing of ISBNs in the United States.  If this isn’t legally wrong, it’s certainly ethically wrong, I think.  And why would any author want to use Bowker’s self-publishing services?  One look at their website says they are caught in the ’90s, if not earlier.  They probably still set type in hot lead!

I will end my rant here and simply mention that if you feel as I do that Bowker should be putting a lot more effort into, feel free to email them at  Or just forward this blog.  I think they’ll get the message.


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