Tuesday 19 November 2013

ISBNs Close the Book on Developing Writers

The 10 best contemporary African books – 2012

[UPDATE May 2015: Rwanda now has an ISBN agent!]

I've been helping out my friend Firmin recently. Back in 2009, whilst working in Rwanda, I assisted in training his organisation's Board of Trustees, and a couple of funding volunteers. The organisation drifted a little as many of the volunteers graduated from university and moved away. Now he's back in Kigali, and we're working on a website for Kivu Writers.

Kivu Writers was founded in 2000, and remains the only dedicated creative writing non-profit organisation in Rwanda.

Our goal is to develop a written literary culture across the country, and to raise awareness of the potential of creative writing to engage people on issues such as HIV/AIDS, gender equity, human rights and social tolerance.

I'm going to be talking about them a bit at Folkestone Book Festival this Saturday. The difference between having a good literacy rate and an actual literary culture is quite a distance. Maybe I'll blog about it too at some point.

One of the things I was reading whilst looking for information to add to the site, was this:

In case the link goes down, the basic argument is that International Standard Book Numbers (ISBNs) are preventing authors in developing countries from getting their books to the international market. An ISBN is a unique referencing system invented c.1970 and administered by RR Bowker in the US and Nielsen in the UK. Australia, Canada, India and Pakistan also have their own issuing agencies. 

The reason you need an ISBN number is:

If you are selling your book on your own, you are not required to have an ISBN. If you want to sell your book in bookstores, place it with distributors and wholesalers, and put it in libraries, you are required to have an ISBN on your book.

Prices range from around $125 for a single ISBN in the USA to just under £130 for a job lot of ten in the UK (where you can't purchase them individually). Whereas there is no legal obligation to purchase one, you'll have a seriously hard time trying to distribute or sell your book through major suppliers without one.

Even if it weren't incredibly difficult for small publishers outside the aforementioned countries to source ISBN numbers, very few of them could afford to purchase them.

Thus, their books are at a serious disadvantage in the world market.

As one comment on the article states: when the world is moving to digital books, why keep the ISBN system? And if Europe insists on keeping the system at the expense of other countries, why don't other countries invent their own systems? 

Just because a system is developed in Europe does not mean it's good for us or is needed.

Quite. Amazon already issue an ASIN number of their own for ebooks, free of charge, to help keep track of sales and distribution.

I don't think anyone really wants to see more systems developed, as that would end in bureaucracy (even more than we already have), and I don't think anyone really objects to a system of monitoring book sales and distribution. The problem is that this is a global monitoring system that is not globally available, excluding publishers and authors in many countries, and it is also a monopoly market where the designated distributor in each country gets to set the price. 

Time for a re-think.

[Update: A good article from Rwanda here. Also a good article explaining exactly what an ISBN is.]


  1. To quote the above article "Kivu Writers Organization drifted a little as many of the volunteers graduated from university and moved away". I like the statement. However, we are still determined to make it an organization with a record of achievements; with your help, we will. Kivu writers recognizes the great input of Marion; still helping Kivu Writers.

  2. Thank you! And absolutely. I'm really excited for the future. You achieved so much with so many young people, and hopefully our organisations can take this forward to another level. Really looking forward to everything we can achieve through working together.

  3. Quick update - Rwanda now has its first ISBN agent: http://deckledged.blogspot.com/2015/06/rwanda-gains-isbn-agent.html