If you look at the back cover of most books, you’ll notice that there’s a barcode. Like most retail products, books are tracked using a barcode. However, as soon you start talking about bar codes you run into a sea of acronyms, which can get confusing. Here are a few definitions to start off:
- ISBN (International Standard Book Number): Any book sold through retail channels like Amazon or Barnes & Noble must have an ISBN. If you ever worked in retail, you may have heard of SKUs, or “stock keeping units.” An ISBN is essentially the universal SKU for the publishing industry. Because so many books are produced every year around the world, retailers need some way to keep track them all. So every book is assigned a unique ISBN. (In the U.S., R.R. Bowker at isbn.org is the official source of ISBNs)
- UPC (Universal Product Code): Most retail products have what’s called a UPC barcode. That’s the barcode on the back of the corn flakes that the checker scans when you buy groceries at the store.
- Bookland EAN (European Article Number): Books have a special barcode that is known as a Bookland EAN barcode. This special book barcode is actually a set of two bar codes that appear next to each other. It includes the ISBN number and (optionally) the price of the book. Just like the checker in the grocery store, booksellers need a machine-readable or scannable version of the ISBN number, so including the Bookland EAN barcode is necessary if you plan to sell your book through retail bookstores.
As you can see, a UPC barcode is not the same thing as a Bookland EAN. Some non-book retailers, such as grocery stores or discount stores, don’t have equipment that can read Bookland EAN barcodes, so they may require a UPC instead. That’s why sometimes you’ll see a UPC sticker that’s been pasted on the top of a Bookland EAN.
In most cases, the Bookland EAN is the barcode you see on the back of books. As a publisher, you have a number of options for getting a Bookland EAN barcode. One simple way to get a barcode is to buy it from R.R. Bowker at http://www.bowkerbarcode.com. (Yes, R.R. Bowker is the same company that sells you ISBNs.) It costs $25 per barcode, but you know that it will be readable.
Alternatively, if you print through Lightning Source (LSI), you can use their cover template generator to create a barcode. I use this approach because it has the advantage of being free. To use it, you need to know how many pages the book is, the ISBN, and (optionally) the price. LSI then emails you a template of your cover, including the barcode. I prefer to receive my templates in Adobe InDesign format because then it’s easy to move the barcode exactly where I want it in my layout. Some other printers will supply a barcode for you if you leave a blank area on the cover for it. Officially, barcodes should be in the lower right hand corner of the back cover, but as you might notice from the books on your shelf, designers often fudge a bit on exactly where it appears.
Another way to create a bar code is to buy special software to do it or use one of the free barcode generators online. One called “Bookland.py” has been around for years. (http://www.tux.org/~milgram/bookland/) Special barcode fonts also exist. However, if you opt for one of these do-it-yourself approaches, take your artwork to a bookstore and make sure they can scan the barcode. After all, putting a barcode on your book doesn’t do anybody any good if it can’t be scanned.