The Study

Bar Codes, Decoded

Bar codes. We see them all the time; on shampoo bottles, on DVDs, on Fritos bags, on the backs of some hipsters' necks, and, of course, on books. We're so familiar with bar codes that we don't usually pay them much mind. That's probably why bar codes are one of the least-commonly discussed aspects of publishing a book.

But guess what? They're also the source of one of the most common self-publishing mistakes.

Here...let's try something. Take a look at this bar code:

See anything wrong? Looks pretty standard, right? It's got some vertical bars, it's got some numbers. I mean, it basically has it all.


Now look at this bar code:

See anything different? Those five little digits in the upper right corner have changed from 00000 to 51299. It may not be the most dramatic change in the world, but believe me, it's a big one.

Put on your Robert Langdon pants, and let's decode these numbers.

The ISBN at the top of the bar code is, of course, your book's International Standard Book Number, or ISBN. Every book ever published has an ISBN. If you're self-publishing, then either you're buying your own ISBN through Bowker, or the company you use to print and produce your book, like CreateSpace, will assign you one. Whether or not to buy your own ISBN is actually a really important decision, so we'll focus on it in a different blog post in the not-too-distant future. For now, all you need to know is that the ISBN is a number that is not only unique to your book, but to a specific version of your book (paperback vs. ebook, for example; each version gets its own ISBN). 

Now, look at the number below the bar code. See how it starts with 9? And then has 780989? And then 806831? And looks almost exactly like the ISBN on the top, except it doesn't have those fancy dashes? Bingo. The ISBN appears twice; once in the format with the dashes that we're used to seeing, and once in the less-formatted format. (These numbers are actually coded into the bar code through the series of vertical bars above the ISBN. But you probably knew that.)

So! Let's get to the changing mystery numbers in the top right. This is where things get really, really important.

Take a look at the second image. See the 51299? Those numbers represent the price code for this particular book. The last four digits, 1299, represent the sales price in dollars and cents, without a decimal point: $12.99. If you sold your book for $11.95, those last four digits would be 1195. If you sold it for $24.47, those four digits will be 2447. And the 5 at the very front? That's a country code. "5" is the numeric code for the United States. It tells me (or, more specifically, the computer that's scanning the bar code) that the price is listed in U.S. currency. 

However, a great many self-published books will boast a bar code like the first one, with zeroes in the price code instead of an actual price. Print-on-demand (POD) companies like CreateSpace will gladly generate a bar code for your book at no additional charge, which is very nice of them...until you receive your proof and see that they've left the pricing information out of said bar code. Not only does this make your book look a little off, but, more importantly, it means that your book will never be picked up by a distributor, because how can book stores sell a book that rings up as $0 when it's scanned at the register? Pitch a book with a 00000 bar code to a distribution company, and they won't give you a second glance. 

Plus, it's just more professional to add the price code. It's just right.

It's just more dapper.

To ensure that your bar code has the proper price coded into it, you'll need to buy a bar code from Bowker, or from an outside company like Barcode Robot. It doesn't cost much ($10 - $25), and it's well worth the investment. You'll just plug in your ISBN, enter your price, and voila! The bar code appears! At that point, all you need to do is drop the bar code onto your back cover design (or have your designer do it for you, or, heck - send us your back cover design and your bar code, and we'll do it for you for free), and you're ready to go! Once your POD service sees that you already have a properly-formatted bar code on the cover, they'll print your cover as-is. Your bar code will be accurate, your price will be listed, and you'll be ready to face the book-buying world with confidence. 


Clayton SmithComment