Self-Publishing Basics: Deciphering the Bookland EAN Bar Code

POSTED ON Oct 22, 2009

Joel Friedlander

Written by Joel Friedlander

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Self-publishers know that they must have an ISBN for their book if they want to sell through retail channels like bookstores. The ISBN not only identifies the publisher, the language group of the country the book is published in, and the specific title, it is also used to generate the scannable barcode found on the back cover of almost every book sold in the United States today.

Where Exactly is Bookland?

Although the ISBN is typically printed on the book’s copyright page, it is also printed in scannable form on the back cover of the book. Unlike most retail products in the United States, which use the UPC (Universal Product Code) barcode for product, manufacturer and price information, books use a different symbol, known as the Bookland EAN barcocde.

This same symbol is used for books worldwide, and EAN stands for European Article Number. Because the book industry around the world produces so many new books each year, and each book is a new product needing a unique identifier, it was decided to issue a special prefix just for books, regardless of the country in which they were produced. This, in effect, created a virtual “country” called Bookland. And that’s why we have the rather ungainly name associated with this barcode, the Bookland EAN barcode.

Books Are Products And Need Identification

Because each version of a book is a unique product—the hardcover version of a book might have a different jacket, size, and price than the paperback—each version needs to receive its own ISBN and therefore its own barcode.

The barcode is, in essence, a way to make the ISBN associated with a specific book scannable at the cash register of a store, where the unique identifier will pull the records for that book from the store’s computer and assign the correct title, price and other details to the transaction when you check out.

At one time there were only two versions of a book for sale, if that: hardcover and paperback. With the proliferation of electronic formats for the same book this has become an area of some discussion in the book publishing community.

For instance, at Smashwords, books are available in HTML, Javascript, Kindle, Epub, PDF, RTF, LRF, PDB, and plain text formats. Since these ebook formats do not need to pass through a register in a store, it may well be less important for each edition to bear its own ISBN than in the past. I believe this is an issue that will eventually be formalized so that each format can be accounted for separately, but that’s not what happens today.

Cracking the (Bar) Code

The Bookland EAN barcode is really two barcodes placed next to each other. On the left is a large barcode generated by the book’s ISBN, while on the right, a smaller barcode accommodating only 5 digits that’s usually used to code the retail price of the book. The first digit indicates the currency in which the price is set.

The numeral 5 is used to designate the U.S. dollar, so a string of numbers above the smaller barcode of 51995 indicates that the book is $19.95 in US dollars. When the barcode contains this pricing information, it’s called the Bookland EAN/5. If no price is coded into the barcode, the series 90000 is used instead, and then the barcode is known as a Bookland EAN/9 barcode. Publishers must use either one of these barcode formats since price scanners in bookstores can only read these two formats.

Although many books use the Bookland EAN/5, the /9 is also widely used. In this case, rather than get pricing information directly from the barcode, the electronic cash register retrieves the price along with the other information from the store’s database.

It’s also important that the barcode be printed properly in order to scan well at the register, and this why you’ll often see the barcode on the back of a book in a white box, even if the cover is a different color. A barcode that can’t be scanned isn’t of much use.

Here’s what a typical Bookland EAN/5 looks like:

Bookland EAN/5 barcode

Bookland EAN/5 barcode

One More Word on Barcodes

In an earlier article I wrote about the importance of creating your Advance Review Copies (ARCs) without a barcode, since this would signal pre-publication reviewers that the book was for sale.

This may mean that you will need to find a different vendor for your ARCs. Here’s why: Printers who use digital printing for print-on-demand distribution always put a barcode on the back cover of the book, and another barcode on the last page of the text block. This allows them to use highly automated equipment to match the correct cover with the correct text block.

In this scenario, it would be impossible for the printer to produce your ARCs without a barcode, and you will need a digital printer who is not a print-on-demand supplier.

Rest assured that your book designer will see to all these details, and may even be able to acquire a bar code for your book without charge.

Now, the next time you flip a book over you’ll be able to decipher what looked like gibberish before, and crack the code on the Bookland EAN barcode.

Joel Friedlander

Written by
Joel Friedlander

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