Book barcode: A complete guide for self-publishing authors

A book barcode is a graphical representation of a unique identifier assigned to a book. This identifier is typically known as the International Standard Book Number (ISBN). The barcode allows for quick and accurate tracking of books in the retail and distribution process. It is usually located at the bottom of the back cover of a book.

Book barcodes are important in the traditional book retail settings and digital distribution. Self-publishing authors face many options when it comes to sourcing a book barcode. From established platforms like Amazon KDP and Lulu to free barcode generators, authors now have the flexibility to choose the approach that aligns with their publishing strategy

This blog post explains everything self-publishing authors need to know about book barcodes, exploring their functions, components and the advantages of incorporating book prices into the barcode design.

What is the function of a book barcode?

The primary purpose of a book barcode is to serve as a unique identifier for a specific book, allowing for efficient and accurate tracking throughout the book supply chain. More broadly, book barcodes play a crucial role in improving the accuracy, efficiency and effectiveness of various processes within the book industry, from publishing and distribution to retail and library management.

Here are the key purposes:

  • Inventory management: Barcodes streamline the tracking and management of book inventory. Bookstores, libraries and distributors use barcodes to quickly and accurately identify, catalogue and manage their stock.
  • Sales: Book barcodes facilitate quick and error-free transactions at the point of sale. When a seller scans a book at the checkout counter, the barcode provides instant access to the book’s information, ensuring a smooth and efficient sales process.
  • Distribution: Barcodes are crucial for the distribution process. They enable warehouses and distribution centres to track and move books efficiently, reducing errors and improving overall logistics.
  • Book identification: The ISBN embedded in the barcode provides a standardised and internationally recognised identifier for each edition of a book.
  • Data accuracy: Barcodes minimise manual data entry errors, as the information associated with the ISBN is electronically retrieved from a database.
  • Supply chain efficiency: Book barcodes contribute to the overall efficiency of the book supply chain. They enable publishers, distributors and retailers to manage the flow of books from production to consumption more effectively.

What elements make up a book barcode?

The book barcode consists of black vertical lines of varying widths and accompanying numbers at the bottom. The combination of these lines and numbers represents the ISBN, which is unique to each edition of a book. When a seller scans the barcode at a point of sale or during inventory management, a barcode scanner reads the barcode and helps retrieve the associated ISBN from a database.

Anatomy of a book barcode, which includes quite zones, barcode characters, start and stop characters and a check digit.
Components of a book barcode. Source:

Main elements of a barcode

  • Start and stop characters: Book barcodes begin and end with special characters called start and stop characters. These characters indicate the beginning and end of the barcode, helping the barcode scanner recognise the boundaries of the code.
  • Quiet zones: Quiet zones are clear spaces located on either side of the barcode symbol. These spaces are essential for ensuring that the barcode scanner can accurately distinguish the barcode from its surroundings, helping prevent misreads or errors.
  • Barcode symbology: The choice of barcode symbology or type determines the format and structure of the barcode. In the book industry, EAN-13 (European Article Number) and UPC-A (Universal Product Code) are commonly used. EAN-13 encodes 13 digits, including the ISBN, while UPC-A encodes 12 digits, often with a leading ‘0’ added to the ISBN.
  • Guard bars: Guard bars are additional bars located at the barcode’s beginning, middle and end. They assist the barcode scanner in identifying these sections, enhancing accuracy.
  • Check digit: The check digit is a calculated digit included in the barcode to ensure data accuracy. It is derived from the other digits in the ISBN through a specific algorithm. When the barcode is scanned, the system uses the check digit to verify the accuracy of the scanned data.
  • Human-readable numbers: Beneath the barcode, the human-readable form of the ISBN is often printed. This allows individuals to manually enter the ISBN if needed and provides a visual confirmation of the encoded data.
  • Global trade item number (GTIN): The ISBN is part of the GTIN system. GTIN includes various barcode standards used globally for identifying trade items, with EAN-13 and UPC-A being subsets of the GTIN.
  • Book price: Some barcodes include the book price as part of the encoded information to streamline the point-of-sale process and provide additional convenience for retailers and customers.

What are the advantages of adding the book price to the barcode?

The decision to include pricing information in a barcode depends on the preferences and needs of publishers, distributors and retailers. Barcodes without prices are still widely used, but adding the price to a book barcode has some advantages:

  • Faster checkout: Including the book price in the barcode allows for a quicker and more automated checkout process. For instance, when the shop assistant scans the barcode at the point of sale, the system can instantly retrieve the price information associated with the book, eliminating the need for manual price entry.
  • Reduced errors: Automated price retrieval from the barcode helps reduce the risk of errors related to manual price entry. This contributes to more accurate transactions and minimises discrepancies between the labelled price and the actual price in the system.
  • Efficient pricing updates: For books with variable pricing or frequent price changes, embedding the price in the barcode streamlines the process of updating prices in the system. Thus, retailers can easily update the central database. Likewise, the barcode will automatically reflect the changes.
  • Promotions and discounts: Including the price in the barcode allows for seamless implementation of promotions, discounts or sales. Therefore, the system can automatically apply the correct discounted price when scanning the barcode during a promotional period.
  • Convenience for customers: Customers benefit from including prices in barcodes by having a clear and consistent pricing experience. They can quickly verify the price of a book by checking the barcode, promoting transparency in pricing.

How to get a barcode for your book?

Getting a barcode for your book is a crucial step in the publishing process, as it facilitates book sales. Several options are available, ranging from paid services to free, unaffiliated barcode generators.

One popular avenue is obtaining a barcode through the official ISBN issuers, like Bowker or the Nielsen ISBN Store (the official ISBN issuers in the US and the UK, respectively). Authors and publishers can purchase ISBNs directly from these online stores, and each ISBN comes with a unique barcode. Although their barcodes are a paid option, they offer a professional and widely recognised solution. For instance, Nielsen sells one barcode for £15, and they offer 10 barcodes for £80. Bowker sells one barcode for $25.

Print-on-demand (POD) services, such as Amazon KDPIngram Spark and Lulu, also provide barcode options for authors. When you publish through these platforms, they automatically generate a barcode for your book as part of the publishing process. While this service might be included in the overall cost of publishing with the platform, it is essential to check the terms and conditions to understand potential fees or restrictions. For instance, books with the POD’s own identifiers equivalent to ISBN are mostly limited to sales on these platforms.

Finally, free barcode generators are available online for those on a tight budget. These generators allow you to create a barcode with your own ISBN. However, it may be worth checking their reviews to ensure their barcodes are functional. Here are some free barcode providers:

Beyond the barcode: Other aspects of self-publishing a book 

Navigating the complexities of book barcodes represents just one aspect of the self-publishing journey. This comprehensive guide explored everything self-publishing authors need to know about obtaining a barcode, its functions, components and the potential advantages of incorporating book prices. In addition to addressing these key aspects, it is essential to recognise the broader context of self-publishing. As authors seek solutions for their publishing needs, a crucial consideration is the availability of specialised editing services. Professional editing services play a significant role in refining manuscripts, ensuring the overall quality and impact of the literary work. Professional editing services include:

  1. Developmental editing refines your manuscript’s overall structure, coherence and narrative flow, ensuring a strong foundation for your story or content.
  2. Copyediting focuses on grammar, syntax and style, ensuring clarity, consistency and adherence to language conventions throughout your text.
  3. Line editing fine-tunes the language at a sentence and paragraph level, enhancing the prose, improving pacing and addressing issues related to tone and voice.
  4. Proofreading identifies and corrects spelling, grammar and punctuation errors, providing a final quality check before publication.
  5. Indexing creates a comprehensive and organised index for non-fiction works, enhancing the usability and accessibility of your book’s content for readers and researchers alike.

Final thoughts

In conclusion, understanding the nuances of book barcodes is just one step in the intricate dance of self-publishing. As authors navigate the expansive realm of options — from choosing the right barcode to refining the manuscript through professional editing services — it becomes evident that successful self-publishing requires a harmonious blend of precision, creativity and attention to detail.

I am an experienced editor working with non-fiction, academic and business books. If you need a second pair of eyes proofreading and editing your manuscript, contact me for a free sample edit (and remember to use my early bird discount).

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I am an editor, indexer and a lifelong lover of literature with a PhD in literary history. I am an Intermediate Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading, a student member of the Society of Indexers and a vetted partner of the Alliance of Independent Authors.