Lately I’ve been discussing ISBNs and barcodes with my publisher, Sally Evans. Let’s start with barcodes. Each product – no matter what – can be assigned a unique 13-digit numerical code, which is interpreted by software as the familiar sequence of thick and thin bands on a label. ISBNs were introduced many years back as an 11-digit number uniquely identifying each book. Actually it’s a 10-digit number with a final check digit. Converting ISBNs to barcode numbers is relatively easy. 978 is the code for all books, followed by the ISBN minus the check digit, and a new check digit can be calculated manually using a complicated algorithm, or by using the calculator on the website www.gs1uk.org.uk. Putting barcodes on book covers is a straightforward job for printers, who should have the relevant software. Or you could find a printer who has the software and will print labels for you to add later. So Sushi & Chips has the barcode number 9780946230815. What that looks like as a sequence of bars I have no idea, and no intention of finding out. I’m not going to take it any further, for reasons I’ll explain.
Are barcodes and ISBNs essential? If it’s intended that the book should be sold in bookshops and/or commercial outlets, then you might go for both, but at least an ISBN. (If you’re a big operation you’ll need both.) If you want your book listed on Amazon or other online book information providers/sellers, then you definitely need an ISBN, but not necessarily a barcode. If your only intention is to sell direct, at readings, talks, or through your own or other websites, then you probably don’t need either. ISBNs don’t affect your copyright or legal status as author or publisher. And these days they’re damned expensive.
When I started the Calder Wood Press imprint, you could apply to the UK ISBN Agency, then Whitakers, and you’d get a block of ISBNs free. You could pay for a full list of your numbers, but actually the algorithm for calculating ISBNs is not difficult to work out, and many didn’t bother. Today it costs £94 for a block of 10 numbers, which adds considerably to the cost of short run publications in particular.
Those considering self-publication should consider these points carefully before they rush into acquiring ISBNs and barcodes. Barcodes are fine for supermarkets, but until Tesco and Asda start selling poetry books and pamphlets (and how likely is that?) it’s probably just not worth it.