You have undoubtedly seen the barcodes on virtually every product for sale in a retail store. These seemingly random groupings of narrow and wide lines with an array of numbers below are generally referred to as a UPC (Universal Product Code) symbol. However, are you aware that the barcode on the back cover of a book is different than your average UPC symbol? A book uses what’s known as the “Bookland EAN Barcode.”

I’m sure you’re now asking what the difference is between the two. A standard UPC will contain information about the product such as a name or description of the product, the manufacturer, and the price. The Bookland EAN Barcode also contains the ISBN (International Standard Book Number) for the book itself. For more on ISBNs, read A Primer on ISBNs – Part 1 and Quick and Easy Guide for ISBN Assignments – Part 2.

Any book published that is intended for retail sale must have a Bookland EAN barcode. This scannable barcode not only identifies specifics about the book itself, but also assists the retailer with inventory control.

What is a Bookland EAN Barcode?

EAN stands for “European Article Number” and is used worldwide in the book industry. Over 1 million books are published each year in the US alone. Given the worldwide volume, a unique identifier was established as a special prefix just for books, regardless of the country in which they are produced. This, in effect, created a virtual “country” known as Bookland. Now we have this awkward sounding name for a barcode associated with books.

Reading the Bookland EAN Barcode

While a UPC symbol is generally a single set of vertical lines, the EAN version is two separate barcodes placed next to one another. The barcode on the left is a representation of the book’s 13-digit ISBN number. The one on the right, which is usually quite a bit smaller, contains only a 5-digit code which identifies the price and currency for the book.

You will notice in the example above, the 5-digit code on the right is represented by 90000. This indicates no price has been set for this publication and is known as a Bookland EAN/9 barcode. It is used for platforms such as CreateSpace where authors or publishers desire to change the pricing frequently or so that the book can be sold internationally without regard to currency or price. In this case, a retail store’s database would pull the price associated with the book’s ISBN.

Typically, however, the first digit will represent the currency used and then the following 4 digits represent the price. As an example, consider, if instead of 90000, the number 51299 were used. The number 5 represents U.S. dollars as the currency and $12.99 would be the price. This would then be a standard Bookland EAN/5 barcode.

Where to Get Barcodes and How Much They Cost

Barcodes are readily available through a variety of sources. One such source is RR Bowker (MyIdentifiers.com) where you can also get your ISBN. At the time of this writing, Bowker has tiered pricing for barcodes that range from $25 each to as low as $21 when purchased independently from other products. Alternatively, they also offer bundle packages of ISBNs and barcodes at reduced rates depending on how many you buy.

Another option, and my preferred source, is Bar Code Graphics. This Canadian company has over 25 years of experience at delivering quality barcodes at low prices. A quick check reveals codes starting at just $11 each and as low as $6.

Quality Matters

Pricing scanners have come a long way since they began being widely used in the early 1980s. Even still, a poorly printed barcode will cause problems at the register. This is why you will often see the bar code printed inside of a white box on the back of a book. The black barcode contrasts well with the white background regardless of the prevailing color of the cover. Independent authors should be very aware of this when having a book cover created for their latest work.

Regardless of where you source your barcodes, you’ll want to avoid the “free” barcode generators often found online. While the code itself will most likely be legitimate, the image quality is usually very low. And, a bar code that isn’t scannable is of no use.

Update: While we usually don’t recommend the free barcode generators online, we have tested the ones from Tec-It and found them to be of very good quality. Use at your own risk!

Do You Need a Barcode?

Before you drop any money for a bar code, be aware that you may not even need to buy one. This is because author-services companies will usually provide them free of charge to their customers. This is true of Softpress Publishing. We never charge for barcodes. If you use CreateSpace for your print-on-demand distribution, they will provide the barcode for you. This article outlines their newest guidelines: New Createspace Barcode Policy.

Regardless of where you choose to have your book printed, always be aware of the requirements set forth by that particular company. Just as CreateSpace has its own preferred location for the barcode, other platforms will as well, and they will most assuredly differ.

One last thought is you do not need a barcode for anything you do not intend to sell through a retailer.

Does an Advanced Review Copy Need a Barcode?

In the publishing world, an Advanced Review Copy (ARC) is when a book is released for reviews before the actual publication date. The ARCs are often printed without barcodes so reviewers know the book is not yet for sale.

Be aware, however, that most print-on-demand print shops cannot print a book without a barcode. The reason is these digital printing companies always put a barcode on the back cover of the book as well as one on the last page of the text. This allows their highly automated printing equipment to match the cover with the correct book interior. As such, if you wish to publish ARCs, you’ll need to find a print company that is not a print-on-demand supplier.


So, there you have it. Everything you ever wanted to know about barcodes and maybe some things you didn’t. Now, when perusing the shelves at your local bookstore, you’ll instantly be able to flip a book over and understand exactly what you’re looking at. You may even be able to teach the clerk a few things they didn’t know.

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