POST SCRIPTUM: What is an ISBN and a Barcode?


The International Standard Book Number (ISBN) is a 13-digit number that uniquely identifies books and book-like products, such as audiobooks.

The purpose of the ISBN is to establish and identify one title or edition of a title from one specific publisher and is unique to that edition, allowing for more efficient marketing of products by booksellers, libraries, universities, wholesalers and distributors.

The five parts of an ISBN are as follows:

  1. The current ISBN-13 will be prefixed by “978”;
  2. Group or country identifier which identifies a national or geographic grouping of publishers;
  3. Publisher identifier which identifies a particular publisher within a group;
  4. Title identifier which identifies a particular title or edition of a title;
  5. Check digit is the single digit at the end of the ISBN which validates the ISBN.

Where does an ISBN get placed on a book?

An ISBN gets placed on the copyright page and, if there is no bar code, on the back cover.

What is the difference between a bar code and an ISBN?

An ISBN is a number. A bar code is the graphic with vertical lines that encodes numerical information for scanning purposes. An ISBN and a bar code are two different things.

Does it matter where a book is printed?

No, books can be printed anywhere. ISBNs are assigned based on the geographical location of the publisher, not the printing company.

Are different ISBNs used if a book appears in different languages?

Yes. Each language version is a different product.

If more than one publisher or self-publisher is publishing a book, whose ISBN goes on the book?

The publisher handling order fulfillment places their ISBN on the book. However, both publishers are entitled to put their ISBNs on the book in the case of a jointly published publication.

If I’m using a print-on-demand company (POD), who’s ISBN goes on my book?

Whoever is to be identified as the publisher obtains the ISBN. In most cases, the POD is the publisher and puts their ISBN on the book. In very rare cases, due to the contractual arrangements between the POD and the self-publisher, the self-publisher is the publisher. Most of the time, the POD is the publisher because the POD fulfills orders.


What are Bookland EAN Barcodes? While most retail products in the US are marked with a UPC symbol, virtually every other country uses the European Article Number (EAN). To provide world wide standardization in the sale and handling of books and because the book industry produces so many products annually, a special “country” with its own EAN prefix just for books has been designated in the EAN system — 978 for “Bookland” — which is used in the universal barcode system. Any EAN which begins with the 978 prefix is called a Bookland EAN barcode and is used on books and book related products internationally. This 978 prefix precedes the first 9 digits of the ISBN and then a new check digit is calculated in order to form a 13-digit number which is then encoded to create the barcode symbol used on books. As part of the barcode service, our software assigns the 978 prefix and the new check digit to create the new 13-digit number.

Is the ISBN always printed above the barcode symbol? Yes. Positioning it somewhere separately from the symbol requires a scanner operator to search for the ISBN in those situations where key-entry is necessary and valuable seconds are lost in the transaction. The file we prepare from our software will include the ISBN.

What is the price-add on? The Bookland EAN barcode displays a set of two barcodes side by side. The first barcode on the left is the EAN derived from the ISBN. The barcode of the right, which is smaller, is a 5-digit add-on which often encodes the retail price of the publication. This is referred to as an EAN-5.

You must provide a retail price for your barcode.

In the US, the first digit of the add-on data indicates which currency the price is expressed in — so for US dollars, the designated digit is a 5. So an add-on of 51995 indicates a price of US$ 19.95. However, the largest US retailers such as Barnes and Noble now require the use of EAN-5 barcode on books they handle. Scanners in American bookstores cannot read the Bookland EAN code without the corresponding 5-digit add-on. Publishers who don’t comply with this requirement may be penalized.

What happens if I change the book’s price after the barcode is made? You must purchase a new barcode. Once a barcode is made, the price on it cannot be changed. You would use the same ISBN on the new barcode because the book itself hasn’t changed.

Does the barcode have to appear on the back cover? Yes. The standard location is the bottom right-hand corner. A major motivation for the development of barcodes for books was the need to speed up transactions. A standard location is therefore necessary to save the operator’s time in searching the product for the code. 

What is meant by Size Requirement? The magnification can range from 80% to 200% for a Bookland EAN code. The largest size used is typically a 100% code, although 92% is standard. The standard 92% symbol needs a total area of 2.00″ x 1.25″. The smaller ISBN Bookland EAN symbol is an 80%, which needs a total area of 1.75″ x 1.0″.

How do I apply barcodes to cloth cover books that don’t have jackets? A barcode label must be applied to the back board in the specified location. These can be produced by specialist barcode label printers, by litho from artwork, from a barcode label software package with laser, or thermal transfer output.

Can I trim the barcode symbol on the right to save space on the cover? No. The purpose of the mark is to ensure that space is not used by any image in a color which could interfere with the barcode scanning process. A space to the right of the symbol is required to tell the scanner that the symbol is complete. The clear area to the left is already protected by the protruding ‘9’ prefix to the EAN.

What colors can I use for the barcode symbol? Reds, yellows, and white are suitable background colors if there are no black, blue or green constituents. Blues and greens, provided they are not too pale, and black are good colors for the image Browns and purples, etc, need special attention however as those with a reddish hue will probably not be successful. If in doubt, seek specialist advice or run a print test. Avoid metallic inks.

How is a barcode file opened? Please do not try to open a barcode file. barcode files are inserted, not opened. Do NOT doubleclick on the barcode to begin working with it. Open the book cover file and insert the barcode file from the tool bar as you would a picture file. The barcode file will automatically open at the correct size. Do not try to open the barcode file first and then attempt to move into the graphic design application you are using. 

What are some common commands?

  • Adobe Illustrator: File, Place. Locate the barcode file and select Place
  • Adobe PageMaker: File, Place.
  • Adobe Photoshop: File, Import
  • Microsoft Publisher: Insert, Picture, From File.
  • Microsoft Word: Insert, Picture, From File.
  • Quark Express: Create a Picture Box, go to File, and select Get Picture.
  • In Design: Click File menu and select Place. Locate the barcode file and click Open.
  • Freehand: Click the File menu and select Import. Locate the barcode file and click Open.

Why does the barcode look badly? There can be several reasons for this. If the barcode looks fuzzy on screen, please remember that most computer screens have a resolution of either 72 or 96 DPI. What matters is how the barcode will print out. DPI is a property of the printer and the printer’s software and not the graphic design program you are using.

Not knowing how to work your graphics application properly is the biggest reason why designers and self-publishers struggle with their barcode files, and frequently have problems with barcodes looking blurry or having lines crossing through them. Unfortunately, there’s not just one reason for this.

In some software applications, when a barcode file is imported, the dpi is automatically changed to the screen dpi (72 dpi) instead of maintaining the original dpi of the file (ex., 300 dpi or higher). You will need to reset the dpi of the barcode file. When you import an eps file into Photoshop, the file is changed, the dpi is lost, the size is lost, and the image opens on a transparent background (you need to place it on a white background), among other problems.

Other potential problems include “anti-aliasing” during the conversion of the encapsulated postscript to an image and the “jpeg” compression that will generally occur in PDF creation. These can damage your barcode and make it scan with errors when printed. Jagged steps on the numbers of the barcode are due to the lack of “anti-aliasing,” a technique for using shades of gray on slants and curves to make the edges seem more smooth to the eye. Do not use grayscale. Import as black and white. Importing as black and white might in fact be better for some applications.

Many applications do not provide an accurate preview of barcode graphics. Instead determine the quality of the image ONLY by the actual printout of your barcode. Never judge your barcode from the onscreen preview.

All content for this entry from and