Thursday, August 06, 2009

The Secret Code of the ISBN

One of the questions I was asked at the Mendocino Coast Writer's Conference was, "What is an ISBN?" There was a great deal of discussion about what that weird bar code on the back of each book means and when a book needs to have one. Not all books do, but if you want to sell a book through a retail outlet, you need one.

Authors don't really need to know what the numbers in the bar code mean (unless their book nerds like me), but every publisher does. The bar code is like the symbol ranchers use to mark their cattle. Every Bar-S ranch cow will have the Bar-S ranch brand. Every Medusa's Muse book will have the numbers 9797152 in their bar code. No other publisher can use those numbers. They are mine, telling stores that the book is a Medusa's Muse book.

Stores use a bar code system to track a books via the book's ISBN. What is a bar code?

From Wikipedia:

A barcode (also bar code) is an optical machine-readable representation of data. Originally, bar codes represented data in the widths (lines) and the spacings of parallel lines, and may be referred to as linear or 1D (1 dimensional) barcodes or symbologies. They also come in patterns of squares, dots, hexagons and other geometric patterns within images termed 2D (2 dimensional) matrix codes or symbologies. Although 2D systems use symbols other than bars, they are generally referred to as barcodes as well.Barcodes can be read by optical scanners called barcode readers, or scanned from an image by special software. In Japan, most mobile phones have built-in scanning software for 2D codes, and similar software is becoming available on smartphone platforms.

If you look at the back of a book you will see a rectangle with two bar codes, usually on the bottom left of the cover. Sometimes there will be a ten digit code, but books published in the last few years will have a 13 digit code. The ISBN standard changed due to the volume of books being published.

The ISBN for What You Need to Know to Be a Pro: The Business Start-Up Guide for Publishers, by Terena Scott, is 978-0-9797152-3-5.

The first three digits identify the type of product it is. 978 means that this is a book.

The next digit identifies the language the book was published in. 0 and 1 are used for English speaking countries.

The center group of numbers is the publisher's ISBN identifier, the brand I wrote of earlier. No other publisher can have the same numbers.

The fourth digit is the number of books published by the publisher. What You Need to Know is the 3rd book published by Medusa's Muse (technically not. This is the second book, but since I set aside two ISBN numbers for Traveling Blind, the next number on the list was the number 3. Nobody cares if the books aren't in order).

The last number is called the check-digit. This is a mathematical variable of the other digits (don't ask me to explain this. Maybe a math person can leave a comment and explain what that means exactly).

You'll see more digits below the code that are the same as the top ISBN digits, but without the dashes. Those numbers show what the bar code means.

Beside the ISBN bar code you'll often see another bar code with numbers on the top. This is the EAN, or European Article Number, which is the world-wide standardization for the sale of books. It tells the price of the book and what system of currency it is sold in. The 5 means that the book is sold in US dollars. What You Need to Know to Be a Pro's EAN looks like this: 5 1 0 0 0, which translates to Ten Dollars US.

And now you know the secret code of an ISBN. Language, currency, price, publisher, and item, all encoded in a bar code for a computer to keep track of books in a store.

Any questions?

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