Sellers and buyers, including libraries, identify books by more than just a title and author: they also use International Standard Book Numbers (ISBN) and barcodes. Knowing the difference between ISBNs and barcodes can help you understand why both are important for book publishers, authors, distributors, retailers, and readers.
What’s an ISBN?
An ISBN is a unique 13-digit number given to each book published after 2007. Before January 1, 2007. ISBNs were just 10 digits long. These identifiers help booksellers and libraries identify and track the different versions of a book, such as hardcover, paperback, or digital editions. Distributors use ISBNs to keep track of their inventory, and retailers use them when processing orders.
What’s a Barcode?
Barcodes are composed of a series of 12 (US and Canada) or 13 (Europe) numbers. A pattern of black lines and white spaces printed on the back covers of books represent these numbers, and scanners at bookstores can read them to quickly process orders. Barcodes make it easier for libraries and retailers to stock their shelves with the latest titles and keep track of books borrowed and returned or purchased. They also help publishers and distributors keep track of shipping information, such as the destination of a book or when it shipped.
Why Does a Book Need Both?
While an ISBN and barcode both provide unique identifiers for books, they serve different purposes. An ISBN identifies a book’s content, such as title and author. On the other hand, a barcode feeds into a retailer’s or warehouse’s database to track inventory and match prices to each unique item.
Having both an ISBN and a barcode ensures that publishers, distributors, retailers, libraries, and readers can accurately track a book’s information. This helps to ensure accuracy when ordering books and prevents confusion about what version of a book to include in an order. ISBNs are required for any book published in the United States.
In short, an ISBN and barcode are both important identifiers that help to keep the publishing industry running smoothly. The governing organizations that issue ISBNs and barcodes are different: ISBNs come from Bowker via a website called myidentifiers.com. Bowker is the only authorized administrator of ISBNs in the US.
Barcodes come from GS1, the Global Standards nonprofit that issues the numbers that sellers can encode into barcode labels using software designed for that purpose. While ISBNs can only be obtained from Bowker, many different companies sell barcodes and services to obtain and register them with GS1.
There are important questions to ask before you buy barcodes, such as whether the seller registers your products (in this case, your book) with GS1. They should also confirm that the barcodes are unique (never used before) and can advise you on how many barcodes you need.
Having both an ISBN and a barcode benefits everyone involved in the book publishing process. Having an ISBN allows buyers to accurately identify a particular version of a book, while a barcode makes it easier for booksellers to quickly process orders. Additionally, both provide publishers and distributors with important information about the sales of their books.