Barcodes, QR Codes, and Some Common Mistakes

Ozan Tortop

I don’t know how it started, but people think they need to buy barcodes for their books. Even some industry professionals. I’ve heard multiple times: “You must buy your barcodes from this website”—on panels, in publishing conferences. Well, I read some advice about buying barcodes, in SCBWI magazine (Summer 2016), and guess what?

You don’t need to buy barcodes.

Don’t confuse the barcode with the ISBN; they are totally different. The ISBN (International Standard Book Number) is a number that identifies your book. And you do need to buy ISBNs, for sure. The barcode is a translation of your ISBN, for laser readers and cameras. They’re just like the barcodes on a can of Coke that gets scanned in the supermarket, nothing more.

Another common mistake is the belief that it’s necessary to include price information on the barcode. You can include it, but you don’t have to. If you fix your book’s price in the barcode, then it will be a problem anytime you change the price of the book. It’s not convenient at all.

Barcodes, with and without price info

* Both barcodes belong to the same ISBN number, assigned to  I Want to Be a Rock Star. The barcode on the left has the price info. The small part on the right of it, with “52000” on top of the barcode, gives info about the price. The barcode on the right doesn’t have price info. On this barcode, fonts are customised according to other design elements on the back cover, not machine generated like the other one. And the bars are much shorter, yet still more than big enough to be readable by barcode scanners. No need to go skyscraper size like the one on the left.

Technically, you don’t need to include the ISBN number on top of the barcode either; it’s the same number as the bottom. But it’s convenient for human eyes, when the machine malfunctions or for any other reason.

By the way, when we say barcode as bookish people, we are actually referring to EAN-13 (European Article Number) barcodes most of the time. But there is a huge variety of visual code systems out there. They all translate some data to small graphics, which are recognisable by laser scanners, or cameras. These graphics may be bars, squares, circles, etc. I find them similar to morse codes in a way.

Aztec Code, Maxicode, QR Code, Snapchat Code, Facebook Messenger Code.* From left to right: Aztec Code, Maxicode, QR Code, Snapchat Code, Facebook Messenger Code.

Anyway, let’s get back to the point. You don’t need to buy barcodes, which are basically translated versions of your own data. There are hundreds of online translators. Just google “online barcode generator” or “online QR code generator”—and that’s all. If you want to be sure it’s working, download a QR or barcode reader to your smartphone and test it. Voilà! You have a free code.

Forget those ugly machine generated codes.

Barcodes and QR codes don’t have to be ugly. You can modify them. You can play with their colours and shapes, and you can add new things, or remove some parts. You need to be careful, though, to make sure it’s still working. And unfortunately, print-on-demand services don’t approve visually prettified barcodes.

Modified Barcode SampleThis barcode belongs to Digby and the Yodelayhee . . . Who? We used some musical notes on this barcode, because the book is related to music. If we were creating the book with print-on-demand services, we wouldn’t be able to make it happen. But since it’s an offset print project, we can do whatever we want.

Modified QR Code SampleThis QR code goes to my personal website. After deleting many squares and adding new ones; testing it again and again, I was able to add a small message in it.

QR Codes: Create them the right way.

Remember I said a QR code is actually just data, visualised to be understandable by machines? If your data is short, you can create a tidy QR code. If your data is long, you’ll end up with a crappy-looking QR code. As the data gets longer and longer, it not only looks ugly, but QR readers might not be able to read the data at all.

For example, look at the URL and the crazy-looking QR code below.

QR Code Sample

This link goes to another post on our blog. See the “/?” characters in the link? All the other weird letters and numbers after that question mark are suffixes. That means this link was referred from another source (Mailchimp in this case). If you create a QR code with this link, you will end up with an unnecessarily complicated one, as well as wrong statistics.

Now remove that unnecessary part after the “?”.

QR Code Sample, created with a simple link

Much better. Now the QR code doesn’t look insane.

You can go even further:

QR Code Sample, created with a bitly short link

This link goes to the same blog post as well. But it’s shortened, so we can create a better looking QR code. Also, we can modify the link itself. Because the blog post was about rejections, I used REJECTed as the link. And because we used bitly to create a shortened link, we can actually see how many people scan the QR code, from where, and some other information. So, we used a better-looking QR code, and we collected more data. I say this is a win-win.

Bonus Links

QR Code Generator: goqr.me
Barcode Generator: terryburton.co.uk/barcodewriter/generator

I use these two sources to create QR codes and barcodes. There are many more; you can find which one works best for you after trying some. I know Terry’s barcode generator looks terribly poorly designed. But it does the job, and it’s been online for more than a decade. Just an old habit for me.

Epilogue

If you remember only one thing about this blog post: Do not buy barcodes. I repeat: Do not buy barcodes.

Showing 2 comments
  • Renee
    Reply

    Wonderful post!

  • Catherine Greer
    Reply

    Wow, I am super non-techie and I love this post! So fun to read and the writing was beautiful….and loved the design elements, too. Now that I’ve found your blog, I’m busy sharing it with all my writer friends!!

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