Drawing the line under barcodes


Hi Sports Fans!

It’s your friendly neighbourhood pencil jockey and I’m here to talk to you about barcodes.

I’m still not sure it should be me dealing with this particular bump in the road.  Nevertheless, I’m conceding this as a technicality: as Jack handles the words, I suppose it makes sense that it falls to me to look after the lines.

Way back in the day when I was stumbling through my first year of art college, I went through a phase of painting large graphic canvases in black and white. These works were initially well received by my tutor and for one gloriously naïve moment I thought that a career in the arts might lie ahead.

Those hopes were tragically dashed with the fourth and final monochrome painting which depicted a sequence of silhouetted characters imprisoned beneath a monstrous barcode.

Post Banksy, I may have retconned this story to suggest I intended to make some kind of comment on the oppression of commercialism but at the time I think I simply imagined it would look cool.

Neither opinion was shared by my tutor. Upon facing this disastrous misstep she launched into a terrifying tirade in which she declared the use of a barcode in art to be lazy, pointless and fatally clichéd.  From this point on, the barcode would be anathema and forbidden for all time in art produced by the students of the Fine Art Foundation class at Harrogate College of Art and Technology.

And so it is with a sense of fearful symmetry that I am once again making work in black and white and once again facing the challenge of incorporating the dreaded barcode in my work.

It is in the nature of the artist to resist compromise or interference in their vision, even if it is the simple inclusion of a discrete barcoded box on their gorgeous cover spread. Nevertheless, if you want retailers to stock your work, then it is a requirement to include this graphic data tag.

But what number do you need to include – and how do you get it?

Damn it, Jack, I’m a comic artist, not a librarian!

The internet contains much contradictory advice on this and so I eventually contacted those fine folks at the British library for the definitive line.

ISBN: International Standard Book Number
If you wish to sell your book through major retail chains or internet booksellers, they will require you to have an ISBN to assist their internal processing and ordering systems.

ISBNs are assigned to Publishers in the country where the Publisher’s main office is based.  The Nielsen ISBN Agency is the national agency for the UK and Republic of Ireland. Publishers based elsewhere will not be able to get numbers from the UK Agency but you should be able to identify your national agency fairly easily.

ISBNs are purchased in blocks via a legal publishing entity, all of which involves additional cost and complication. For our little self-published startup this started to seem like an unnecessary headache until I read the small print…

ISBN numbers are for books only. Whilst this includes graphic novels, trade paperbacks or one-shots exceeding 48 pages, you do not require an ISBN number for serials, periodicals or journals.  These instead use the less well known ISSN number.

ISSN: International Standard Serial Number
Unlike the unique ISBN, an ISSN identifies the title of a serial and stays the same from issue to issue unless the title changes, at which point a new ISSN needs to be assigned. Another fundamental difference between the two systems is that the stem of the ISBN identifies the publisher whereas the ISSN contains no publisher identifier. The ISSN is a purely arbitrary number that remains linked to the serial even when the responsibility for the serial passes from one publisher to another.

The ISSN Centre at the British Library is responsible for assigning ISSN to serials published in the United Kingdom – and these are currently issued via online submission at no cost.

You are not obliged to issue either number to your comic, but if you seriously want your book to be read, it is essential.

In our case, the ISSN allows us some breathing space to distribute our serial issues – but we will still need to formally establish a publisher for the ISBN if we want to self-publish a collected trade paperback at the end of the year. An additional benefit of using the ISSN for the ongoing issues is also the lack of allocated publisher – so in the optimistic event that an existing publisher likes our work so much they want to bring us on board, they can do so very easily and still use any existing stock.

I’ve put in the ISSN application and I’ll let you know the outcome. In the meantime, any further advice on this particular subject would be very helpful as we’re learning very quickly that not everything in comics self-publishing is black and white.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s