Backwards and in Heels
A couple weeks ago I showed up at Books with Pictures, my beloved local comic shop, to sign copies of 100 Demon Dialogues for Free Comic Book Day. As we were bracing for the hordes of customers waiting outside, Katie Proctor (the proprietress) turned to me and said "You know the barcode doesn't scan, right?"

The bottom dropped out of my stomach. 

"On the book?"

She nodded. 

"You coded the dashes as well as the numbers in the ISBN."

For those of you who aren't familiar with how this works: an ISBN is a 13-digit code that identifies your book in a massive database of All Possible Books. You purchase one for each title you're publishing, fill out a load of finicky details about the product, and then any time a bookstore searches for that number, they can know everything about your publication. 

For ease of use in retail contexts, that number is turned into a scannable barcode on the back of the book. This allows cashiers to ring it up swiftly. If you're self publishing, you take your purchased ISBN and run it through a free barcode generator on the web, then print it on the back cover of your book. 

I was so busy being paranoid about making sure the numbers in the ISBN were correct, I just copied and pasted the sequence directly into the generator, forgetting to remove the dashes that commonly appear between certain sections of numbers. [I also, it turns out (thanks, Glenn!), used the wrong format. You want the EAN-13, which looks a little different than what's pictured here.]

As I was kicking myself for such a stupid oversight, Katie caught my eye.

 "A couple months ago we got a major title with the barcode printed in red. You know, the same color as the laser on the scanner."

I cracked a wan smile.

Someone else mentioned a book they'd seen with the barcode printed in holographic foil, also useless. Another one had been deep purple on a black background. Unreadable. These were all titles from major publishers. These things happen all the time.

I wanted to write this up because a) you can probably learn from my mistake by just SCANNING YOUR DUMB BARCODE AHEAD OF TIME TO SEE IF IT WORKS (something you can do with a QR scanner app on your smartphone) and b) it hits a nerve about self publishing that I wanted to address:

There's a common quip about Ginger Rogers which says she did all the same moves as her co-star Fred Astaire, but backwards and in high heels. (There's some neat background about the phrase here.) The quote endures because it's an accurate picture of what being a woman in a male-dominated profession can feel like. You work twice as hard. You leave no room for error or censure. Everything must be flawless because people are already questioning your right to be in the room.

It feels a lot like being a self-published author in a mainstream world.

It's easier than ever to make your own book, but that means quality control is a hard thing to come by. For booksellers, stocking your self-published title is a risk. It might also just be a pain in the ass. 

Any time you ask a bookstore to order through a channel that isn't their usual distributor, that's time and energy spent on their end. Maybe they have a consignment program (which means someone's vetting titles, keeping track of inventory, and following up with authors to make sure they either get payments or collect their unsold stock). Maybe they'll buy off you wholesale (which means they'll likely spend more up front than they would ordering from a large distributor). Either way: extra effort for very little return.

A traditional publisher lets them know there's clout behind a title—that someone else will be pushing sales and driving customers to their door. An individual publisher has to work doubly hard to convince them that's true.

A traditional publisher lets them know the book had an editor, a designer, a marketing team, a track record, a readership. Individual publishers have to push to make sure their distributors know they can deliver on all those counts.

This is why I obsess over details. The spot gloss. The foil. The layout. The copyediting. The paper quality. These are the things that make people look up in confusion when they flip through the book and say "Wait, did you self-publish this?"

Professional publishers may ship things with typos and errors and un-scannable barcodes every day, but I kick myself extra hard when stuff like this goes wrong because in my book it counts double. I'm making the case for someone to take a risk on my work, and I want them to know it will be worth their while.

The good news is that Blackbox, the folks who have all the books in their warehouse right now, are well-versed in this kind of issue. I'm paying them to slap new barcode stickers on all the outbound copies of the book, which means retailers will be able to scan them with ease.

Is it a pain in the ass? Yes. Is it my fault? Yep. Is it worth the trouble to make sure the final product is professional as hell?


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