The Book Industry Study Group last Thursday unanimously approved a policy statement that calls for the 13-digit Bookland EAN bar code to be the sole bar code for books and book-related products, effective January 1, 2005. At the same time, the group endorsed the expansion of ISBNs from 10 digits to 13, effective January 1, 2007.

The proponents of the measures emphasize that the 13-digit standard will make it easier for book publishers to communicate electronically with trading partners in other industries and around the world, which are already using EAN bar codes for an array of products.

The most noticeable result of the new policy will be the absence from mass market titles of the 12-digit UPC bar code printed on the back cover. It tells only the price of the book and is used mainly by U.S. nonbookstores. Bookland EAN bar codes already are the only bar codes printed on hardcovers and trade paperbacks; on mass markets they appear on the inside front cover. Having two bar codes on mass market titles sometimes confuses employees at the cash register and slows processing.

The board also asked BISG to conduct a survey, particularly of mass market retailers, about the adoption of 13-digit product identifiers.

The policy statement did not generate much controversy at the BISG meeting, in part because most queries and any reservations were addressed in the months beforehand, when a draft circulated among book industry representatives. The policy statement was revised 12 times during the summer.

BISG executive director Jeff Abraham called the changes "evolutionary, not revolutionary," although he acknowledged that "it makes some of our members nervous, of course—sometimes justifiably so, sometimes not." He emphasized that through BISG, "We are working to create consensus to bring different players in the industry together. If done appropriately, publishers, distributors, retailers and manufacturers should be able to find a forum to sit around the table and agree on a middle ground."

He emphasized that the conversion process has two steps. The first is relatively cheap and involves communicating with partners. The second, longer-term one requires companies to fix internal systems to deal with 13-digit ISBNs.

The many technophobes in the book business should rest assured: many elements of the transition are already in place. The very familiar Bookland EAN bar codes on books include a 13-digit number at the bottom that is the Bookland EAN: it is essentially a 13-digit ISBN, consisting of the current 10-digit ISBN with a 978 prefix. (The last digit, a check digit, varies between the two types of numbers.) As BISG's Abraham says, "Everyone's using it already." Eventually, another prefix—979—will be used as well.

The change to a 13-digit world has been long in the making. Speaking at a BEA panel on the issue in June, Michael Cairns, president of Bowker and head of the U.S. ISBN agency, said that the new standards "will allow U.S. books to be sold in all channels" and "embraces emerging markets and technology."

Barnes & Noble is a major proponent both of Bookland EAN bar codes being the sole bar code on all books and of a 13-digit ISBN. Speaking at BEA, Joe Gonnella, B&N's v-p, inventory management and publisher relations, noted that in the '90s, B&N built systems that can handle 13-digit transactions, while B& is "based" on the 13-digit EAN. B&N has some 60,000 trading partners, Gonnella emphasized, so the issue is very important. "The UPC is not universal. The rest of the world is EAN."

Tom Clarkson, B&N's director of supply chain technology and the chair of BISAC's machine-readable coding committee, commented that B&N "is already there in most cases." He added that with the changes, "we will have a truly worldwide product numbering system, and it will align the U.S. and Canada with the rest of the numbering systems for all products."

In fact, many general retailers that carry books, such as Wal-Mart, are 13-digit compatible already. Even some of the long-term traditional users of UPC codes are moving to a 13-digit format and no longer need UPC codes.

Although some people have believed that the ISBN is expanding to 13 digits because the number of available numbers will soon run out, proponents say that while more numbers will be possible, this is not the major reason for the change. Instead, it's a matter of expanding the community of possible trading partners.