Saturday, March 13, 2010

UPCs and ISBNs

One of the things I've looked into for self-publishing is getting a UPC (Universal Product Code).  Looking at games already on the market, nearly all of them have both a UPC and also an ISBN (International Standard Book Number).  I'm still working my way through this, but here's what I've found so far:


These are granted by a group called GS1 (website here).  It looks like you need to pony up at least $750 to get a set of UPC numbers for your use (the price varies a little based on your expected sales and revenues).  For this, you get a prefix for your company and a set of reserved code numbers you can use on your products.  There are different tiers of registration; the price above is for 1-100 different products.  The initial set-up fee lasts for a year; for subsequent years, you need to pay again, in the neighborhood of $150 per year.

If you don't want to go the official route, and you don't need too many different UPCs, you can buy individual UPC numbers from reseller brokers.  Prices for these vary, but they can be a lot less than the fairly steep $750 setup fee to do it the official way.  Some folks seem to think this is fine; others point out that you're relying on the reseller to stay in business, deliver an unused code, and keep all the registration stuff current for you.  Also, if you did get wide distribution in retail, your codes wouldn't map directly back to your company, which might not be ideal.  However, you might be able to get this to work, and for significantly less money.


ISBNs seem to work in a similar way.  There is an agency (a government designated private firm, Bowker) which assigns and records ISBNs.  You can buy them singly, or in sets of 10, 100, or 1000.  A single ISBN costs $125; there doesn't seem to be the big initial registration fee that makes the UPC so expensive.  Ten numbers are a significant cost-per-unit savings at $275, a hundred are $995.  I wouldn't expect an indie publisher to need more than 10 initially, and if you've only got one product, you could buy them one at a time.

So, if I've got this right, UPCs are expensive, but you get them in bulk.  You have to renew them each year with an additional smaller payment.  ISBNs have less overhead and can be bought singly, but they're comparable in cost to UPCs in bulk.  I couldn't find anything saying that ISBNs need to be renewed - they seem to be permanent.

Does  an indie publisher need these?  The answer is probably yes if you want to be picked up by any major retail store or distributor.  If you're planning on selling only over the internet, at conventions, or to your local game stores, then you might not need them.  It looks like getting the codes provides yet another cost (and thus yet another barrier to entry) for somebody looking to self-publish.

Caveat:  I'm not a lawyer, and I don't have experience in the retail market.  The above is based on my research, and isn't guaranteed to be correct or accurate.  Do the legwork on your own to be sure.


  1. There is also this difference: An ISBN is supposed to correspond to a specific edition. So if you make some changes in the second print run, fixing errors and whatnot, then it should get a new ISBN. There is no such restriction on UPCs.

  2. Total waste of money, in my opinion. The games stores in my area don't even use a scanner. While I'm sure some do, I can't imagine it is common, since there are many small publishers that don't use either of them.

  3. PD - good point, thanks. I should have remembered that from textbook ordering.

    Tim - likely true, but most of the games I own seem to have both. That may be because most of mine are mass-market, not indie, but even some of the rarer ones do. I suppose it depends on how you intend to market the games (internet only vs. small vs. large stores, via distributors or not). I'll have to do some more research.