Dear Max Barry,
after visiting Nationstates.net i decided to read your book, Jennifer Government. While reading, I read something which made me think: “What would you get if you scanned the barcode?” Is it simply a random arrangement of numbers, or does it have meaning?
~A Jennifer Government Fan
Well, A Jennifer Government Fan, that’s a good question. The answer is long, convoluted, and filled with heartbreak. Well, no, not really. It’s just long and convoluted.
First, the barcode on the book’s cover doesn’t match the one in the story. That is, while Jennifer Government in the novel has a barcode tattoo for a particular product—which nobody is going to give away in the comments here, lest I smite their account—the barcode under Jen’s eye on the cover is for the book itself. More specifically, it’s for the US hardcover edition.
Or so I was told at the time. The truth, I was to discover, ran deeper.
During cover design, I didn’t care much whether the barcode matched up to what was in the book, partly because I had very little say in it, partly because I was so grateful to get a cover that didn’t suck balls I was weeping with joy, and partly because who the hell would ever know? But upon hearing what Doubleday wanted to do, I thought, “That’s cool. You could take the book up to the counter and buy it by scanning the front.”
I went around telling people this, until about a year later a guy with more knowledge of barcodes than is really healthy, Todd Larason, wrote an exposé on the Jennifer Government cover. It’s a very interesting piece, if you’re me or unhealthily fascinated by barcodes. Here’s a taste:
“But wait!”, I hear you cry, “You said it’s an EAN-13, not an ISBN, and as everyone knows they have incompatible checksum digits!”
Todd uncovered the non-match between the story and the cover, and that was just his warm-up. He also discovered that while the barcode digits on the covers of many editions of Jennifer Government are for the US hardback, one of the few that doesn’t match is… the US hardback. For some reason, in a last-minute change, the barcode number on its front cover was altered: instead of ending in a 2 (like here), it ends in a 3 (like here). This means it matches the book’s ISBN, but not its barcode.
Why? It’s a mystery. I can only presume that somebody thought they were catching a typo just before the print run.
Todd Larason wasn’t done there. His final observation was that according to the official EAN-13 standard, the barcode’s bars don’t match its numbers—nor the ISBN, nor anything else. It’s not actually a valid barcode. It’s just funky-looking black lines.
(P.S. If you’re interested in seeing how the cover evolved, take a look at the Jennifer Government Extras.)