A Glitch in the Matrix
While Mr. Zarei was able to explain how the error had flourished like a weed in the online book reselling ecosystem, he could not determine the basic question of its existence: Why had so many books been printed with what appeared to be the exact same bar code?
“That’s certainly not what we would call best practice,” said Brian O’Leary, the executive director of the Book Industry Study Group, a publishing trade association.
Although the books mailed to Ms. Gordon were as unalike as members of the nightshade family, close inspection turned up trace similarities. All of the books were published between 1984 and 1995. All were published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons or its paperback affiliate at the time, Berkley Books.
The common lineage led Mr. O’Leary to speculate that the reused bar codes may have been the result of “a production problem” at the publisher level.
For instance, Mr. O’Leary said, “when you’re laying out a book and you put the cover together for the first time, you may not know the ISBN.” Perhaps, he said, someone had inserted a “dummy” bar code and ISBN, so that, say, the publisher and art director could see what the finished product would look like. If so, it may have been the case that they sometimes forgot to later swap out the “dummy” elements for the real ones.
Or perhaps they remembered, but only halfway. Bar codes were still gaining popularity in the 1980s, after all. (A representative for Penguin Random House said the publisher was unable to locate an employee who felt they had “the proper insight” to answer questions about this instance of bar code confusion.)