This is one of the motivators that sends so many novelists in search of book printers and self-publishing companies. There they are inundated with vague information (at least, that's how it was in the past when I first started Lily Ruth Publishing) about ISBNs, barcodes, LCCN's, book layout, bleeds, etc.
So what are these items, and why are they important? I'll start with the ISBNs in this article and cover the other topics in later posts.
An ISBN is a 10 or 13-digit International Standard Book Number that identifies the publisher of the title. This number is assigned only to books published in the United States and can be purchased in blocks of 10, 100, 1,000, 10,000 and 100,000 numbers. It is also possible to purchase just one ISBN for a self-published book.
Beginning publishers often ask if it is necessary to purchase an ISBN for their book. The answer depends on what their publishing goals are. To publish a fiction or nonfiction title for the sake of sharing it with family members and close friends might not warrant an ISBN, as an ISBN useful and necessary in marketing.
I've heard it asked “Couldn't I put a barcode on my book and skip the ISBN?” While it is certainly possible to purchase a barcode without first owning an ISBN, keep in mind that most bookstores use the Bookland EAN barcode because it allows for the embedding of an ISBN.
The U.S. Bowker ISBN Agency states on their website that “the purpose of an ISBN is to establish and identify one title or edition of a title from one specific publisher and is unique to that edition, allowing for more efficient marketing of products by booksellers, libraries, universities, wholesalers and distributors.”
So if you wish to market and sell your title through bookstores and distributors (or even online, in most cases) you will definitely want to purchase an ISBN.
Finally, make sure you purchase your ISBN(s) through the official U.S. ISBN agency, Bowker. This is especially important because ISBNs purchased through Bowker are assigned to the purchaser and can't be reassigned.
There are websites out there that will try to sell you a 'used' ISBN. I encountered this back when I ran the first print run of “My Weird Family Series: My Vampire Cousin.” At the time, the Bowker website was less than user-friendly and I was having difficulty figuring out how to purchase a single ISBN from them. I ran across a handful of websites offering to sell a single ISBN and transfer ownership, and decided to call Bowker's customer support number before making a purchase. At that time I was told ISBN ownership could not be transferred and purchasing a single ISBN through another site or individual would result in them owning the unique identifier to my client's book.
Moral of the story? Always do your homework when it comes to book printing/publishing. There's a lot to learn and a lot of information to take in at once, but it's better to study it all up front so you can make decisions in the best interest of your book.