What are BISACs?
BISACs are a classification system for physical and digital products that:
- Determine where a book will be shelved in a bricks-and-mortar shop.
- Identify the genre and subject under which a book can be searched in on-line databases.
- Provide an industry approved list of subject descriptions.
- Provide a standard subject code list that companies use to categorise books.
A BISAC is a code such as:
HIS002020 for ‘HISTORY/Ancient’ as in the examples immediately below.
GAR004060 for ‘GARDENING/Flowers/Roses’ as in the examples given further down.
The Book Industry Study Group (BISG) has responsibility for BISACs.
‘BISG was founded in 1975 at the annual conference of the Book Manufacturers Institute. Initially organized to address the need for better research capabilities, BISG continues to evolve to meet the needs of a membership adapting to new and emerging ways published content is produced and sold.’
Some additional information may be found under ‘How are BISACs created?’ below.
What do BISACs consist of?
The elements are identified as Code, Heading, Descriptor, Literal, Term, Value, Tree Branch.
Code: Comprises nine alphanumeric characters.
Commences with a three-character alpha segment identifying the primary subject matter e.g. ‘HIS’ for ‘HISTORY’; ‘GAR’ for ‘GARDENING’.
This is then followed by six numeric characters; see examples above.
Heading: The English language subject description. It may be constructed in two, three or four parts each separated by ‘/’.
Descriptor: Section name e.g. ‘HISTORY’ and sub-heading e.g. ‘Ancient’ = ‘HISTORY/Ancient’. Many headings only consist of two levels. However, they may be drilled down further as follows.
Literal: More detailed level e.g. ‘HISTORY/Ancient/Roman’.
Term: Taking it to a further, far more detailed, level e.g. ‘HISTORY/Ancient/Roman/Macedonian’.
Value: At present there are fifty-two major BISAC sections (subject matters) e.g. FICTION, COMPUTER, HISTORY, GARDENING, etc. These comprise the ‘value’ e.g. in the examples above ‘HISTORY’; ‘GARDENING’. N.B. This first part is always in uppercase. Also, most top level values comprise the subject followed by ‘General’ e.g. ‘HISTORY/General’.
Tree: Group of headings with common first and second levels e.g. ‘GARDENING/Flowers’. This can act as the heading for sub-topics such as bulbs, annuals, perennials, roses, etc. e.g. ‘GARDENING/Flowers/Roses’.
Branch: This is the third level in a ‘Tree’ as defined above, e.g. in above example ‘Roses’ = ‘GARDENING/Flowers/Roses’ (BISAC code GAR004060).
How are BISACs created?
The Book Industry Study Group (BISG) has responsibility for BISACs.
‘The Book Industry Study Group (BISG) works to create a more informed, empowered and efficient book industry. Our broad membership includes trade, education, professional and scholarly publishers, as well as distributors, wholesalers, retailers, manufacturers, service providers and libraries.’
Under BISG’s auspices there are six Subject Codes Committees who create and maintain the codes. They decide when; new ones are required; old ones have become obsolete; adjustments, amendments or corrections are required. If they have not approved a code, it does not get added to the list.
How do self-publishing authors allocate a BISAC for their book(s)?
When utilising self-publishing systems for the publication of a book, the author will be required to select at least one BISAC from a prepared list. See ‘Publishing with CreateSpace’ or ‘Publishing with Kindle’. Every book must have at least one BISAC but may have more. The systems mentioned provide for at least two though many publishers and retailers prefer there to be at least three. Some systems also ask for an equivalent to the BISAC e.g. a BIC (further information may be found under ‘Roundup’ below.).
How important are BISACs?
Identity: A BISAC identifies the genre and subject matter of a book. There are over three thousand codes: It is important the right ones are allocated.
Retailers: Most, if not all, retailers will not carry a book without at least one BISAC. The code helps them decide where to place a book and how to publicise/market it.
Discoverability: An increasing number of readers search on-line for their next read and it is these codes that determine whether, and if so, where, a book will show up in a search. If there is no code, or an incorrect code, discoverability will be dramatically diminished. With hundreds of thousands of books being self-published each year, discoverability is a major issue.
Publicity: Some publishers, retailers and on-line search engines will, when someone searches a specific genre or subject, also draw in and display details of similar books based upon the BISAC. A very welcome additional ‘free’ opportunity for authors.
Allocating the correct code(s) is important for ALL authors whether; established; traditionally published; new; unknown or self-published. For example: If an author is known for writing thrillers but decides in a new book to include a fantasy aspect and perhaps a detective they can expand the book’s discoverability by including appropriate additional codes. Naturally, and probably by default, they will include the BISAC for thriller, which their established fans will appreciate. However, as they are already known for thrillers this is unlikely to impact upon visibility or purchases. By including appropriate codes for fantasy and detective the book’s discoverability is increased because it will now show up in searches of those genre as well as thriller.
BISACs are crucial. Without them a book’s genre and subject matter are indiscernible.
Note: Though utilized by a broad spectrum of users BISACs are primarily identified as applying to North America. Some territories utilize different identifiers e.g. BIC (Book Industry Communication). Again this is a Subject Classification System that incorporates Standard Subject Categories. BIC is a United Kingdom (UK) organisation biased toward the UK market. However, the system has been adopted by other nations e.g. Australia, Sweden, Spain, Russia etc. Essentially this, and other variations, are identical to the BISAC system though terminology may vary slightly e.g. BISAC has ‘HISTORY’ as its own header whereas under the BIC system history is a sub-category of ‘HUMANITIES’. In no way is one system inferior to the other.
It is vital correct codes are allocated. It will also help authors if as full a range as possible are allocated. For example, Random House had a strong selling book that had the BISAC for ‘FICTION/General’. However, though it was already a strong seller, when they changed the BISAC to ‘FICTION/Suspense’ sales increased fifty-five percent.
There is a more that could be discussed but this is only intended to be an introductory overview. The aim is to help independent self-publishing authors understand the how, why and importance of BISACs.