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Best Practices for the BISAC Subject Headings – Selecting a Book’s Subject Category

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When we updated our listing for the PMA directory earlier this year, we had a problem. It was the same problem we’d had when we applied for various awards last year and when we decided on category-specific mailings and catalogs:

Some of our books don’t fit neatly into existing subject categories.

Surviving Deployment: A Guide for Military Families is a good example. The primary audience is military spouses. The book includes inspiring stories about the experiences of military families along with checklists and information on finances, communication, helping children deal with a parent’s absence, and many other aspects of deployment.

When this book was first released, we matched it to the BISAC code for Family & Relationships. Our choice was based on BISAC notes that say Self-Help is for works aimed at personal growth and help with personal problems, such as mental illnesses or dependencies; Social Science is for works written from a sociological viewpoint; and Family & Relationships is for works designed to help people deal with child rearing or relationships.

Self-Help was a possibility, but Family & Relationships made the most sense to our team as well as to our small focus group of military spouses, who said they would look under either Military Deployment (the closest BISAC heading would be History or Biography or the inactive Current Events) or Family. History and Biography did not resonate with this focus group; they felt the book provided present-day information and was written for them rather than about someone else.

But we ran into trouble with Family & Relationships because PMA does not have a Family category. The closest is Parenting, which our focus group felt was too narrow for this title, since only one chapter deals specifically with children’s needs during deployment. We encountered similar categorization challenges with awards entries, catalog listings, and category-specific mailings, in which our choices for Surviving Deployment usually boil down to Self-Help, Parenting, History, or How-to.

When I travel, I often check our titles’ placement in local bookstores. Recently, a Borders near Fort Drum, NY, placed Surviving Deployment in Local Interest near the front of the store to attract local soldiers and their families. A Borders in St. Paul, MN, placed it under History/General Military, while a nearby Barnes & Noble pegged it as Self-Help.

Amazon.com put this title in Biography/Military, focusing on the book’s personal stories (although they are not written from a historical perspective; instead, they’re written to highlight universal challenges families face during deployment).

In other words, for this one book, four bookstores assigned four different categories, none of them the BISAC heading we had selected.

A Case Study in Category Confusion

Online categorization is less of an issue, since it is easy for most customers to go to Amazon.com or a search engine and type in keywords to find titles. However, offline customers and acquisition buyers, especially those who don’t know your title exists, may browse by section of the store, trade show, or wholesaler catalog for what’s new on the subject. You want to be in that section. You want your book to be recognized appropriately for awards. And you don’t want to waste money on a category-specific mailing if the category isn’t a good fit.

When considering category updates for a few of our troublesome titles, we asked bookstore managers and acquisition librarians where they would expect to find them in a catalog and thus where they would place them if they were choosing the subject headings.

First, they use different processes to assign categories. Chain bookstore managers we spoke with said they generally take direction from headquarters. But a local manager who feels a book will sell better in a section other than the one headquarters picked might place it in more than one section or suggest changing the assigned category. Librarians catalog based on CIP data, if available.

Whatever the process, the booksellers and librarians we spoke with didn’t share the same views about where books fit. Family titles that bookstores wanted to place in Self-Help, libraries labeled Social Science. Military titles (including those about military families) that bookstores wanted to place in History/General Military or a section specific to a war, libraries labeled Biography.

Creating Your Best Labels

If you’re not dealing with a book that fits neatly into a widely used traditional slot, what’s your best option? Well, you can suggest your own category (we spent an hour or so debating whether or not Military Family Life could attract enough titles and customers to be added to the official BISAC list–and decided to suggest it). If you have a suggestion for a BISAC subject heading, you can contact the Subject Codes Committee at bisac_subjectcodes@bisg.org.

Even with the perfect BISAC heading, however, you’ll still find regional differences and most likely differences between bookstore and library category choices, as well as different categories for awards and listings with professional organizations.

The key is to determine where your primary audience is most likely to look for your book. Our team has a few suggestions based on our recent experiences:

  • Consider how your customers view themselves when looking for a book on your topic. If they think of themselves as parents who have a challenge with a child, for example, then maybe parenting is the right category.
  • Ask customers to pick two or three words they associate with your book or its subject. Use these keywords on your Web site and in your book description. Even if your book gets moved around, the keywords should bring it up under words your customers associate with its topic.
  • Look at similar titles. What categories are they placed in? Even if none of them is exactly right for your title, it’s helpful to see where buyers have recently found similar titles or where bookstore managers have had success selling them.
  • For awards, consider what other titles–and formats–will be in the category you are considering. Are they primarily trade paperback, or four-color photography? Book format may help dictate category. And perhaps what you thought was how-to is self-help in the award granter’s eyes.
  • Buy the BISAC Subject Headings report (available at www.bisg.org to PMA members for $12) and read the BISAC notes to help differentiate among section headings that seem suitable. Find the most specific subheading that fits your book without becoming too narrowly focused.
  • Go to your local bookstore and browse the main section that contains the subcategory you are considering (catalogs, directories, and awards often use only top-level categories).
  • Ask your library acquisitions manager to pinpoint the sections of wholesalers’ catalogs and other mailings where they would look for your book. Where patrons will find the title is less of an issue, since they will have access to the library catalog or a librarian.
  • When possible, list your books in more than one appropriate category.

In the end, the category you choose should reflect the primary content of the book. Categories do change over time. Until your wish-list heading appears, keep in mind how your customers think, and remember that selecting your book category is more of an art than a science.

Karen Pavlicin is president of Elva Resa Publishing LLC.


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