< back to full list of articles
Decoding the Codes; or, Why and How to Speak the Standard Book-Category Language

or Article Tags

BISAC subject codes.

Just reading the phrase may make you want to tune out. But don’t turn this page. While these headings might strike some of you as just a necessary evil because they’re required by wholesalers and retailers, using them wisely will help you connect with your readers.

Sometimes publishers “don’t understand what the advantages are to them or their trading partners,” says Wendell Lotz, a vice president of product database development at the Ingram Book Company. “They’ve just been told to do this, not why.”

Yes, BISAC codes are much duller reading than The DaVinci Code (or Balzac, for that matter), but they do serve an important purpose, just like international street signs for “Do Not Enter” and “Stop,” which ensure that traffic flows smoothly and without accident, whether or not a driver knows the local lingo.

The idea behind the BISAC Subject Heading Lists is the same as the idea behind those international traffic signs: create a universal language. In the case of BISAC, the language is in the form of category codes, which communicate information about individual books so that consumers, booksellers, and any other interested parties can find needles in the haystack without having to sift through all that hay. More formally, in the words of Jeff Abraham, executive director of the Book Industry Study Group, “BISAC Subject Codes provide trading partners with a common syntax for describing book product electronically.”

Or, as Wendell Lotz puts it: “The most important purpose is to provide a consistent syntax for use by consumers and their representatives to search within a database of products to find the titles they might want to buy.”

The Whys

There are five primary reasons to use the codes, according to Jeff Abraham:

  • Shelving.“The original idea behind BISAC when it was created in the mid-’90s was to simplify shelving at the brick-and-mortar store,” says Lotz, formerly chair of the BISAC Subject Codes Committee within BISG. “The codes summarize the books so the $7-an-hour clerk can put them onto the right shelves.”
  • Online searching. The headings serve as keywords for search engines of all sorts.
  • Linking to additional information. Links to similar titles encourage additional sell-through.
  • Relating the purchases of certain books to certain buyers.
  • Financial analysis.BISAC codes provide a framework for grouping books for sales analysis so that apples are compared to apples, not bananas. “It makes little sense to compare the sales of Harry Potter with sales of A Guide to the Treatment of Cardiovascular Disease, but aligning titles with similar BISAC subject headings can be a useful exercise for many sales and marketing purposes,” Ingram’s Lotz explains.

Although the BISAC codes were created to clear the muddy waters of book categorization, publishers may be befuddled about integrating them with their own proprietary methods for classifying books.

“Many publishers have longstanding marketing and merchandising subject-oriented syntax that they’ve been using for categories on the backs of their books for years,” Abraham says. “Often these syntaxes were developed prior to BISAC Subject Headings and therefore do not connect with them in a one-to-one-way.” The solution, he explains, is mapping the proprietary syntax to the BISAC Subject Heading Lists.

Make No Mistakes

Another cure for befuddlement, Lotz notes, is spending time to learn the codes before attempting to assign them. The easiest way to learn about the codes and how to apply them is to visit www.bisg.org.

Both publishers and booksellers are apt to make their lives harder by assigning a general code rather than a more specific one to a book. It’s the go-with-the-lowest-common-denominator trick. Very often they lump a title into a relatively broad and apparently popular category in hopes of exposing it to more people. For example, says Lotz, “In the Christian bookstore, the section that sells the most is Christian Living, so every publisher identifies a new book as Christian Living.”

There’s always been a “creative tension” between categorizing for content, for format, and for merchandising, Lotz observes, but whatever the emphasis, he says, it’s unwise to hand the job of assigning BISAC codes to junior staffers who may or may not be familiar with either the codes or the titles they are supposed to be categorizing. When putting books into BISAC categories is classified as a low-priority, tedious task, classification mistakes ultimately make it harder for readers to connect with books they might buy.

Connie Harbison, the current chair of BISAC’s Subject Codes Committee, agrees that the most common mistake is using overly general codes and cites several examples:

  • the George W. Bush biography that’s filed under History/General and not Biography/President or Biography/Heads of State
  • the book on the war on terrorism filed under Social Science/General and not Political Science/Terrorism
  • the juvenile detective series that’s categorized under Juvenile/Fiction General and not Mystery or Detective Stories

Comparing Codes

Proprietary subject codes aren’t the only ones that exist side by side with the BISAC Subject Headings, of course. The library world has its own systems for categorizing books by subject, and Lotz points out that the Library of Congress has a far longer list, with more than 200,000 headings, as compared to BISAC’s 3,000.

The Library of Congress headings are much more precise, Lotz says, but he adds that they don’t indicate the complexity or accessibility of a given book. “A good example is a book on dealing with cancer as a patient,” he explains. “The BISAC Subject Heading would be Health/Cancer (as opposed to Medicine/Oncology), reflecting the lay orientation, whereas the LC heading and classification schemes would put both this book and a textbook aimed at the oncology surgeon in the same place.”

As in this example, it pays to zero in on the most appropriate category for a given book, and also to bear two things in mind:

    • The BISAC Subject Headings are an industry standard, but that doesn’t mean they’re static. BISAC’s Subject Codes Committee exists to review and update the headings. Publishers are invited to request changes as they spot needs. And the committee’s latest project is strengthening the broad “merchandising themes” categories that are designed, Harbison explains, to help stores “tie books from different categories into one display.” Bundled under the main headings Ethnic, Event, Holiday Regional, or Topical, these categories include Ethnic/African, Event/Summer Vacation Reading, Regional/United States/Great Lakes, and Topical/Women’s Interest.


  • You can–and usually should–assign more than one BISAC subject heading to a title.


    According to Lotz, three or four seem to be the practical maximum, so a book can be properly and profitably categorized in instances where a rose is not only a rose but also an ornamental flower, an example of genetic manipulation, and a Valentine’s Day present.

Jenny C. McCune reports regularly on publishing and publishers for the PMA Independent. A business writer based in Bozeman, MT, she began her career in book publishing and can be contacted at jennymccune@imt.net.



Imagine the World Without BISAC Codes

You might have to pick a different category heading from lists created by every wholesaler and retailer you want to do business with, which is obviously a nonstarter, since it would require:

  • accessing every bookseller’s list of categories and combing through all of them to find a label or labels that fit each of your titles, and
  • making the back of your book bigger than a breadbox and possibly as big as the side of a barn to accommodate all the different labels.

A more realistic, but still not appealing, system would have you assign your own category label or labels to each of your books and rely on every wholesaler and retailer to go through a recategorizing hmmmm period–as in, Hmmmm, I wonder which category on our list is the best match for this one–with at least two unfortunate consequences.

When the people who are recategorizing books haven’t read them–or even seen them–the categories they assign are likely to attract readers who were looking for something else, and fail to attract readers who would respond enthusiastically and get a buzz going. And wholesalers and retailers that have to spend time and money on recategorizing figure to pass the costs along to you.

Connect With Us

1020 Manhattan Beach Blvd., Suite 204 Manhattan Beach, CA 90266
P: 310-546-1818 F: 310-546-3939 E: info@IBPA-online.org
© Independent Book Publishers Association