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The Subject Headings that Help You Sell Books

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If you sell to major book wholesalers and retailers, you already know that many of them require you to use “BISAC Subject Categories” for your titles. Or if you plan to deal with these buyers in the future, you need to know that. And in either case, the information that follows should help you do better business with them and with others.

The BISAC Subject Headings were developed by the Book Industry Systems Advisory Committee of the Book Industry Study Group, Inc., to standardize book categories. Until BISAC took on that job for its industry-wide membership, the only standard subject classifications were the ones from the Library of Congress (LC). Major wholesalers such as Ingram and Baker & Taylor each had their own, nonstandard subject classifications, which they had developed to facilitate title lookup on their own microfiche products. But the LC list had 214,000 plus categories, far too many for most users outside the library world. And the wholesalers’ lists had just a few hundred categories, not enough for many applications.


Cracking the Code

With approximately 3,000 categories, the BISAC Subject Headings strike a balance between granularity and ease of use. What they describe is content. (For other kinds of classifications such as “gift book” or “mass market paperback,” you can use fields in ONIX and BISAC communications formats that describe language, audience, age and grade level, and format/binding/packing; see the December 2001 PMA Newsletter for an introduction to ONIX and for more information.)

Because the BISAC Subject Headings were designed with electronic transmission in mind, each category has both a name (a.k.a., a “Literal”) and a code. The codes are 9 alpha/numeric digits. The first three characters of the code are letters that represent a section (i.e., Drama, Juvenile Fiction, etc.). The next three characters are numbers designed to connect subheadings and sub-subheadings within a section (e.g., Art/History/Asian). The final three characters represent the specific subject category.


Spurring a Variety of Sales

But the BISAC Subject Codes aren’t useful only with wholesalers and retailers. They can also spur sales to consumers and libraries.

Think, for instance, of potential customers browsing on Internet retailers’ sites. If they don’t know the title of your book, or don’t even have a specific title in mind, they will, of course, search by subject, using one or more key words. Since each of the major Internet retailers utilizes the BISAC Subject Categories as an important aspect of and link to their proprietary browse mechanisms (which usually represents the manner in which they most want to merchandise products), it’s important that you assign categories from that list to your titles. Otherwise you have to rely on the retailers to assign the correct subject category. Because they don’t know your book the way you do, they may not assign the right category or categories, in which case your book is not likely to turn up in searches by the people who would in fact be interested in it. Or, worse yet, the retailers may not assign any subject categories to your book, which means potential customers won’t even know it exists.

Or consider the typical library acquisition process. You’re probably aware that libraries spend a considerable amount on books each year and that they seek out titles by small presses to balance their collections in specific subject categories. While libraries tend to use the Library of Congress Classifications, most library suppliers also include the BISAC Subject Categories in the research tools and publications they provide to this market. An acquisition librarian will do a search by subject classifications when creating lists of titles to acquire. If your book is too recent to have been cataloged by LC or one of the bibliographic utilities, failing to give it a BISAC Subject Category will prevent the librarian from learning about it.


Selecting Subjects for More Visibility

To keep up with changing market conditions, the BISAC Subject Headings are continually revised. Revisions become available twice a year and typically present not only new categories and/or subcategories but also discontinued categories.

Once you have your copy, look through the categories and decide which specific subject category fits a given book best. Then choose that as the book’s primary subject category. Next, see if there are any other subject categories that describe the book, and if so, make these its secondary subject categories. Many wholesalers and retailers have forms that let you include multiple subject categories for each book. You do not want to go crazy and assign dozens; three categories is about the right number. With them in place, your book will turn up in a search in its primary category and two closely related categories, becoming more visible and more likely to sell.


Frank Daly is Executive Director of the Book Industry Study Group, a not-for-profit research and technology standards organization whose members come from every sector of the publishing community. The Study Group, which publishes the annual “Book Industry Trends,” is a forum for managing change and enabling interaction among publishers, booksellers, librarians, wholesalers, manufacturers, authors, and suppliers. For more information, visit


Special 50% Discount

The current BISAC Subject Headings–version 2.5, published in July 2001–are available to non-BISG members either in hard copy or on disk in Excel for $25 from the BISG Web site www.bisg.org. Click on “Publications” on the main page. PMA members only can get them in downloadable electronic form for $12 from the PMA Web site at www.pma-online.org.

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