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Using BISAC Subject Headings

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by Angela Bole, Deputy Executive Director, Book Industry Study Group —

Angela Bole

Publishers need to be able to assign the correct BISAC Subject Heading (or more than one heading) to each book because organizations across the publishing supply chain use BISAC headings to determine where books are shelved in bricks-and-mortar stores and what online database categories they’re placed in.

Assigning BISAC headings correctly can ensure that a title efficiently makes its way through intermediaries such as wholesalers and retailers into the hands of happy readers. On the flip side, coding a book incorrectly may mean it ends up in a forgotten corner of a bookstore or Website, surrounded by dissimilar titles that would never attract the people who are likely customers for it.

Each year, the Book Industry Study Group, which is responsible for developing and publishing the BISAC Subject Headings list, releases a new edition. The latest one, published in December 2012, includes more than 73 new headings and 55 changes to almost 30 different sections. Significant changes in the Fiction section include new trees for Romance/Historical and Thrillers, and the Computers section includes new headings for Content Management Systems and Tablets.

If you’re new to the BISAC Subject Headings code list—or if you just want a refresher—read on for a Q&A covering essential information. And if you have any questions about the information here, please email info@bisg.org.

Q: What are BISAC Subject Headings?

A: BISAC Headings are an industry-approved list of terms used to describe the content of a book. The headings are organized in 52 main subject areas—for example, Business & Economics, Family & Relationships, Religion and Games—with more than 3,600 distinct terms.

By assigning BISAC headings to their books, publishers transmit information about the content of the books to wholesalers, distributors, and retailers using a consistent syntax that’s understood by everyone across the industry.

BISAC Subject Headings provide:

  • a common language for sales reporting
  • an access point for online search
  • a shelving guide for bricks-and-mortar stores

Q: What do BISAC Subject Headings look like?

A: Although you can choose from more than 3,600 distinct BISAC Subject Headings, each BISAC heading has the same format.

A BISAC heading is a 9-character alphanumeric code (in the form AAA######) and what’s called a Literal (in the form SECTION NAME / Subheading), with further subheadings possible.

For example:

Code: MAT002040; Literal: MATHEMATICS / Algebra / Intermediate

Code: PET004010; Literal: PETS / Dogs / Breeds

Code: TRV028000; Literal: TRAVEL / Cruises

Codes are intended to be sent as part of the book’s metadata within electronic data interchange—through ONIX or via Excel spreadsheet, for example. Literals are intended for print/display purposes. Very often, for instance, publishers print a book’s Literal BISAC Subject Heading(s) on its back cover or inside flap.

Q: How can I choose the best BISAC Subject Heading(s) for a particular book?

Choosing BISAC headings is easy in principle. Take two steps:

1. Decide what the book’s main subject area is. Think Health & Fitness, for example.

2. Pick the specific term(s) within the main subject area that most closely fit the book’s content. Within Health & Fitness, for instance, they might be Diet & Nutrition.

When several subjects are important in a book, it’s good to repeat that process for its other main subject areas.

Although the cap is arbitrary to a degree, no more than three BISAC headings should be assigned to any single book. And if you’re assigning multiple BISAC headings, it’s wise, of course, to keep logical guidelines in mind. A title cannot have both a Juvenile and an Adult heading, for instance; and the same book cannot have both a Fiction and a Non-Fiction heading.

If you get stuck, you can refer to the usage notes found at the beginning of each main subject area at bisg.org.

Usage notes for the Humor subject area include the following, for example:

HUMOR: Use subjects in this section only for individual works of humor or for collections of humor. Critical works should be assigned “LITERARY CRITICISM / Humor” and any other subjects needed in the LITERARY CRITICISM section (and should not be assigned any subjects in the HUMOR section).

Note that all main subject areas include General as a second-level term. This can be useful for books covering a topic at the broadest level or for books with narrow scope that cannot be better described by one of the other terms within the relevant section. It’s important to use General only as a last resort, however. After all, the point of applying a BISAC Subject Heading is to help the end user get a specific understanding of what a book is about, and General is hardly specific.

In essence, selecting a BISAC Subject Heading is more an art than a science. Although the BISAC heading should always describe only the primary content of the book, assigning headings is not always a precise process, and there can be more than one “right” choice.

On the other hand, there are clearly a few important things a BISAC Subject Heading should never be assigned to do.

  • It should not be used to describe a book’s format.
  • It should not be used to describe the audience for the book.
  • It should not be used to describe the book’s language.
  • It should not be used to describe the author.

Q: What if I can’t find the BISAC Heading I want?

A: The Book Industry Study Group develops and maintains the BISAC Subject Headings list within its Subject Codes Committee, and that committee welcomes suggestions from people in the industry about new codes that would be helpful.

If you can’t find the BISAC heading you’re looking for, you’re invited to contact the BISG office via info@bisg.org to suggest a new code for the next version of the list.

Keep in mind that the committee considers three factors when deciding whether or not to add a new BISAC heading:

1. Does the suggested heading describe the content of the book and not the audience, format, or language?

2. Are there at least 100 unique titles (from different publishers) in the supply chain that would have this heading?

3. Would adding the requested heading require extensive expansion of the list (we try to keep the number of headings at around 3,000)?

Q: How can I access BISAC Headings?

A: Access to the complete BISAC Headings List is free online at bisg.org/what-we-do-0-136-bisac-subject-headings-list-major-subjects.php.

Those who would like to incorporate the BISAC Headings List in their own database system can acquire the right to do so by either joining the Book Industry Study Group or by paying a modest annual license fee. More user license information is available online at bisg.org/publications/product.php?p=14&c=437.

Finally, those interested are invited to download a quick-and-dirty 101-Webcast describing what’s new with this edition of the BISAC Subject Headings. Visit bisg.org/events-0-878-bisg-webcastthe-new-bisac-subject-headings-connecting-books-to-readers.php to do so.

Angela Bole is deputy executive director of the Book Industry Study Group, Inc. (BISG). An active member of the Women’s Media Group, a New York–based nonprofit association, she also serves as treasurer on the board of directors of IDPF, the International Digital Publishing Forum.

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