< back to full list of articles
Using the BISAC Subject Codes: Q&A from the Book Industry Study Group’s BISAC Subject Codes Committee

or Article Tags

Using the BISAC Subject Codes: Q&A from the Book Industry Study Group’s BISAC Subject Codes Committee

What does BISAC stand for?

BISAC is an acronym for Book Industry Standards and Communications.

What are BISAC subject codes?

The BISAC Subject Heading List (BSHL for short) is an industry-approved list of subject descriptors (or headings), each of which is represented by a nine-character alphanumeric code. The list has 50 major sections, such as Computers, Fiction, History, and True Crime. Within each major section, a number of detailed descriptors represent subtopics that the BISAC Subject Heading Committee has deemed most appropriate for the major topic.

Developed to standardize the electronic transfer of subject information, the codes can be used for transmitting information between trading partners, as search terms in the major bibliographic databases, as access points for database searching, and as shelving guides

What are the benefits of using BISAC Subject Headings?

The headings give you a standardized way to tell retailers and the general book trade about the primary and secondary store sections where a title will fit best–and, hopefully, sell best. In addition, they help retailers get your titles on the shelf more quickly, and they provide an electronically compatible method for describing the content of a book.

Who uses the BISAC Subject Headings?

Many of the major businesses in the North American book industry, including Amazon, Baker & Taylor, Barnes & Noble, Bookscan, Booksense, Bowker, Indigo, Ingram, and most major publishers use the BSHL (BISAC Subject Heading List) in a variety of ways. Several of these users require publishers who submit data to them to include the BISAC Subject Headings.

How do I get the BISAC Subject Heading List?

You can order it at http://www.bisg.org/publications/bisac_subj.html.

If your company is a member of the Book Industry Study Group (BISG), the BSHL documentation is free. For nonmembers, the fee is nominal. Currently the codes are issued in Word, Excel, and PDF formats. When you subscribe to the BSHL, you receive an electronic package containing all three formats.

Who on my staff should apply a subject to a title?

The best person to assign the codes to your titles is the person who knows the most about the content of the books. Most likely that person is an editor, or perhaps a marketing department associate.

How many subject headings can I use per title?

The committee recommends from one to three headings depending on the complexity of the title. The best answer to the question depends on your system and that of your trading partners. Theoretically, you can use any number of headings.

How should I assign headings?

There are at least three philosophical approaches.

Some users like to apply the most specific code possible within each major subject area, choosing headings like History / military / world war i rather than History / military / general.

Others favor an inclusive approach and might use the World War I term plus History / military / general, perhaps together with the even broader term History / modern / 20th century.

Still others believe in applying a code that represents a bestselling category in the hope that the new title will ride the coattails of bestsellers. This is not recommended if that category is not appropriate for the work in question.

With database systems that are sophisticated enough, you can do a Keyword or Find search on the entire list to identify all the terms that may be appropriate for the book. This is especially effective if it is difficult to determine the proper major section. Also, it helps alert you to cases where similar subjects appear in different sections to reflect different ways of approaching the topic (e.g., Health & Fitness / sexuality; Psychology / human sexuality; Religion / sexuality & genderstudies; Self-Help / sexual instruction; not to mention related subjects under Juvenile Fiction, Juvenile Nonfiction, and Social Science).

Heading descriptions can be constructed in two, three, or four parts, with each part (or level) separated by a forward slash (/). A two-part heading would consist of the section name (e.g., History) and a subheading presenting a major aspect of the section, such as medieval–i.e., History / medieval. Many headings consist of only two levels; however, a third level can give more detail in some subject areas, as in, for instance, History / military / vietnam war. Occasionally four levels are used, e.g., History / africa / south / south africa.

Once you have selected the appropriate section and subtopic(s), you need to consult the official BISAC Subject Heading List to determine the nine-character code for your heading.Using the Excel version is the most efficient way to do this.

Do I need to print the codes or the descriptors on my book?

Printing the descriptors is a very good idea, although not an official recommendation at this time. In an ideal future, all publishers would base their subject categories on the BISAC Subject Headings and print them in catalogs and on books.

Are there standards for the placement of the subject on the book?

Not at present. The subject descriptor can appear on the book in a convenient place, but it does not have to be there. The committee recommends against placing the nine-character code on the book or in catalogs; the code is designed for EDI information exchanges. If you want to indicate the subject heading represented by the code, use the descriptor itself, e.g., Biography & Autobiography / presidents & heads of state. The most useful position is the lower left-hand corner of the back cover or jacket.

How do I tell my trading partner which code applies to my books?

The best way is to use the ONIX protocol, an XML document designed to convey metadata about books between trading partners. Some of your trading partners may have other electronic vehicles that include elements for the BSHL code.

What if I need a heading that is not in the list?

The BSHL is maintained by the BISAC Subject Heading Committee, which consists of volunteers interested in the intellectual challenge of creating, revising, and amending an authority list of terms for the industry. The committee considers all requests from members of BISG and the industry who have identified a need not currently covered by the terms in the heading list. To ask for a new heading, send an e-mail to the committee chair, currently Wendell Lotz (bisac_subjectcodes@bisg.org).

What if I have a question that is not answered here?

More information is available at www.bisg.org, and please feel free to write the committee chair at bisac_subjectcodes@bisg.org. We’ll do our best to answer your question using our members’ collective experience.

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