BISAC: What It Is And Why It Matters

What is BISAC and why does it matter? Blog Graphic Header

What kind of book did you write? Is it a fantasy romance or a sci-fi thriller? Maybe it’s a steampunk murder mystery with romantic overtones? Whichever category (or overlapping venn diagram of categories) your book does fall into, there is a BISAC code for it. 

I’m not kidding either. BISAC, which stands for Book Industry Standards And Communications, is a globally accepted system for categorizing books. Maintained by the Book Industry Study Group (https://bisg.org/), BISAC codes provide writers a uniform method for categorization. Updated annually, the code list keeps up with changes in the publishing industry; meaning using BISAC to categorize your book ensures long term relevance. 

Understanding BISAC

If you’ve spent any time on bisg.org, you probably noticed how dry and academic their site is. Looking closely at BISAC codes, you might question why you—a self-published author—should bother. Well, let me tell you!

First, there’s a very good chance you’ve been using BISAC to categorize your book already. Even if your self-publisher offers a small list of category options, it’s likely they are associating that list with BISAC. So, if you choose Fiction – Horror while publishing on Lulu, we’re actually assigning a BISAC code for you.

That’s just how important (and pervasive) BISAC codes are. 

Why Your Book Category Matters

I’ve had this conversation more times than I like to admit. I meet a new author and they’re showing me a copy of their book or they’re just describing it to me. Like a parent bragging about their newborn, I can feel how proud and excited these authors are. And then I ask a few questions to better understand how they’re positioning their book in the market. 

“How would you categorize your book?”

Answers vary wildly. But not once have I ever had an author mention using BISAC to define their categories. They talk about defying norms and blending genres; their story is at the crux of new ways of thinking about vampire-space-romance. 

If I follow that up with “and what’s your organic discoverability like?” I get blank stares. Which, to be fair, is reasonable since most authors are not expert marketers steeped in the industry jargon. We’re not talking margins and print runs and fonts here. 

Using the BISAC Subject Headings List

To better understand why selecting BISAC codes are so important, it’s good to start by breaking down the code itself. Each BISAC includes up to four layers of specificity, beginning with the subject general term. The basic subject headings list includes these high-level categories defined by BISG:

  • ANTIQUES & COLLECTIBLES
  • ART
  • DESIGN
  • PHOTOGRAPHY
  • BIOGRAPHY & AUTOBIOGRAPHY
  • BUSINESS & ECONOMICS
  • JUVENILE FICTION
  • JUVENILE NONFICTION
  • COMICS & GRAPHIC NOVELS
  • COMPUTERS
  • TRANSPORTATION
  • COOKING
  • CRAFTS & HOBBIES
  • EDUCATION
  • FOREIGN LANGUAGE STUDY
  • LANGUAGE ARTS & DISCIPLINES
  • LITERARY COLLECTIONS
  • LITERARY CRITICISM
  • MATHEMATICS
  • STUDY AIDS
  • ARCHITECTURE
  • TECHNOLOGY & ENGINEERING
  • DRAMA
  • PERFORMING ARTS
  • FAMILY & RELATIONSHIPS
  • GAMES & ACTIVITIES
  • FICTION
  • HEALTH & FITNESS
  • HISTORY
  • TRUE CRIME
  • GARDENING
  • HOUSE & HOME
  • HUMOR
  • LAW
  • MUSIC
  • BODY, MIND & SPIRIT
  • SELF-HELP
  • PETS
  • POETRY
  • REFERENCE
  • BIBLES
  • RELIGION
  • MEDICAL
  • SCIENCE
  • PHILOSOPHY
  • POLITICAL SCIENCE
  • PSYCHOLOGY
  • SOCIAL SCIENCE
  • SPORTS & RECREATION
  • NATURE
  • TRAVEL
  • YOUNG ADULT FICTION
  • YOUNG ADULT NONFICTION

We start with these categories and become more specific with a series of sub-categories, separated by a “/” like this:

  • ANTIQUES & COLLECTIBLES / Art
  • ANTIQUES & COLLECTIBLES / Pottery & Ceramics

The second word or phrase further narrows the category, allowing you to precisely define what your book is about. And the more precise your categorization, the easier it will be for readers (and retailers) to find your book.

Which segues nicely into the categories and marketing.

Categories Are Part Of Marketing

BISQ recommends using at least one subject code pair and no more than three total codes. Self-published authors know discoverability is an important part of growing your brand and earning more sales. So you should use three codes, so long as each one is accurate and helpful. BISQ warns against simply adding classifications for the sake of doing so. The codes you select must be the right codes for your book.

Here’s an example. Let’s say I have a nonfiction book that profiles a teacher using a unique method to reach resistant students. The book is part biography of this teacher and part guide to their methods. So I might use these categories:

  1. BIOGRAPHY & AUTOBIOGRAPHY / Educators
  2. EDUCATION / Non-Formal Education
  3. SOCIAL SCIENCE / Research

The first two fit neatly into the story I outlined. And the third one, well it might not seem obvious from the description above. But if the book includes a wealth of data gathered in the service of understanding this new teaching method, the categorization may well be vital to retailers and readers. 

Note how that third category actually helps refine the first and second. From the BISAC codes, I know this book is biographical, about an educator using a non-formal method, and involves a degree of research. If I were a fellow teacher looking for content that might inspire or educate me, this book would catch my attention. 

More importantly, the book may surface when I filter through bookstore categories online. If I know what I want, well-applied categories match me with the right content.

Lulu And BISAC And Your Book

I think we covered the basic reasons why BISAC is important. It’s universally accepted and highly specific. But what about using BISAC for publishing your book with Lulu?

We’ve got you so covered on that one. 

Lulu’s bookstore uses a set of categories that differ from the BISAC main categories. But when you’re creating your book, you’ll select from BISAC options. Then we filter the books to appear in our bookstore. When you use Global Distribution to make your book available to retailers, we send those BISAC categories to them so your book will be properly organized on their store too.

This isn’t anything revolutionary. All legitimate booksellers use BISAC to filter their categories and organize books. Whether it’s your local bookstore and the way their shelves are organized or the dropdown menus on Lulu; BISAC powers that organization. 

Here at Lulu, we’re improving the transparency of category selection, giving you the option to apply up to three BISAC codes for every project. We’ll continue to use your primary category for sorting our bookstore, but all three will be included as part of your project’s metadata, helping ensure your book lands in the right category across the web. 

1 thought on “BISAC: What It Is And Why It Matters”

  1. Pingback: What the Hell is Metadata? | Lulu Blog

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