One of the best things about self-publishing is that, without gatekeepers to limit the content, there are hundreds of thousands – maybe even millions – of books available to browse and buy from any online bookstore. Of course, with that many options available to a potential reader, it is important that specific books – your book – are easy to find.
One of the ways the publishing industry makes browsing bookstores (both online and brick and mortar) easier is by sorting every book into genres, or categories, defined by book type, content, intended audience age, and more. In recent years, an organization called the Book Industry Study Group has created a uniform method for book categorization known as BISAC subject codes.
Ready to maximize your book’s discoverability? Read on to learn more about genres, BISAC codes, and how to choose the right ones for your book!
What is Genre?
Genre is a category of artistic composition characterized by similarities in form, style, or subject matter.
For books in particular, genre can refer to the form or type of book (poetry, drama, essay, short story, etc.), or a categorization of the content itself. Sometimes genre can be as broad as just the general distinction between Fiction and Nonfiction, but it may also be more nuanced to include the main theme, such as Mystery, Romance, Memoir, or Personal Growth.
Knowing your book’s genre is an important part of both writing and marketing your book. It will help you with details like determining your target audience, designing your cover, and identifying metadata details like BISAC codes and keywords, which is why we’re here today!
What is BISAC?
Last year we published a thorough look at what BISAC is (and why it matters), so to steal from that blog post:
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. Since BISG updates BISAC annually, the code list keeps up with changes in the publishing industry; meaning using BISAC to categorize your book ensures long-term relevance.
The Difference Between BISAC and Genre
BISG also explains that BISAC Subject Codes can be used “to help determine where the work is shelved in a bricks-and-mortar store or the genre(s) under which it can be searched for in an online database.” How, then, are BISAC and Genre different?
The short answer is that they really aren’t. The longer – and more accurate – answer is that BISAC subject codes are a newer and much more nuanced classification system inspired by the broader, existing genres.
There are several thousand unique BISAC Subject Codes to choose from. That is not an exaggeration, and is in fact probably an underestimate, especially considering the BISG reevaluates and adds new codes every year. Which makes sense, because BISG recommends that you use the most specific subject codes possible for your book. They encourage authors and publishers to get as granular as possible when choosing a subject code because it helps maximize your book’s discoverability, which is the whole point of this categorization system in the first place.
What it essentially boils down to is this: your genre is a great broad-strokes way to identify your book, and your BISAC subject codes are a great way to define that genre – with nuance – in your metadata. At the end of the day, both (when used correctly) will help readers find your book.
Categorizing Your Book
When publishing your book with Lulu you will be prompted to choose both a Lulu Bookstore Category and at least one BISAC Subject Code for any book added to the Lulu Bookstore and / or to Global Distribution. This is required, as both categories are necessary to help with the discoverability of your book in any online retailer.
Our publishing tool now links Lulu Bookstore Categories and your first BISAC Subject Code – for example, if you choose Biographies & Memoirs as your Lulu Bookstore Category, the publisher will recommend BIO000000 | BIOGRAPHY & AUTOBIOGRAPHY / General as one of your three BISAC codes. This means that the easiest way for you to narrow down your BISAC options is to identify your book’s genre and bookstore category first.
1. Identify Your Genre
You should, realistically, know what genre your book falls into before you ever start writing it. Have you set out to write a cookbook? Your family’s history? To share your expertise in your particular professional field? That’s your starting point for determining your book’s genre.
Depending on how broad or nuanced you want to be there are many, many potential genres for you to choose from. We’ll review some of the most popular ones below, but for a more comprehensive list check out this List of Writing Genres from Wikipedia.
Nailing down a succinct definition of Fiction can be difficult – even Merriam-Webster created a paradox by defining fiction as “fictitious literature,” only to then define fictitious as “of, relating to, or characteristic of fiction.” They do, at least, continue to define fiction as “something invented by the imagination or feigned; specifically an invented story.”
In other words, fiction writing is creative writing – any instance where the story has been invented or fabricated by the author. Fictional works can range dramatically in how realistic they are; To Kill a Mockingbird and The Lord of the Rings are both works of fiction, no matter how different their content. Of course, there are plenty of genres (and subgenres) within the umbrella of “fiction” that allow for books to be categorized by content and themes, so we don’t have to mix our realistic fiction in with our epic fantasies.
Your genre is a great broad-strokes way to identify your book, and your BISAC subject codes are a great way to define that genre – with nuance – in your metadata.
The first two funnels that fiction books get divided into are Literary Fiction versus Commercial (or Genre) Fiction. Literary Fiction tends to focus on character-driven stories, rather than plot-driven, and can often be reflections on both the inner and external struggles of a character or group of characters. Many, if not all, of the classics – The Catcher in the Rye, The Great Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises, etc. – are considered literary fiction.
Literary fiction can, of course, be broken down further into subgenres, some of which may overlap with commercial fiction genres. Frankenstein, Love in the Time of Cholera, and The Handmaid’s Tale are all considered literary fiction, but each belong to dramatically different subgenres (gothic horror, magical realism or romance, and dystopian science fiction, respectively).
Additional Literary Fiction genres can include Comedy or Satire, Historical, Religious, Urban, Political, and more.
Commercial or Genre Fiction
Commercial fiction – also known as genre fiction or popular fiction – is generally more plot-driven, defined by the characteristics of the specific genre or subgenre they belong to. Romance novels, for example, always have a Happily Ever After ending…if they don’t, they’re not romance novels. A mystery will have…well, a mystery. Probably a dead body or two as well.
The major commercial fiction genres include (but are definitely not limited to): Action/Adventure, Fantasy, Horror, Mystery, Romance, and Science Fiction. And of course, each of these genres can be broken down into increasingly more nuanced subgenres. These are some of the most popular subgenres per commercial fiction genre, though of course there are many more:
- Action/Adventure: Historical, Nautical, Spy, Thriller, Western, etc.
- Fantasy: Contemporary, Dark, Epic, High, Historical, Paranormal/Supernatural, Superhero, etc.
- Horror: Contemporary, Gothic, Lovecraftian, Monster, Paranormal, Psychological, etc.
- Mystery: Cozy, Detective, Hardboiled, Historical, Noir, Procedural, etc.
- Romance: Contemporary, Erotic, Historical, Inspirational, Paranormal, Queer, Suspense, etc.
- Science Fiction: Apocalyptic, Dystopian, Space Opera, Techno, etc.
It is also worth noting that these genre categories can and do exist for multiple reader age levels. The publishing industry generally breaks the audiences down into Adult and Children, with Children being further broken down into Children’s Books (picture books, board books, etc.), Books for Young Readers (chapter books and early readers), Middle Grade (readers aged roughly 8-12), and Young Adult (13 and up). So, for example, Adult Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy are independent subgenres with different (although obviously similar) identifying characteristics.
Unlike fiction, Merriam-Webster defines nonfiction pretty succinctly for such a broad field of work: “writing or cinema that is about facts and real events.” It is, exactly as the word itself suggests, the antithesis of fiction – nonfiction writing is factual and grounded entirely in reality.
There is a wide and diverse range of nonfiction genres, depending entirely on how refined you want to get. MasterClass has a great overview of what they classify as the 9 Essential Genres of Nonfiction Books, including:
- History: Books on wars, the history of countries, ruling dynasties, trade, etc.
- People: Biographies, Autobiographies, and Memoirs
- Travel: Travel Guides and Travel Memoirs
- Academic/Educational: Textbooks, Workbooks, Study Guides, How-To, Cookbooks, etc.
- Social Science: Philosophy, Psychology, Sociology & Anthropology, etc.
- Self-Help: Personal Growth, Relationships, Family, Arts & Crafts, etc.
- Current Events: Journalism, Political, Cultural, Humor/Satire, Pop Culture, etc.
2. Choose a Lulu Bookstore Category
Now that you know what genre your book belongs in, it should be relatively simple to fit your book into one of the 30 distinct book categories the Lulu bookstore is divided into. Take a look at the list below for a quick overview of each of our bookstore categories, including which BISAC subject codes are connected to each category and some of the most popular topics you’ll find there.
3. Choosing BISAC Subject Codes for Your Book
With your Lulu Bookstore Category identified you should have a good idea of which BISAC Subject Heading best fits your book! However, remember that BISG strongly encourages choosing the most specific BISAC codes possible. So while knowing the “general” subject header is useful, you should definitely narrow down your options into three specific choices that best fit your book.
- Use Helpful Resources
The Book Industry Study Group has a very helpful FAQ for how to select a BISAC code. I strongly encourage you to read through it before choosing your BISAC codes!
- When in Doubt, Go With the Most Obvious Choice
Your BISAC Subject Header – and your Lulu Bookstore Category – is intended to help your book’s discoverability in an online bookstore, just like in a brick and mortar bookstore. Consider where you would go looking for your book in a physical bookstore – what is the first section that comes to mind? If you are between genres and not sure which one to pick, go with the category that seems most obvious, aka the first place someone would think to look.
- Avoid Redundancy By Avoiding Generic Choices
BISG recommends that you use the most specific codes possible for your book. They also strongly discourage using both a specific and a general subject heading for your book – for example, if you choose FICTION / Romance / Romantic Comedy as a BISAC code, FICTION / Romance / General would be a redundant choice. The more specific your code selection, the more accurate your metadata will be, and the easier it is for readers to find your book!
Writing a book is an incredible accomplishment in its own right, but of course you also want people to actually read the book you’ve worked so hard on. You have a story – or wisdom, or information, or art – to share with readers; make sure they can find it. Maximize your book’s discoverability by correctly identifying your genre, placing your book in an appropriate bookstore category, and using accurate keywords and metadata like BISAC Subject Codes.