The Mystery of BISAC Codes

We all know books are categorized into different genres. There is an official committee that essentially helps publishers categorize their titles. It’s called the Book Industry Study Group, and it creates, activates, and deactivates the current BISAC (Book Industry Standards and Communications) codes. These are exactly what they say they are: codes that define industry standards. It is helpful for libraries and booksellers to have a standardized way of categorizing books, and because of this, many businesses require the publisher to provide this information. At the base of it, this is a simple way to code a book’s genre. Just like metadata, this behind-the-scenes information helps with the placement of a book in both a physical store and an online search.

This is what a BISAC code looks like: FIC022130 FICTION / Mystery & Detective.

So how does a publisher choose a BISAC code? The BISAC codes best practices say to get as specific as possible. The way the codes are decided on and brought into existence is based on need. Therefore, it should help your sales greatly to get very specific with the codes: if there is a code for it, then there are other books boasting the same specific subject matter. While it is technically possible to use unlimited codes, it is recommended to not exceed three BISAC codes to describe your book. There are codes ending in “general,” which are intended to be used in one of two situations: first, if the title includes a very broad or general subject matter; and second, if the subject is so specific it can’t be described by any other code.

The main advice is to get specific. There are a lot of codes, which makes it fairly easy to do this. The list of fiction codes is very long—there are sixteen different codes for thrillers alone. But even with all these specific categories to choose from, some publishers still choose to be general. For example, Dan Brown’s bestseller Origin is listed with the “FICTION / General” BISAC code. I suppose if you’re Dan Brown, you don’t need much more than your name to sell your next book. Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty is also listed under “FICTION / General.” A quick look at Bookscan reveals that most of Brown’s previous titles fall into the expected thriller categories, while Moriarty’s books seem to have moved through genres over time. Her titles published prior to 2016 are listed under “FICTION / Women,” a 2016 title is listed under “FICTION / Family Life,” and now Nine Perfect Strangers, a 2018 title, has switched to “FICTION / General.” So why the switch? I can only speculate as to why the publishers would make these changes, but it is likely that these types of shifts are one of the reasons the BISAC code list is updated every year. Perhaps the publishers chose “FICTION / General” because that is where they felt their book would stand out the best, or because there was no other place for it. The list of BISAC codes for fiction is very long, and the codes can get quite specific (for example, “FIC022130 FICTION / Mystery & Detective / Cozy / Culinary”).
Yet if you scroll to the bottom (because the list is alphabetical), you will see “FIC044000 FICTION / Women.” This is the code the publishers chose for Moriarty’s earlier books. However, there is nothing specific about “FICTION / Women,” and a gender is not a genre. If publishers are feeling the need to relocate their authors on the shelves, perhaps it is time for another change to the codes.

The BISAC codes list is updated every fall. Suggestions for changes can be made at the BISG website.

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