What is a BISAC subject?

When you assign an ISBN to a book, you will need to determine the book’s most suitable categories. These categories should match or be similar to its BISAC subjects.

First, let’s get that acronym out of the way. BISAC stands for “Book Industry Standards and Communications.”

Next, it’s important to understand the purpose and application of BISAC subjects. The Book Industry Study Group (BISG) created this list to standardize the electronic transfer of subject information between businesses within the North American book industry. This includes Amazon, Baker & Taylor, Barnes & Noble, Bookscan, Bowker, Indiebound, Indigo, Ingram and most major publishers. Even some libraries use a book’s BISAC subject to make it easier for patrons to find books.

A committee within BISG is responsible for creating a hierarchy of topics, breaking them down into sub-categories. While they don’t provide a description for what topics belong in every subject, they do create usage notes for the BISAC Subject Headings (the highest level of the hierarchy of codes).

You can access the complete list of BISAC subjects here. The list starts at the top level of the hierarchy. As you drill down into the subjects (the “parent”), you’ll find a variety of related subcategories (the “child”).

Every entry in the hierarchy has both a code and a name. This information does not need to appear anywhere on or in your book (as a matter of fact, we recommend that you don’t include it in your book), but it’s often used when creating an online book listing. Some online retailers will request the BISAC code while others ask for your book category. They represent the same information.

Optimizing Your BISAC Subject

When identifying suitable categories for a book, one of the strategies we use at Emerald Lake Books is to select child categories from different parents. This gives the title more exposure.

For example, when we published The 143rd in Iraq, we selected a BISAC category in History and another in Biography.

When we published Stress-Free Chicken Tractor Plans, we selected a parent category of Business & Money because one of the subcategories is Agriculture. We also chose Science & Math because Sustainable Agriculture is a child category there. And, given that it is a set of plans for constructing mobile chicken housing, we included the book in Engineering & Transportation as well.

You can’t afford to be dismissive of this process. An improperly classified title can significantly impact how quickly new readers find your work. We actually spend quite a bit of time understanding a new title’s audience so we can determine its best categories.

The categories can be changed later if you find they aren’t working for you. As a matter of fact, that’s a strategy we employ to give our titles even greater visibility, especially within Amazon.

Since we don’t include the BISAC subject on the physical book anywhere, we can change categories as often as we’d like. Therefore, we can target Amazon categories with very low competition, ranking the title quickly in that category, which impacts Amazon’s algorithm and gives the title more visibility. Once we’ve created that visibility, we can tackle a more competitive category.

In retail stores, shop owners will use the BISAC subject to determine on which shelf your title belongs. So you always want to make sure that whichever categories you choose, you are selecting those that will make sense to the reader. This is just one more reason why knowing your ideal reader for a title is so imperative.

As a result, part of your on-going strategy for marketing your book should include periodically re-evaluating and adjusting the BISAC subject you are using to maximize the exposure of your book.