Publishers Pressured to Use Coding System Despite its many Flaws
Not too long ago, an editor at a major househeard from a disgruntled author. He was fretting over the fact that his Thanksgiving-themed book was being categorized under the BISAC subject area “Social Science/Customs & Traditions.” He was concerned that the potential buyer for his spiritual holiday title might not find it if it were shelved next to, say, Sources of Chinese Traditions, Vol. 1. The editor was in a quandary — while she certainly agreed that the book belonged under “General Interest/Seasonal Books/Thanksgiving,” she didn’t know the parameters for changing a BISAC code. After a series of emails with the marketing and production departments, she learned it is possible to change a BISAC code, but the desired classification did not exist. They ended up printing the in-house classification on the back cover, and the editor went on her merry way — except now she was fretting over BISAC subject codes.
Have we already lost you? Let us (try to) explain: The once-arcane and still-misunderstood BISAC system is being squabbled over in many large publishing houses, where editors are being told to attach codes to their books — even as they ask the seemingly obvious question, “Why?” What many editors don’t know is that their houses are getting pressured by large retailer and wholesaler clients to use this mammoth — and some say, still arcane — categorization system.
Convoluted, maybe; but definitely critical. BISAC codes are to booksellers as the Dewey Decimal System is to librarians. What began as a simple way to assist the clerk shelving books has become a complex system, replete with online search functions and tracked by BookScan. Barnes & Noble and Amazon use BISAC codes in differing degrees to filter categories for their online browsers. (Amazon and Borders declined to comment for this story, but according to Baker & Taylor, the wholesaler translates the BISAC codes into genre codes for Amazon.) “It’s a core, basic and common descriptive language for categorizing books,” says Book Industry Study Group Executive Director Jeff Abraham. And, in conjunction with the ONIX system, they allow the computers of publishers, distributors and retailers to describe a book in the same way worldwide — finally, a method for facilitating global book sales.
More specifically, it’s a list of about 50 subject categories with a total of about 3,000 (and growing) sub- and sub-subcategories with related numbers, which is overseen by the BISG’s BISAC (an acronym for Book Industry Standards and Communications) Subject Codes Sub-committee. The codes start with three letters, followed by six numbers. Example: a “Fiction/Romance/Gothic” title shows up in databases as FIC027040. While booksellers and distributors praise it because it helps them organize books without knowing anything about them — in advance of the publication date — editors are left flummoxed when their books, which they know intimately, don’t seem to fit any of the BISAC subjects.
A Work in Progress
Everyone agrees on one thing: the BISAC subject code list is a work in progress. Version 2.9, which will reconfigure some primary categories, including Law and Computers, is expected out in the next few months, and it’s a distant cousin to Version 1. Looking back at earlier versions, you can’t help but ponder the gap between the mere 14 Science listings and the 44 Religion listings. Even the current Version 2.8 (available on the BISG website) has over 100 Religion listings, but for some strange reason the subcategories of Spirituality and New Age fall under the heading Body, Mind & Spirit. And just plain “Spiritual” falls under Self-Help. You could lose your religion trying to decipher these. The category of Graphic Novels saw the light of day rather late — in Version 2.7 —after a group of publishers pointed out that they didn’t really fit in Comics and Cartoons.
“It’s bad data hygiene,” says DAP President Sharon Gallagher, who with National Accounts Director Jane Brown, rallied for a revision of the Art category a few years ago. At the time, the only subcategories were “Art/author” and “Art/
illustrator.” DAP worked with BISG to develop more comprehensive Art sub- and sub-subcategories, which number over 70 now. So, at least there’s now a spot for Leonardo.
Though it revisits the list twice a year, the sub-committee in charge has yet to publish formal usage notes. Constance Harbison, chair of the Subject Code Sub-committee and senior director of books in print at Bowker, said the approximately 35-member sub-committee intends to develop “scope notes,” a separate up-to-the-minute document that would be available online to help people use BISAC codes, when it is finished revising the current edition.
Nobody interviewed for this story knew exactly when the subject codes were created. But Wendell Lotz, Chair of the BISAC General Committee and VP/Product Database Development at Ingram, joined the sub-committee in 1996, and Version 1 had been in place for a few years. Though the coding was invented to “help the $7-an-hour clerk in the store get the book to the right shelf,” Lotz says it’s only been in the last couple of years that BISAC has been widely accepted. Of Ingram’s top 25 publishers by sales volume, only about three don’t use BISAC at this time, Lotz says. “But, the publishers still haven’t figured out how to use them well.” One of the main problems Lotz has observed is that editors and publishers want to put the widest possible category on a book to get the most exposure. But, BISAC’s overseers wish they would apply the narrowest category.
In the words of one wholesaler, publishers are driving the system amok. Steven Pace, Baker & Taylor VP, Retail Sales, said some publishers choose the category based on concurrent best-selling areas. For example, a publisher might classify a title as “Biography,” when “Self Help” is more accurate, but less attractive. Helene Green, director of data operations at Simon and Schuster, admits “there are in-house discrepancies” as to how BISAC subject codes are handled, and she looks forward to the day the BISAC Committee distributes written standards. “It can happen six months ahead of publication, or it can happen the day an ISBN is created,” she said. Sometimes the editorial team assigns one when they first get the manuscript, but marketing can override this when assigning a final code to be sent to trade partners. And, according to Lotz, Ingram sometimes changes codes before sending them to retailers.
“BISAC is really, really, really stupid,” exclaims Mary Sunden, formerly VP of Penguin International who worked on their systems issues. “It is the only part of the ONIX system that people complain about … because subject categorizing is subjective.” She attributes its faults to the fact that it was designed by “techies” who probably didn’t have the best grasp of how books are made and marketed. “As a result, people in publishing houses are forcing their books into these categories,” she says. Granted, the BISAC codes work well in some areas — such as more academic fields and traditional trade — but nonfiction books are becoming harder to pinpoint, as illustrated with such books as Seabiscuit (Horses or History?).
If each book can have numerous BISAC codes, then why is there so much concern for picking the right one? According to Jim King, VP, general manager at BookScan, only the primary subject code is recognized by Bookscan. For this reason, he says, “We always encourage publishers to pay attention to BISAC codes — and it’s something that only a qualified person should assign.”
In November 2002, Barnes & Noble implemented its Efficient Data Receipt Program, which told publishers to use the BISAC subject codes, or risk penalty. The program requires its vendors to send 11 core data points for a book 180 days before the publication date — and the BISAC code is one of them. “The idea behind the program is that if publishers packaged their books in a way that required us to spend more time in the warehouse, then we would ask for remuneration,” explained Richard Stark, B&N director of product data, adding that the retailer tried to ease publishers into the new requirements (it has only resorted to charge backs twice, and only for repeat offenders). Over 100 of the retailer’s top vendors currently are subjected to these requirements; the top 200 vendors should be on board by the end of 2005; but B&N may never place this demand on small publishers. Now, about 75% of the data receipts from the involved publishers arrive complete. A missing BISAC code can add “upwards of a minute to the [data entering] process,” says Stark. “This isn’t so much, but if you multiply it by tens of thousands each year, it’s significant.”
Somewhat ironically, the biggest motivator for implementing BISAC, B&N, uses the codes mostly as a guide to assign its own in-house subject categories. It has two in-house categorization systems: one for its website and one for in stores.
Back to the Thanksgiving book dilemma. One of the sub-committee’s current agenda items is to discuss the adoption of another coding system, called “themes,” which would augment the subject areas and aid in merchandizing. They include specific ethnic orientations, holidays, regions or topics (e.g. Black History Month). In the meantime, when all else fails, don’t forget code #NON000000, for those non-classifiables.
For more basic information on BISAC subject codes, see www.bisg.org/publications/bisac_subj_faq.html.