You may have written the best book in the world, but you won’t get anywhere as an author if people can’t find that book.
Book discoverability and search is incredibly important for making sales. You need to make sure that your book is one of the first results when people search for the topic you’re writing about, whether on Amazon, Google, or elsewhere.
You can improve your chances in several ways: optimizing your title with smart keyword choices, doing targeted market research to understand what your audience is looking for, or selecting popular categories to list your book in, for instance.
But categories change depending on who’s listing them—Amazon uses its own internal categories, Barnes & Noble has different options, Kobo has still more, and physical bookstores use a different system entirely. Add in libraries and you’ve got a confusing jumble of ways to list your book.
Fortunately, there’s one system to rule them all: BISAC.
What Is BISAC?
BISAC stands for “Book Industry Standards and Communications.”
Basically, BISAC Subject Headings and BISAC Codes are a huge list of topics created by an industry group called the Book Industry Study Group (BISG). This organization of publishers, booksellers, libraries, distributors, manufacturers, and others works together to help set standards for the book industry.
They’re the people who figure out what format(s) to use for ebooks, how to transmit information about books, what information needs to be included in the first place, and more.
They developed BISAC codes to make it easy to classify books no matter where they appear—online, at a physical bookstore, in a library, etc.
Think of this system much like the Dewey Decimal system you used in the library as a kid, or the Library of Congress classifications you may have used in college—it’s a way to code books based on what they’re about so that you can easily track down just the right book.
BISAC codes don’t go as far as Dewey Decimal or LOC classification, though—you don’t assign a unique code to every single book.
Instead, BISAC codes group books by topics only—there are 54 major headings, and then many, many sub-headings. So if you want to find a book on, say, natural remedies, you would be directed to one of the following BISAC groups:
- HEA032000 HEALTH & FITNESS / Alternative Therapies
- HEA011000 HEALTH & FITNESS / Herbal Medications
- HEA030000 HEALTH & FITNESS / Homeopathy
- HEA016000 HEALTH & FITNESS / Naturopathy
Here, the first string of letters and numbers is the BISAC Code, the specific machine-readable label attached to a subject category. The next part, in English, is the general category followed after the slash by a more specific sub-topic; these English notations are called the BISAC Subject Heading and they’re essentially the natural-language translation of the code.
The point is that every book should be labeled with between 1 and 3 BISAC codes, which get translated in a computer system into a natural-language subject heading that a searcher can use to pinpoint the book they’re looking for.
How Do BISAC Codes Work?
As we saw in the example of the natural remedies book above, there are potentially a bunch of different codes that can apply to a single book.
So how does this help people who are searching for a book that will answer their questions about natural remedies…or anything else, for that matter?
Well, think about when you go to search for something online—there’s always a few ways you can ask a question to find the answer you’re looking for, right?
You might search for “natural remedy for a cold” or for “how to cure a cold naturally” or “how to beat cold symptoms naturally.” You might get more specific with “herbal remedy for colds” or “alternative to medication for colds.”
With all these different paths to finding the same answer, a book on natural remedies for the common cold, you can’t guarantee that your reader will find your book if you give them only one way to locate it.
BISAC codes let you choose a pathway to help guide a reader to your book. It starts with a broad topic, like “Health & Wellness,” then gets narrower and more specific, to “Alternative Therapies” or “Herbal Medications.”
Many books fit into more than one of these narrow categories, and that’s okay! You can assign up to 3 codes to a single book. If the store selling your book uses fewer than 3 codes in their listings (for instance, Amazon only allows 2), they’ll start with the first one you assigned and work down the list from there.
Where Are BISAC Codes Used?
Virtually every place that sells books, lends books, stores books, or otherwise has a bunch of books available for people to choose from in some way uses BISAC codes.
So Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Ingram, Baker & Taylor, Brodart, Follett, and any wholesaler or distributor you can think of uses BISAC codes somewhere in their system. Libraries also use these codes alongside other classification systems like Library of Congress, because the places they buy their books use these codes.
Amazon applies its own categories to both print and Kindle books, but it bases most of these categories on BISAC codes. CreateSpace and Ingram Spark both use BISAC codes as the basis for assigning categories to print books when self-publishing; CreateSpace just calls these “categories,” while Ingram Spark actually calls them BISAC codes.
When you’re entering your book for sale in most online stores, including B&N, Kobo, Smashwords, and the Apple iBookstore, you’ll be asked to select several categories to list your book in—these are all BISAC subjects headings.
What if the store you’re listing in doesn’t use BISAC codes specifically?
That’s okay! They’ll still have a list of categories that starts with general topics and gets more and more specific. Just choose the categories that are closest to your BISAC subject headings. This mainly applies to Amazon, but other stores may use their own category headings that are similar to BISAC, but with some customizations.
Don’t get flustered by the differences—just pick the best categories that match your book’s topic.
How Do I Pick My Categories?
So if there are hundreds upon hundreds of codes and subject headings to choose from, how do you pick the right categories for your book?
That’s a hard question to answer—you can only pick up to 3 categories (2 for listing on Amazon) and you really need to make those categories count.
Here’s a few tips for how to choose the categories that will help readers find your book most easily and will help you stand out from the crowd:
1. Start with the Most Specific
Always lead with the most specific code or category you possibly can.
Although you’re allowed to assign up to 3 categories to your book, some retailers will only sort your book based on one or two of these (hey there, Amazon!).
The vendor will always start from the top of the list, so you want to be sure that the most specific category is first, followed by the second-most, then the least specific of your chosen categories.
Drill down as far as you can on your topic and assign that category first. So in our earlier example of a natural remedies book, you’d probably want to go with “HEA011000 HEALTH & FITNESS / Herbal Medications” as the first subject heading if you’re writing about natural cold remedies, because that’s the most specific way someone might search for your book.
Similarly, if you’re writing a science fiction space opera, you’d want to get as specific as possible for your first listing. Instead of going with simply Fiction or Fiction / Science Fiction, you’d want to drill all the way down to “FIC028030 FICTION / Science Fiction / Space Opera.”
2. Choose One Popular and One Uncompetitive Category
Popular or competitive categories are ones where there are both a lot of books and a lot of people searching for those books—things like “romance” or “self-help.”
Uncompetitive categories are ones where you still get a lot of people looking for books, but you don’t have much competition in terms of other books using the same labels.
You can use these sortable lists to help you figure out two great categories to list your book. If possible, use one competitive category and one uncompetitive one—this will give you the best odds of having a potential reader not only find your book, but notice it in the crowd.
Depending on how a person searches, they’ll either browse to your book while going through the competitive category, or find it immediately when searching for a very specific topic in the uncompetitive category.
By listing your book this way, you get the advantage of being in a heavily searched category, but also standing out in a category that doesn’t have many other books in it.
3. Never Choose General Categories
It’s really, really hard to stand out when you’re one of 10,000 people in a room.
That’s why you should never, ever list your book in a very general category.
Think about it. Every single novel in existence can be categorized as “FIC000000 FICTION / General.” That’s millions of books! No matter how great yours is, the odds of a reader finding it and buying it among all those other books are pretty slim.
To increase your discoverability and the odds of the right reader finding and buying your book, use the most specific topics you can and avoid the general subject codes.
Even the slightly more specific codes, like “FIC009000 FICTION / Fantasy / General,” are way too broad. You’re better off using a specific code like “FIC009110 FICTION / Fantasy / Arthurian” to direct very specific traffic to your book.
Using a general category is essentially wasting one of your three listings, because no one is likely to find you among that much competition.
4. Use Other Categories as Keywords
If you’ve run out of BISAC subject listings when you’re setting up your book but you still have a few codes that seem to apply, as in the case of our natural remedies book, use the extra sub-headings as keywords.
For instance, Amazon only lets you have two subject categories, but you can have up to 7 keywords for your Kindle book.
BISAC has done the work of figuring out what topics people are searching for the most…so use that research to target your keywords!
You might list your natural cold remedies book like this:
Category (based on BISAC codes):
- HEA011000 HEALTH & FITNESS / Herbal Medications
- HEA032000 HEALTH & FITNESS / Alternative Therapies
Keywords: cold remedies, naturopathy, homeopathy, natural wellness, herbal remedies, cold care, natural healing
See how we’ve used categories starting with the most specific, then applied two of the suggested BISAC subject headings—naturopathy and homeopathy—to our keywords?
This helps us narrow down what to use for keywords based on solid industry research on what people are looking for, plus maximize our chances of people finding our book by mixing broader and more specific topics.
BISAC codes and subject headings help bookstores and libraries organize and list your work, and they help readers find your book when they’re searching for something on your topic.
Choose BISAC codes wisely and you’ll help guide more readers straight to your book!
For more on how book sales work, check out these articles:
- How Do Books Get In Stores? The Difference Between Retail, Wholesale, and Distribution
- How Do Bookstores Promote Books? Bookstore Displays and Co-Op Explained
- How to Sell More Books Offline
Kate Sullivan is an editor with experience in every aspect of the publishing industry, from editorial to marketing to cover and interior design.
In her career, Kate has edited millions of words and helped dozens of bestselling, award-winning authors grow their careers and do what they love!