BISAC – In which we organize the bookshop sections

BISACI am a nerd for classification schemes and standards. I’m a librarian and I have catalogued books, CDs, movies, even board games, using a variety of different classification schemes. Yesterday while reading an old issue of Library Journal I learned about a new one: BISAC. BISAC is an acronym for Book Industry Standards and Communications. Its purpose is to provide guidance and lay out a set of subject headings for bookstores (ie True Crime, Architecture, Comics & Graphic Novels, etc) to allow for a certain level of standardization in terms of bookstore layout and operation.
According to the Book Industry Standards Group (which I also just discovered the existence of…I learn something new every day, it seems) “The Headings can be used for transmitting information between trading partners, as search terms in the major bibliographic databases, as access points for database searching, and as shelving guides.” What this means is that by using BISAC you will be spending less time organizing your collection or entering it into your store’s POS and inventory system. The data, which you receive from publishers or wholesalers, will fit a standard that you are already using and allows for quick entry of new inventory.

The purpose of a standardized classification scheme such as BISAC is to create a controlled vocabulary through which all the items within a collection can be defined and labeled. This allows for a level of organization that would otherwise be very time consuming for each individual bookstore to create. On the part of the bookstore customer or the library patron, as well, it creates a sense of familiarity by ensuring that any library that uses Library of Congress Subject Headings or any bookstore that uses BISAC will follow certain standards and it will be easy to find the material you want within it. BISAC is not nearly as detailed as the classification schemes that libraries typically use, such as Library of Congress or Sears Subject Headings, but it doesn’t need to be. A bookstore’s collection will rarely be as large, and hopefully is not nearly as static as a library’s. As well, it seems that BISAC has been crafted in such as a way as to make it more flexible than other major subject heading schemes.
On the BISAC FAQ there are suggestions for how a retailer could adopt this standard even in an existing shop with existing sections (by mapping your currently existing sections onto the BISAC headings.) This standardized set of subject headings is designed to allow books to come to a bookstore from a publisher and for the bookstore to know immediately where the books should be shelved. It can allow for easier searching within your inventory system (assuming you have one designed to handle BISAC subject heading codes) by providing access points that your staff, or your customers, can use to search for books on a specific topic (or genre).

The way in which BISAC is set up is through headings and sub-headings. These subheadings may seem familiar from any of the major bookstore’s sections in-store. As I was reading through various lists I started to recognize the naming conventions from the Indigo near my house. I had always thought the section descriptions were arbitrary…now I know better. BISAC has certain quirks, as do all subject headings. For instance: the subject heading for Ancient Egypt reads as “HISTORY / Africa / Egypt see Middle East / Egypt or Ancient / Egypt” Although geographically Egypt is in Africa, popularly it is thought of as part of the Middle East, so that is what the subject heading lists it as part of. This is useful in that it will maintain a level of standardization which otherwise would mean that some stores using BISAC would place Ancient Egypt books in an African History section, and others would place it in a Middle Eastern History section, possibly leading to consumer confusion if there is the possibility of finding some books on this topic in one section and other books in another section.

The question that should come out of this is whether or not your bookstore should adopt BISAC and all that it entails. It will not be for everyone, that’s for sure, but it might not hurt to look into it. According to the BISAC website it is free to use (click HERE), but if you want to download a spreadsheet you need to become a member of the BISG. Have any of you reading this who own bookstores adopted BISAC as your standard of organization? Why or why not?

3 thoughts on “BISAC – In which we organize the bookshop sections”

  1. I, too, am a classification nut so thanks for the new information but it is almost 23 years too late in reaching me.

    Out of necessity, using common sense, as we computerized all phases of our business we developed our own similar breakdowns of categories and the subcategories within them to align the data flow between our group of stores.

    One caution I would offer if you are going to sign up with an organization such as this is to be sure they do not then claim a right to your data.

    A few years ago we investigated hooking up with Bowker to cut down on the work entering all the ISBNs entails.
    At that time we were informed that if we were willing to sign up and pay the $38,000 first year fee and then continue paying the gradually increasing fees ($40,000 the next year and $42,000 the following year, etc) thereafter we would continue to receive all updates and remain a member in good standing.
    However, if we decided not to continue paying those onerous fees they would pursue us legally to purge any and all our databases – including all the data we had previously entered.
    Their excuse for the escalating fees was they believed their data became more valuable year after year. My argument was that if they added 100,000 new books every year Pareto’s Law (the 80/20 principle) indicates the data is becoming more cumbersome and less useful as a result.

    What you mention seems to be a one shot deal and hopefully does not fall into the same trap. When I consider all the time and trials and errors we spent setting up our system the fee they are asking looks like a bargain. And it wisely errs on the side of being far too comprehensive so could be adapted to any existing system.

    • That’s a really good point about who owns the data. I didn’t see anything in BISAC about that, but I wasn’t looking. Thanks for bringing that up as a bit of a caveat for anyone looking into standardized data options.

  2. Australia uses BIC2 (Book Industry Communication) not BISAC. BISAC is the North American Equivalent to BIC and I am aware that they are trying to bring them closer together with a view to eventually merging them. You can see the BIC2 categories at . This is the category information used in ONIX (ONIX is the international standard for storing and sharing title information between publishers, distributors and booksellers). I believe they also use BIC is North America in some cases as well.

Comments are closed.