Writing a Great Nonfiction Book, One Page at a Time

Your Book’s Genre: What Is BISAC and Where Are You on the List?

A mysterious organization that operates behind the scenes. A list that influences the entire publishing industry. A mark on every book. To what nefarious plot am I referring? The BISG’s BISAC list! Okay, it’s really not nefarious at all, but to most authors it is mysterious. What is the BISG? The Book Industry Study Group. It produces the list of official genres—the Book Industry Standards and Communications, or BISAC, subject headings—used by most distribution systems.

Now, genres are tricky for two reasons.

1. Most books contain elements of more than one genre but must be listed under just one.

2. The BISAC list is only a guide and retailers take many liberties with that guide.

Your publisher essentially has to choose just one subject heading or genre when pitching your book to wholesalers and retailers; that means you have to choose just one too.

First issues first: You may already “know” your book’s genre, but if you’ve started to rattle off a list, stop. You have to choose just one. Is it diet or nutrition? Is it leadership or management? Is it self-help or parenting? Your publisher essentially has to choose just one subject heading or genre when pitching your book to wholesalers and retailers; that means you have to choose just one too. Yes, you will have content in your book that is related to other genres. But ultimately, the book has to have one, clearly defined core message. And that message should dictate the genre for the book. When you are clarifying that message, you are thinking about your audience, and when you think about your audience, you should consider where in the bookstore they are likely to shop.

The second issue: Amazon’s genre structure bears only a passing resemblance to the BISG genres. And if you walk into Barnes & Noble, you won’t see many of the official genres on the signage around the store. Retailers tend to simplify. But starting with the listing of official genres is one way to understand your options.

So go to the BISG’s BISAC Subject Headings list and start perusing. The list is organized into major headings and more specific subheadings, and even more specific sub-subheadings. Enjoy the rabbit hole!

Understanding your genre is important for many reasons (including understanding your reader’s expectations). I’ll write more about it in other posts and I’ll be on a panel discussing it this weekend at the Writers’ League of Texas Agents and Editors Conference.

If you’re struggling to identify your genre, post a comment here.

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