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BISAC Subject Codes FAQ

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What does BISAC stand for?

BISAC is an acronym for Book Industry Standards and Communications.

What are BISAC Subject Headings? What do they look like?

The BISAC Subject Heading list is an industry-approved list of subject descriptors, each of which is represented by a nine-character alphanumeric code. The descriptor itself consists of two, three or four levels in the manner described below.

For example, the code for the descriptor representing general southern travel in the United States is TRV025070 and the related descriptor is "TRAVEL / United States / South / General". There are 54 major sections, such as COMPUTERS, FICTION, HISTORY and TRUE CRIME. Within each major section are a number of detailed descriptors that represent sub-topics the BISAC Subject Codes Committee has deemed most appropriate for the major topic. 

How are the BISAC Subject Headings used?

The BISAC Subject Heading list was developed to standardize the electronic transfer of subject information. The headings can be used for transmitting information between trading partners, as search terms in bibliographic databases, as access points for database searching and as shelving guides. Many businesses require that publishers use BISAC Subject Headings when submitting data for all formats (physical and digital).

What terms are used to describe elements in the BISAC Subject Headings list?

The following terms are generally used in describing various aspects of the headings:

  • Code - refers to the nine-character element attached to each subject listing. The code begins with a three-character alpha segment which is usually mnemonic (e.g., HIS is used for the HISTORY subject terms) and is followed by a six-character numeric segment. In Version 1 of the BSHL, the codes had hierarchical meaning but this is no longer the case. They should be treated simply as surrogate codes.
  • Heading - the English language description attached to each code, i.e. the subject heading itself. The heading description is constructed in two, three, or four parts, with each part (or level) separated by a forward slash (/). A two-part heading would consist of the section name (e.g., HISTORY) and a subheading presenting a major aspect of the section, such as "Medieval". Such a term would read "HISTORY / Medieval". Many headings consist of only two levels; however, for more detail in some subject areas, a third level is added. An example of such a term is "HISTORY / Military / Vietnam War". Occasionally four levels are used, e.g., "HISTORY / Africa / South / Republic of South Africa".
  • Descriptor - synonymous with "heading", defined above.
  • Literal - synonymous with "heading", defined above.
  • Term - synonymous with "heading", defined above.
  • Value - synonymous with "code", defined above.
  • Tree - refers to a group of headings with a common first and second level. For example, "GARDENING / Flowers" are the first two levels in a tree that contains headings for Annuals, Bulbs, Orchids, Perennials, Roses, and Wildflowers in a manner such as "GARDENING / Flowers / Roses". The first term in a tree almost always ends with "General" (e.g., "GARDENING / Flowers / General") following which are the more specific terms.
  • Branch - refers to a distinctive third level literal that belongs to a tree as defined above (in the above example, "Roses" is the branch). 

Who uses the BISAC Subject Headings?

Many businesses within the North American book industry, including Amazon, Baker & Taylor, Barnes & Noble, Bookscan, Bowker, Indiebound, Indigo, Ingram and most major publishers use the headings in a variety of ways. Some libraries are also utilizing the BISAC Subjects to facilitate the browsing experience for patrons.

How do I get a copy of the BISAC Subject Headings list?

The entire list is available on the BISG website free of charge. Organizations whose needs exceed the free online look-up service and/or who require a way to incorporate the list into their internal systems and databases can purchase the licensed version in Word, Excel and PDF file formats for a fee or become members of the Book Industry Study Group.

Do I have to pay for the BISAC Subject Heading List?

If your company is a member of BISG, the headings list is free as part of your membership benefits. A nominal fee is charged to non-members.

Who can create BISAC Subject Headings?

The Headings list is maintained by BISG's Subject Codes Committee consisting of members of BISG interested in the intellectual challenge of creating, revising and amending an authority list of terms for the industry. Terms and codes not appearing in the official list authorized by the Committee would not be considered BISAC Subject Headings.

Are there definitions for the various subject headings?

As a general rule, the subjects are not defined. The Committee attempts to create clear and succinct subject descriptors that are not duplicative within the list. Definitions and guidelines are provided at the major subject level. (See the Specific Usage Notes section of the BISAC Subject Headings list for guidelines specific to each major subject.)

Are there standards for the placement of the subject on the book?

At this time, there are no such guidelines. The subject descriptor may be placed on the book in a convenient location based on the design of the book, but does not need to be placed on the book at all. It is recommended that the nine-character code not appear on the book or in catalogs; the code is merely designed for EDI exchange of information about the book. If it is desired to reference the subject heading represented by the code, use the descriptor itself, e.g., "BIOGRAPHY & AUTOBIOGRAPHY / Presidents & Heads of State". Because of its length, it is not advisable to connect the term to the barcode, although it may be placed near the barcode. The most useful position would be the lower left-hand corner of the back cover or jacket cover. 

How do I choose the BISAC Subject Heading for a specific book?

The first step in determining the proper heading for a book would be to identify which of the 54 major areas within the list is most appropriate for the title. Once that section is identified, look for the term that most closely fits the content of the book. If the title has numerous facets, it is recommended that the process be repeated for other relevant major sections. 

If database systems are sophisticated enough, a recommendation is to do a Keyword or Find search on the entire list in order to identify all the terms that may be appropriate for the book. This is especially effective if it is difficult to determine the proper major section for the term one imagines would be used. This will also help alert the user to cases where similar subjects appear in different sections to reflect different ways of approaching the topic (e.g., "HEALTH & FITNESS / Sexuality", "PSYCHOLOGY / Human Sexuality", "RELIGION / Sexuality & Gender Studies", "SELF-HELP / Sexual Instruction", not to mention related subjects under JUVENILE FICTION, JUVENILE NONFICTION, YOUNG ADULT FICTION, YOUNG ADULT NONFICTION, and SOCIAL SCIENCE).

How do I look up the BISAC Subject Heading assigned to an existing book?

There is no single source for determining what BISAC heading has been assigned to a published or forthcoming book. BISAC Subject Headings for existing titles can usually be found on the sites of retailers, data aggregators, or the original publisher of the book.

What is the intended age range of the JUV and JNF sections?

The juvenile headings are intended for literature targeted to children (ages 0-11; preschool-grade 6). A specific age and grade level can be defined in the designated metadata fields.

What is the intended age range of the YAF and YAN sections? 

The young adult headings are intended for literature targeted to young adults (ages 12-18; grades 7-12). A specific age and grade level can be defined in the designated metadata fields.

What do I do with the cross-references?

Use of the cross-reference terms (which only appear in the Word and online versions) will vary according to the database and other infrastructure within which the terms are used. The cross-reference terms are designed to assist an individual searching for the proper term in finding its location within the overall list. Cross-references generally describe alternative ways of thinking about the content of a title or represent subjects that have had their literals changed and have been re-sequenced.

If I need a heading that is not in the list, what can be done?

The Subject Codes Committee considers all requests from members of BISG and the industry at large for topical content currently not covered by the terms in the headings list. For your suggestion to be given consideration, please specify where the suggested heading belongs and provide at least three title examples from multiple publishers. Please contact us with suggestions.
Any accepted requests will be included in the next scheduled version of the BISAC Subject Headings. New versions are released in the fall of each year.

Are the BISAC Subject Headings available in other languages?

The list is currently only available in English.

What do I do if I have a question that is not answered here?

Please feel free to e-mail the Committee Chair at The Chair will do her best to answer your question based on the full Committee's collective experience.  



Who on my staff should apply the subject to the title?

The best person to assign the headings to your titles is the person who knows the most about the content of the book. Most likely this will be the editor or, perhaps, a marketing department associate.

How many subject headings can I use per title?

The Committee recommends no more than three headings depending on the complexity of the title. In truth the answer to the question is dependent on your system and that of your trading partners; theoretically, an unlimited number of headings may be used.
The most specific subject(s) applicable to a product should be provided. The practice of supplying both a specific and a general subject heading on a given product is discouraged; use of the most specific heading possible is strongly encouraged. While there is no limit in ONIX to the number of codes that can be supplied, best practice is that only up to three subjects be supplied for each product. One of those subjects should be considered the “main subject” of the product; generally, all subjects should be listed in their order of importance. For example, if "HISTORY / Military / World War I" has been chosen, "HISTORY / Military / General" would not be used by those that follow this philosophy.

How do I assign additional headings?

Subject headings added in addition to the primary heading should be logical and not conflicting. For example, in most cases a heading from the FICTION section should not be used with a heading from one of the nonfiction sections. Also, headings from the JUVENILE FICTION, JUVENILE NONFICTION, YOUNG ADULT FICTION, or YOUNG ADULT NONFICTION sections should not be used with each other or with headings from any other section (as those sections describe books for an adult audience).

Should I apply the BISAC Subject Headings consistently across formats?


What items should be assigned a BISAC Subject Heading?

Any item that has an ISBN should be assigned a BISAC code. An item without a subject or content (e.g., address book, blank journal, stuffed toy) should be assigned NON000000.

What are the benefits of using BISAC Subject Headings?

BISAC Subject Headings:

  • Provide the publisher with the opportunity to tell the retailer and the general book trade of the primary and secondary store sections within which the title will best fit (and, hopefully, sell best). There is further benefit in that the language of this suggestion is standardized.
  • Assist retailers in getting the titles on the appropriate shelf.
  • Enhance discoverability in the online retail environment. 

How do I tell my trading partner(s) which code applies to my books?

The best way is to use the ONIX protocol, an XML document designed to convey metadata about books between trading partners. For details on ONIX, see the documentation on the EDItEUR website. Some of your trading partners may have other electronic vehicles that include elements for the BISAC code.

I already categorize my titles for my catalogs and jackets; how should the BISAC Subject Headings be related?

The Committee recognizes that many publishers have long-standing marketing and merchandising subject-oriented schemas. For those who do not want to abandon these, it is suggested that the proprietary syntax be mapped to the BISAC Subject Heading List.

Do I need to print the codes or the descriptors on my book?

See discussion under same query in the GENERAL ISSUES section.

How do I choose the BISAC Subject Heading for a specific book?

See discussion under same query in the GENERAL ISSUES section.

I notice many of the subheadings use the term "General"; how should those terms be used?

"General" occurs as the first second-level term in all major sections except NON-CLASSIFIABLE (e.g., "HISTORY / General"). It is also used as a third-level term within tree structures that have been built (e.g., "HISTORY / Africa / General"). The "General" terms can be applied in either of two ways. First, and most obvious, the heading should be used for books covering the topic at the broadest level. Second, it can be used for books of a very narrow scope that cannot be better described by one of the other terms within the relevant tree or section.

Are there best practices for assigning a BISAC Subject Heading?

Yes. The Metadata Committee has created Product Metadata Best Practices, which includes guidelines for assigning BISAC Subject Headings.

How do retailers use the headings; do they all use the same headings?

Retailers use the headings in a variety of ways:

  • Assist in shelving the book with others of a similar topic. Some retailers have developed mappings between the BISAC Subject Heading List and their store sections, so that any title on a given topic is always initially shelved in the same section.
  • Retailers use the subjects as online searching terms in order to assist the consumer in finding titles on topics of interest. Some retailers use the terms directly; others map them to their own merchandising schema.
  • Online book retailers (e.g., Amazon, Barnes & Noble) use the headings in a variety of ways including browsable subject pages, subject feature pages, subject specific discounts and sales, customer recommendations, etc.
  • Online retailers may have their own best seller lists based on the BISAC Subject Heading.
  • Retailers use the headings for reporting sales information to vendors who report POS data.
  • All retailers should use the same official list of headings - although if they were mapping the headings to an internal schema, the mapping itself would vary.

What do I do with the cross-references?

See discussion on this topic in the GENERAL ISSUES section. 

Are mappings to other global schemas available?

A BIC to BISAC mapping and Thema to BISAC mapping are currently available through BISG.


What are the benefits of using BISAC Subject Headings?

BISAC Subject Headings:

  • Facilitate consistent shelving and merchandising of similar material in your store.
  • Provide reporting and marketing opportunities for online retailers.
  • Allow customers to more easily locate titles of interest. 

How do I map my current store sections to BISAC Subject Headings?

A review of the complete BISAC Subject Heading List is in order. Examine each term from "ANTIQUES & COLLECTIBLES / General" through "TRUE CRIME / White Collar Crime" and then determine the appropriate subject heading to which each store section would be mapped.

What do I do with the cross-references?

See discussion on this topic in the GENERAL ISSUES section. 


What is the latest version of the BISAC Subject Heading List?

The 2019 Edition, which was approved in November 2019 and officially released by BISG in December 2019, is the latest version. 

When should I update to the latest version?

You should update your systems to the latest version of BISAC as soon as it is released. 

How often is the BISAC Subject Heading list revised?

A new version of the heading list is released in the fall of every year. Revisions accepted by the Subject Codes Committee throughout the year do not become active until a version including that revision is officially released through the BISG office.

What happens if my trading partner is not using the same version that I am?

If you are using ONIX for Books to send BISAC Subject Headings, a data element within the protocol will allow you to advise your trading partner of the version of the list you are using. The options for differences between lists lie with the receiver in a trading partner relationship: 

If receivers are using an older version, then they must either update his database or ignore new headings with which they are not familiar. 

If receivers are using a newer version, then they have the option of discarding or accepting any inactivated headings that are transmitted to them. 

We strongly encourage all trading partners to update to the most current version of the headings.

What happens if I do not deactivate the inactivated headings?

The Subject Codes Committee anticipates that most users would not re-categorize backlist. After all, in due time, most titles with inactivated headings will go out of print and the headings will retire with the books. 

Receivers of inactivated headings have a decision to make. They must decide whether to maintain such headings, often leading to duplication or near duplication within their subject database, or they must re-categorize titles in the database with such headings.

What should I do about titles previously coded with inactive headings?

Ideally, it would be appropriate to re-categorize these titles, particularly if they will stay in print for a number of years - although as noted above, we recognize that this is not always practical, especially for users with large databases. Maintaining such headings in an in-house database is a viable option. However, if the headings are to be sent to trading partners, bringing the headings up to date is preferable. 

The Committee provides guidance for mapping inactivated headings to a suggested replacement. 



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