Updated: Jan 27, 2021
If you are an author in the process of publishing a book, you may run in to the term "BISAC Codes." BISAC codes communicate the categories for your book to retailers. Using them effectively helps you reach the right readers. If you're independently published, you'll be choosing the BISAC codes yourself, so I'll share some guidance. If you're traditionally published, your editor will make decisions about BISAC codes for you, sometimes with input from sales and marketing, but it's still a good idea to understand them because they are a key part of how your book is being positioned.
BISAC stands for Book Industry Standards and Communications, and their codes are used as a way for the publisher (that's you, if you're self-publishing) to communicate to retailers where a book should be shelved. For on-line retailers, they indicate the applicable categories, including which subcategory best seller lists your book is eligible for. You can find a list of the BISAC codes at the Book Industry Standard Group (BISG) website here. You'll see a list of the main categories, and clicking on any of these categories will open a more detailed list of subcategories.
Each code is made up of three letters followed by six numbers. The three letters tell you the main category. The first three numbers tell you the subcategory. The last three numbers tell you the sub-subcategory. For example, FIC000000 is general fiction. The FIC tells us fiction, and 000 is general. BIO026000 is Personal Memoir. The BIO stands for Biography & Autobiography, and 026 is for Personal Memoir, and there's no sub-subcategory so it's followed by a 000. On-line or on the back cover of the book, this might appear as "Biography & Autobiography / Personal Memoir." TRV009070 is for TRAVEL / Europe / Great Britain. TRV for Travel, 009 for the subcategory of Europe, and 070 for Great Britain, which is a subcategory of Europe and sub-subcategory of Travel. But a book about museums in Paris would use TRV009050, note the letters and first three numbers are the same as Great Britain (TRV009) because both are in the subcategory of Europe, but the last three numbers differ, with 050 standing for France.
Most publishers will try to assign three BISAC codes to each book. Why? Because the more categories that are relevant to a book, the more likely a reader who will enjoy that book is to find it. There are two notable tips to make the most of your codes. The first is that if you select a subcategory, the category is already included. So if you use the above BIO026000 for your personal memoir, it automatically includes your book in general Biography & Autobiography, so you don't need to BIO000000 (the code for general). The second thing to consider is that the categories should be in order of most relevant to least relevant. This can matter when you think about who your primary audience is and where they're likely to discover your book. The first code, in particular, indicates what section your book should be shelved in. Let's try some examples:
Example 1: Your book is a memoir about the three years you spent reviving your late grandmother's garden in Charleston, South Carolina. Although a memoir, your primary audience is probably going to be people who love to garden. Memoirs cover a wide range of interests, so your book might get lost in that section. But people who are interested in gardening are likely to browse the gardening book section, right? So your first BISAC code should be from the Gardening category. You could pick GAR000000 which is GARDENING / General. But let's see if there's something more specific on the list here. How about GAR019060: GARDENING / Regional / South (AL, AR, FL, GA, KY, LA, MS, NC, SC, TN, VA, WV). That includes general gardening, and will also draw readers interested specifically in Southern gardening, something both relevant and unique to your book that doesn't apply to many gardening books. For the second BISAC code you could include BIO026000 for Personal Memoir to attract readers who enjoy memoirs in general. For the third category, perhaps you'll choose GAR002000: GARDENING / Essays & Narratives. Or maybe there's a category that fits another prominent theme in your book. Perhaps you share a lot about how working on your late grandmother's garden helped you deal with your grief over losing her, in which case you might add FAM014000: FAMILY & RELATIONSHIPS / Death, Grief, Bereavement.
Example 2: You've written a romance set in Regency England. That's a popular setting for romance, and there is a BISAC code specifically for Regency Romance, so that's going to be your first pick, FIC027070: FICTION / Romance / Historical / Regency. Not only is that Regency Romance, it includes general romance (FIC027000) and general fiction (FIC000000), so you don't need to add either of those separately. Let's see if we can find two more categories on the Fiction BISAC list here. Perhaps pick a code that reflects the tone of the novel. Is it suspenseful (FIC027110: FICTION / Romance / Suspense)? Or humorous (FIC016000: FICTION / Humorous / General)? Maybe you hate writing love scenes and your novel is PG-rated (FIC027270: FICTION / Romance / Clean & Wholesome), or maybe your love scenes are exceptionally explicit (FIC027010: FICTION / Romance / Erotica).
Note that you don't have to choose three codes. If only two or just one category is the best fit for your book, that's perfectly fine. You can also add more than three codes, but stick to only the categories that are significantly relevant, and don't go overboard. It may seem that the more categories you assign, the more readers you'll reach, but this can backfire. You could confuse and deter your core readers, and mislead other readers who will post 1-star reviews because they thought the book was something else. If your cozy baking mystery has one suspenseful scene at the end, don't add FIC030000 (FICTION / Thrillers / Suspense) because the cozy readers who would love your book will think it's intense and possibly violent when they're looking for the opposite tone, and readers looking for lots of suspense and action will be disappointed when the majority of the scenes involve cupcakes.
If you're finding it difficult to know what BISAC categories to use, or just need some inspiration, try looking on-line at the categories for books like yours that you think will appeal to the same reader. Amazon has additional categories of their own that they assign, but this will give you some good ideas of which categories will help your book find the readers who will love it.