Me, Tarzan. You, Genre.

©1964 Whitman Pub. Co. The edition I grew up with. I wonder who his hairdresser was.

©1964 Whitman Pub. Co. The one I grew up with. Still own it. I wonder who his hairdresser was.

If you’ve been hanging around this blog of the Parallel Universe for very long, you’ve become aware of the peculiarities of its namesake novel. One of them is that the book defies easy pigeonholing in only one genre.

Author Annette Drake surely spoke for us all, in her comment on my prior post about this subject. We’d all rather be writing than getting wrapped around the axle about how to label what we’re writing – which is enough to make us all start mimicking Johnny Weissmuller.

But whether we do the classifying ourselves or delegate it to a publisher, we still have to live with the consequences. Like “They” say, the devil is in the details, so, in the interests of anticipatory desensitization for the not-yet-published, I thought I’d share a bit more helpful information about the source of all this genre grief: Book Industry Standards and Communications codes (BISAC), the brainchild of the Book Industry Study Group (BISG).

In addition to providing market research information, the BISACs exist for bookstores to know the locations they can shelve books for the best chance of making a sale. In the case of print copies this may only apply to Indie authors if they can get shelf space at an independent bookseller. But e-book sellers use BISACs, too.

The BISACs are copyrighted, so although the BISG maintains a publicly accessible list, the only ones I can in Fair Use reproduce here, are the subject headings I would print on the backs of my books. For example, the possible choices I would need to narrow down for Irish Firebrands would be these:

FICTION / Christian / Romance
FICTION / Contemporary Women
FICTION / Occult & Supernatural
FICTION / Psychological
FICTION / Religious
FICTION / Romance / Contemporary
FICTION / Romance / Multicultural & Interracial
FICTION / Visionary & Metaphysical
FICTION / Sagas (after I get The Passions of Patriots finished)

No guidance is provided for choosing a BISAC. The BISG simply says that they’ve picked the best possible descriptors for subject headings, so it should be self-evident. The BISG does recommend that the “best qualified” person should choose the BISAC: “the editor or, perhaps, a marketing department associate.” Notice that authors are not on the “best qualified” list.*

The code numbers themselves are not to be printed on book covers, but the subject headings generally are. There is also no firm guidance for locating  subject headings on book covers – in fact, the BISG admits that it’s optional – but cover formatting advice I’ve encountered has recommended that it be there, for a “professional” look.

Theoretically, an unlimited number of BISACs could be applied to a book, if needed, but the BISG recommends that no more than three subject codes be assigned. The CreateSpace print-on-demand service offers one choice, and Smashwords offers two. I published Irish Firebrands before I knew any better, so I only put one on the back of the book: FICTION / Romance / Contemporary.

But even were I to plaster BISACs on my book, I’m not completely satisfied with any of the genres suggested by the subject headings. I much prefer my recent discovery of Fusion Fiction, followed by the genre lines it crosses – but unfortunately, the BISG only considers additions nominated by its paid members.

The death of a BISAC is a chilling prospect. It’s probably more likely to happen to the more detailed subject headings that end up not to be as popular as anticipated when they were adopted. Unfortuntately, if one of those ultimately inactivated BISACs was the very best descriptor for your work, well, bon voyage, Book: you’re on your way to the Bermuda Triangle.

On the question of the fate of books with inactivated codes/subject headings, BISG just shrugs and says that eventually all books go out of print anyway, and that’s that. I can see a problem with this idea, however, in the resale market. We don’t get paid again when a book goes into the used book marketplace, but we do get exposure that can initiate or perpetuate name recognition, and possibly lead to new sales of our current titles. An inactive BISAC could make it hard for a reseller to properly list a book.

In like vein, libraries are now paying more attention to the BISACs, and if a code disappears from the list, it could make it harder to find your book in a catalog, leading to decreased circulation – a prime reason for the library to dispose of books. We want our books to stay on library shelves, for the same reason we want used book sales. I have purchased several new books after borrowing them from the library.

And while theoretically an e-book never goes out of print, a bad BISAC could foul up a keyword search and make a book un-findable by Artificial Intelligence.

The BISG is noncommittal about the utility of re-coding books, but it does maintain a list of inactive codes. If you’ve got a previously coded back-list, and your rights have reverted (or you never sold them off to begin with), you might consider looking at the dead BISAC list and taking corrective action, before reprinting or electronically reissuing your titles.

* When I pulled out my copy of Tarzan of the Apes, I noticed that the publisher had spelled the author’s name wrong. Would you trust your book’s BISAC to a publisher who doesn’t even know for sure who you are?


Filed under Fiction, Literature, Novels, Uncategorized, Writing

2 responses to “Me, Tarzan. You, Genre.

  1. Misspelled the author’s name? Wow. That seems like an unforgivable error.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. He was already dead by 1964, so perhaps his estate just shrugged it off. I can’t imagine why that printing was distributed and not pulped, or at least have the covers removed and replaced. It seemed to be ironic, in light of the BISG’s assumption that a publisher’s editor or marketing associate would be the best qualified person to assign BISACs. Authors just don’t seem to figure into any of the information I saw there.


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