What are categories and how does your book’s metadata determine them? Well, if you’re going to write one book and put it online yourself, categories and metadata may not matter very much. But if you plan on publishing several books and you want to have a career as an author, those terms matter a great deal. That’s because categories affect a book’s Amazon ranking.
Indie authors sell their books through online booksellers. Authors who figure out how to position themselves in specific niches can do very well for themselves, but first, they must understand where their books fit into the ocean of books sold online.
One way to get a glimpse of the importance of categories is to look on the left-hand panel of a typical Amazon page. Categories are niches where readers who enjoy that kind of book might expect to find similar books.
For the example above I typed in the words “paranormal fiction” into Amazon’s search box. When you’re looking for categories for you book, use search terms fans who love that genre might use. In addition to the book covers, Amazon displays a “category” list on the left.
The category list shows you how many books are vying for prominence in that niche. To achieve bestseller status on Amazon, you want the least competitive niche.
Categories That Can Give You An Advantage
Which is the least competitive? One that stands out is “Teen & Young Adult Coming of Age Fantasy.” That category has only 763 other books competing against it. Another easy-to-win category is Comics and Graphic Novels at 682. By “win” I mean “sell enough books so that you outsell all other authors in that niche.” If you can do that, you may wind up on the first page viewers see when they click on the category.
Let me just qualify that statement. I don’t mean sell books over the lifetime of your book. I mean sell books like crazy during the first three weeks of your launch. Even better, sell books like crazy on a particular day. If you can do that and keep it up for several days, you stand a very good chance of Amazon putting a “bestseller” flag on your book. The Amazon algorithm would then kick in, and Amazon would begin promoting your book to people searching for books like yours.
There’s no human selecting the books Amazon promotes. It’s all done by computer. By “Amazon algorithm” I mean the programming that determines whether Amazon thinks your book will be popular enough to warrant them promoting it.
How many books would you have to sell? In these less competitive categories, you might have to sell 75 books/day. In the more competitive categories, you might have to sell 500/day before you saw Amazon move you to the first page in that category.
By a “more competitive category,” I mean one where you’re competing against scads of other authors. In the Teen and Young Adult category, for instance, your book is competing against 18,933 other books. You’d have a snowball’s chance in hell of winning.
Have I got your attention? All right. Now, I’m going to let you in on a secret. The reason these categories are less competitive is because they are new. People haven’t found out about them yet. To explain how these categories got created, I’m going to have to explain more about a book’s metadata and its BISAC codes. This will probably put you to sleep, but please try to hang in.
Metadata -> BISAC codes -> Categories
In my previous post on metadata, I defined some terms that might be unfamiliar to you. There’s core metadata and extended metadata. The core metadata–title, author, and so on–is something your book will need, even if it’s just a one off. That’s because industry watchdogs that track book sales need this information to keep their computer databases current. Nielsen BookScan, for instance, keeps track of sales by author and ISBN. That’s where your core data comes in.
This week, I’m going to go into a little more depth regarding BISAC codes and why they may be of interest, particularly to those of you interested in actually selling books, not just writing them. The info I’m presenting is what I learned by attending a webinar hosted by the Book Industry Study Group’s (BISG) Subject Codes Committee. This is the industry body that studies how publishers, booksellers, and libraries categorize books.
Where I’m heading with this post is to clue you in to new categories that are opening up. If the industry decides there’s a hot new class of books, and if you can write a book that fits in that niche, you will have a much better shot at ranking highly for that category. If Amazon pins a “bestseller” flag to your book, you can legitimately claim you’re a “bestselling author.”
What Does The BISAC Code Look Like?
Let’s just review. A BISAC code is a nine-character, alphanumeric code, usually three letters, followed by six numbers. The first three characters of a code represent the section. The six numeric characters in the code don’t mean anything and never change.
The three letters at the beginning generally match the section name. The section name is called the “literal,” meaning what the section name “literally” means. In most cases the section name is three letters from a word or words that are spelled out in the literal. For instance, YAF would be YOUNG ADULT FICTION and GAM would be GAMES.
There are some exceptions, however. For instance, the BODY MIND SPIRIT section codes start with OCC. That’s because when the committee that oversees these codes changes a literal, they don’t want to necessarily change the codes as well. Years ago the heading was “occult,” which is why the alpha part of the code stayed as OCC.
Literals can be followed by subheads. The most subheadings any one literal has is three. But sometimes, the committee changes the literals and sorts the categories a different way. Here are some examples of the way literals change.
Updates Every Fall
The Book Industry Study Group’s (BISG) Subject Codes Committee updates the BISAC codes every fall.
The 2016 edition featured 93 additions as new subjects, 68 literal changes, and one reactivation. A “reactivation” is a heading that was inactivated years ago because it wasn’t used; but, now, it’s being used because there’s a surge in books with that heading. In 2016 the committee had 11 inactivations. That change affected 22 of the 54 major sections.
But, let’s see how this actually works.
Big News for YA and Children’s Book Authors
What’s perhaps the biggest news for children’s authors is that the BISG added 28 new headings for juvenile and young adult graphic novels. This was a request by the Children’s Book Council. The BISG committee accepted their recommendations.
These new BISAC codes allow authors and publishers to classify children’s and young adults’ graphic novels in much greater detail. And, that’s why these new categories have shown up on Amazon. Amazon uses the BISAC categories.
Games and Activity Books
In the 2015 edition the committee added GAMES AND ACTIVITY BOOKS, including coloring books. This turned out to be a really large category. A lot of books were classified in that area over the course of the year. So in 2016, the committee decided to change GAM 019000 to GAMES AND ACTIVITIES/coloring books, and they added a new heading for just ACTIVITY BOOKS. That meant the scope of GAM 019 was reduced a little. Now the activity books are going to GAM 020.
Young Adult Fiction
In the past, there was YOUNG ADULT FICTION, COMICS AND GRAPHIC NOVELS, and SCIENCE FICTION FANTASY. Now that literal is just SCIENCE FICTION, so the scope of that heading was reduced a little. Fantasy books now have their own heading, which is YAF 010100.
Don’t Try to Game the System
The young adult section is still relatively new, and there are a couple of guidelines you should follow. When you have content that spans ages or grade ranges, you must decide for which audience the material is better suited–children or young adults. The BISG committee has heard comments that users want to mix the new young adult headings with adult headings.
Why? Because some publishers and authors hope that certain crossover titles might have appeal to readers over the age of 18. Some publishers want to use YAF, which is young adult fiction, and use FIC, which is fiction.
The BISG committee doesn’t endorse this as a “best practice.” Young adult headings shouldn’t be used with headings outside of that section.
How Do BISAC Codes Affect You?
When you’re assigning categories to your book, the most specific BISAC is always the best. A while back, bestselling author of historical fiction, Ashley Gardner, tweeted “Ebook sales reported rising 300% by adding more accurate BISAC codes. Don’t be vague.” Sales improve if you use more codes.
When choosing the primary BISAC, consider the most important aspect of the book. Some data recipients (meaning online bookstores and libraries) take only the first one, but others do take more. There’s no defined limit on the number of BISACs you could assign to a title.
The committee suggests three, but many publishers exceed that. If you already are using a specific heading, there’s no need to include a general heading from the same section or tree. So, for example, if you assign BUSINESS AND ECONOMICS/careers/job hunting, there’s no need to also include BUSINESS AND ECONOMICS/careers/general. You just need to include the most specific one.
The most general heading is the least important, and you should use that sparingly. In a talk at 2013 BookExpo America, Phil Madans from Hachette said, “If you don’t want your books to be found ever, use the “FICTION/general” category as your BISAC code.”
Use The Same Code For All Formats
Finally, you’ll be following “best practice” guidelines if you stay consistent across formats. Hardcover, paperback, mass market, large print, audio books, e-books, and translations should all have the same BISAC subjects.
Different editions of What Alice Forgot can serve as an example. The paperback, the hardcover, some audio versions, some foreign language versions, etc. all use FICTION/contemporary women and FICTION/family life.
That’s it for now. Good luck categorizing your book and taking advantage of your new BISAC knowledge.