(The second of a three-part series that explores a hidden root of the problem in popularizing Visionary Fiction as a genre and proposes a nifty ready-made solution to it.)
Click link to read Part 1: The Fiction Prejudice
Since libraries aim to retain books and bookstores to sell them, no wonder a category system that works in libraries fails vendors, at least when it comes to fiction. Booksellers have to accommodate the browsing nature of fiction buyers, and a single collection in order by author does not cut it. Their early deviations from the library norm were stopgap measures attempted intuitively by store managers: front counter displays, attractive covers facing out, wall posters, and mass media advertising.
Traditionally, fiction has been separated by form (Comedy, Poetry, Novel, Short Story, Drama, etc.) or genre (Historical, Mystery, Science Fiction, Fantasy, and so forth). Shelving by form rarely serves the browsing customer; sorting by genre gets closer since it groups books of a similar nature.
Expand the genre paradigm a bit and enter a new method called Marketing Category, which places books likely to be bought by the same readers together. As Jim Henry III described: “For example, when sorting by Marketing Category one would place non-fiction about science fiction together with science fiction; and some non-fiction by authors known for their science fiction would be placed with science fiction, such as Robert Heinlein’s book about his travels around the world, Tramp Royale.”
Marketing Category, as best practice for publishers, manufacturers, suppliers, wholesalers, and retailers, evolved from the work of the Book Industry Study Group founded in 1975. This non-profit organization developed the BISAC (Book Industry Subject and Category) Subject Headings, now considered the industry standard and a requirement for participation in many book listing databases.
The Book Industry Standards and Communications System
The BISAC system is summarized thus in a Library Journal article:
The BISAC system is maintained by the Book Industry Study Group, which classifies books into 52 broad categories, each with additional levels of specificity. Categories for a book are typically determined by the publisher (a job that often falls to the editor, who knows the book best) and are used throughout the distribution chain by companies like Amazon, Baker & Taylor, Barnes & Noble, Bookscan, Bowker, Ingram, and others. In many ways, it fuses the functions of subject headings with classification. Many bookstores work with the categories to organize their shelves, but the categories and subcategories are also used to create a searchable record of a book. Though the bookseller might decide to shelve the book in one category, that book may have multiple BISAC headings assigned to it in the computer system. Unlike library classification systems, BISAC codes are invisible to the end user, enabling browsing but usually requiring customers to turn to a staffer to locate a specific title.
Significantly, some libraries, particularly ones that aim to encourage reading—school libraries for children and area libraries serving a non-academic audience—have also opted for BISAC. In his February 18, 2011, Chicago Tribune article, Who’s killing the Dewey decimal system? Some suburban libraries begin turning away from the longtime classification system Robert McCoppin wrote: “A handful of pioneering suburban libraries are transitioning from the librarian-loved but misunderstood Dewey to the type of organization system used by booksellers. The new layout groups books by subject rather than number, uses signs to highlight contemporary, popular categories, and displays books by their covers.”
A similar shift in school libraries is discussed in a School Library Journal article with the telling title, Are Dewey’s Days Numbered?: Libraries Nationwide Are Ditching the Old Classification System.
BISAC and Fiction
The Book Industry Study Group web page Complete BISAC Subject Headings, 2013 Edition walks the user through the two-step process of applying a correct classification.
Step 1: Determine the major heading which best describes the content of your book. Click on a heading below for more specific headings within that category.
Since we are interested in Fiction here, we click on the hyperlinked category FICTION.
Step 2: Determine the specific term which describes your book. An asterisk (*) denotes a heading that is new for the 2013 Edition.
[Interesting the categories they saw fit to add. Also shows that the system is dynamic, updating according to changing tastes.]
Some genres are single level:
FIC055000 FICTION / Dystopian.
Others branch from genre to multiple sub-genres:
FIC031000 FICTION / Thrillers / General
FIC031010 FICTION / Thrillers / Crime
FIC006000 FICTION / Thrillers / Espionage, etc.
A few branch to a fourth level:
FIC027050 FICTION / Romance / Historical / General
FIC027140 FICTION / Romance / Historical / Ancient World
FIC027150 FICTION / Romance / Historical / Medieval, etc.
Thus, a fiction work’s category code can be left general or finely tuned.
In addition to the mandatory BISAC Main Subject Category, the coder can choose up to two additional category codes per BISG’s Best Practices document. A boon for cross- or multi-genre authors; such books are shelved by Main Subject Category but listed on computer under the secondary categories also.
BISAC and Visionary Fiction
The good news for Visionary Fiction writers and fans is that BISAC assigns an unambiguous first-level Main Subject Category (FIC039000 FICTION / Visionary & Metaphysical) for our genre. Although it does not allow the fine distinction between visionary and metaphysical that some writers tend to make, this unique designation, along with its recognition that our genre has come of age, is an enormous improvement over categorization schemes that either bury VF as a sub-genre under illogical genres or snub it completely.
The very good news is that we do not need to lobby for a proper category; BISAC provides one. (I confess to ignorance of this vital fact prior to my recent research.) We need only to encourage VF authors to have their works coded per BISAC and require bookstores and booksellers, including online vendors like Amazon and Smashwords, to adhere to their own industry standard. (How to do that becomes Part 3 of this series.)
Click HERE to continue to Part 3.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Victor E. Smith (Vic) is a writer specializing in Visionary Fiction, a semi-retired computer trainer to the publishing industry (15 years as a consultant to The Wall Street Journal), and a spiritual/paranormal researcher currently residing in Tucson, Arizona. He is a member of the Editorial Team of the Visionary Fiction Alliance and author of The Anathemas, a Novel about Reincarnation and Restitution. His website and blog can be found at victoresmith.com.