VF as a Genre: Part 3 BISAC Buy-in

(The second of a four-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 Click link to read Part 2: The BISAC Solution

BEFORE GETTING TOO COZY in the permanent home (Main Subject Category) and distinctive address (FIC039000 FICTION / Visionary & Metaphysical) that BISAC has provided VF, we have to assess BISAC’s current status and staying power as the standard for an industry struggling to adjust to the revolution wrought by the advent of electronic media. So, a look at a few key questions with brief answers (with links for those who want to delve more deeply).

Is BISAC Followed in Brick-and-mortar Bookstores?

A December 19, 2013 comment from Len Vlahos, who has skin in the game, provides a succinct response:

 I’m the Executive Director of BISG, and can shed some light here. BISAC Subject Codes are a voluntary industry standard. Many, if not all, large retailers use the BISAC Codes as a basis for identifying content, but then augment those codes based on their own customer intelligence. The retailers consider this augmentation to be a kind of special sauce. This is, of course, one of the challenges of voluntary standards, but we’re still pleased at how widely adopted and used BISAC codes are.

The stumbling blocks in Mr. Vlahos’s statement lie in the words voluntary and special sauce. Publishers are not always required to submit a BISAC Code for a book, and bookstores can cook BISAC codes to their taste. We will dissect these potential snafus as we proceed.

Barnes and Noble, the country’s largest book seller, requires BISAC codes for all books, print and electronic, that it lists. But on Barnesandnoble.com, neither Visionary Fiction nor Metaphysical Fiction appears in their category browser at any level. However, typing Visionary fiction into the search box brought up 7,243 results with several items on the first page not even fiction. Metaphysical fiction yielded 13,967 results, with some first page items also not fiction. So the BISAC-educated searcher is likely to feel bamboozled by B&N’s search logic.

I took a field trip to the local (Tucson, AZ) B&N and asked at the front counter for the Visionary and Metaphysical section. With little hesitation the clerk pointed me to the New Age section; I found few fiction titles there, however. At the Information Desk, an assistant manager, who had been there for 20 years, said I was the first person who had ever asked for Visionary Fiction by genre name. She said that popular VF authors (Coelho, Redfield, etc.) were shelved in Literature and Fiction. (Would appreciate if others would try a similar experiment in an area bookstore, reporting results in the Comments section below.)

Is BISAC Used Internationally?

The short answer is “No”. BISAC is used only in the US; other countries and regions have their own systems, a drawback that has required international publishers to employ various mapping programs to translate codes from one classification system into another, risking loss of code meaning in translation.

However, help is on the way with Thema. The Thema project was launched at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2012, and a pilot draft of Thema version 0.9 was published on 19th April 2013. According to EDItEUR, which manages the project along with Nielsen:

Thema is a new global subject classification system for books, which has already gathered wide international participation.

Thema is intended for use by all parts of the book trade: unlike other book trade subject classifications, it aims to be globally applicable. And in contrast to various library classifications that are used internationally, it is tailored for commercial use within the trade. It is a flexible standard that allows each market to retain its unique cultural voice while still presenting a unified subject hierarchy that rationalizes book classification. The goals of Thema are to reduce the duplication of effort required by the many distinct national subject schemes, and to eliminate the need for scheme-to-scheme mapping that inevitably degrades the accuracy of classification, by providing a single scheme for international use. It can be used alongside existing national schemes like BIC, BISAC, WGS or CLIL, and has the potential to eventually replace them (though this is not an immediate goal).

 In a recent memorandum the Book Industry Study Group announced that BISAC 2013 to Thema 1.0 mapping is now complete, thus making BISAC coding available internationally through Thema. Slick enough—once it is up and running.

Do Online Vendors Adhere to BISAC?

A loaded question that requires many caveats. For the time being, think Amazon (which has also owned Goodreads since 2013), and remember it sells both print and eBooks and is prone to revising both background rules and online screens without notice.

Print offerings are usually submitted to Amazon by publishers who create and supply the required BISAC codes. Authors should, however, know the codes and communicate their preferences to the publisher. Changing categories after once posted requires direct contact with Amazon.

Coding an eBook, usually uploaded by the author, is accurately described by Louisa Locke, who has several excellent posts on categorization on her website:

The “categories” Amazon offers when you upload your book to KDP are based on BISAC categories, a book industry standard for subject headings. What authors find confusing is that Amazon converts the BISAC categories into the Amazon browsing-path categories and subcategories that show up in the Kindle store––and the two are not always identical.

To complicate issues further, the browsing categories for print books and eBooks are not identical….

Finally, to make matters even more difficult, this conversion process does not always work accurately (for a long time the historical mystery category had less than 100 books in it because of a computer glitch).

In other words, input, once smothered in Amazon’s special sauce, does not equal output. As an experiment, I recoded the Kindle edition of my novel, The Anathemas, with the true BISAC: FICTION > Visionary & Metaphysical. Nevertheless, the category path in the “Look for Similar Items by Category” section of the book description shows as Books > Literature & Fiction > Genre Fiction > Metaphysical, thus defeating my purpose to categorize my novel specifically as Visionary Fiction.

To find Visionary Fiction per se in the hierarchical breakdown of books on the left side of the Amazon Home page, one would have to follow either this tortuous path: Books> Religion & Spirituality> Fiction> Visionary Fiction or Books> Literature & Fiction> Genre Fiction> Religious and Inspirational> Visionary Fiction. And those patient enough to follow either trail would find only 205 titles listed for VF total and 35 with the Kindle filter on. (And my novel, so nicely coded with BISAC Visionary Fiction, was not among the finalists, although it shows at the Genre Fiction level.) Go figure.

Smashwords, like Amazon, professes to follow BISAC. In June 2012 Mark Coker, its founder wrote: “Last year we updated our categorization system to the latest (2011) BISAC standard, and added hundreds (thousands?) of new categorizations.” And yet under Categories (left sidebar on Home Page) there is nary a listing for Visionary and/or Metaphysical Fiction; Inspirational is as close as they come with no further breakdown into subcategories.

So Now What?

As you’ve probably noticed, the plot remains complicated.

  • BISAC has done what VF authors needed done.
  • Thema extends BISAC to the international markets.
  • Publishers have largely embraced BISAC.
  • Bookstores and online vendors claim to follow it.

The B&N manager I mentioned above said she religiously shelves books by the publishers-provided codes; but titles in a category (Visionary & Metaphysical) too small to justify its own section are sandwiched in with books at the next level up (Literature &Fiction).

So, our problem is not with lacking a structure but having too few occupants dwelling in the one that is there—which brings up enough further “stuff” to warrant a 4th part to this series: Populating BISACs VF Category.

Click HERE to continue to Part 4.


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.


5 thoughts on “VF as a Genre: Part 3 BISAC Buy-in

  1. margaretduarte says:

    And herein lies the problem: "…but titles in a category (Visionary & Metaphysical) too small to justify its own section are sandwiched in with books at the next level up (Literature &Fiction)." I feel confident that massive numbers of readers crave what we write, but are unable to voice their preference for lack of what to call it. "At the Information Desk, an assistant manager, who had been there for 20 years, said I was the first person who had ever asked for Visionary Fiction by genre name." Let's gift our current and potential readers with a popular and highly recognizable identity for visionary fiction until our genre is large enough to justify its own section in bookstores and online.

  2. visionaryfictionauth says:

    Yes, perhaps now VF is too small to justify its own section…I think as other authors of VF discover this niche is what they are really writing, and readers catch on (our goal at VFA!), we can claim a piece of the bookstore (and library) shelves. Until then, articles like this help me to understand the complexities beneath the challenge of increasing awareness of VF. From understanding more fully, we can take more informed action.

    • Victor E. Smith says:

      Will try to come up with some ideas to swell that VF section in Part 4. At least some starter ideas. Actually, if we consider all the titles over time that are VF, it is a considerable number. How to get them classified as VF is the challenge. But we are up to it!

  3. Pingback: VF as a Genre: Part 4 – Populating BISAC’s VF Category | Visionary Fiction Alliance

  4. Pingback: VF as a Genre: Part 2-The BISAC Solution | Visionary Fiction Alliance

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