Question: Why do book categories matter, and how do I know which categories to select for my book?



At the top level, books are categorized into fiction and nonfiction, with hundreds of genres and subgenres.Books can be about many different things: a fairytale romance, a post-apocalyptic world, a true story of triumph, or steps for self-improvement. When published, your book’s topics, themes, or storyline determine how it will be grouped or categorized in the industry. These groupings help agents, publishers, wholesalers, distributors, and retailers define and organize books, while helping readers more easily find the kind of books they love.

Book categorization may seem unnecessary or cumbersome to new authors, but it is highly relevant to the business side of writing and publishing a book. If you want your book to be discovered and reach the right readers, you’ll want to consider early on how your book will be categorized when published. This will inform important decisions you make during the writing process and will ultimately determine where your book is placed in stores, online catalogs, and libraries.

How Books are Categorized in the Market

At the top level, books are categorized as either Fiction or Nonfiction. Fiction books are written from the writer’s imagination, but can also be inspired by true experiences. Nonfiction books are based on facts, truths, and real events. Within these categories are many genres and subgenres determined by literary technique, tone, themes, and content. In the world of publishing, a genre is a group of books that share similar elements, appealing to the same group of readers.  You can think of it as the “parent group” that identifies the main topic or premise of a book. A subgenre defines a book even further by identifying the subplots, subtopics, setting, or secondary themes that are present.

Here are some examples of popular genres, and subgenres within each:

Books are categorized by genre and subgenre and are organized by these groupings in bookstores and online.Fiction
Romance – Paranormal, Historical, Erotica
Mystery/Thriller – Psychological, Police Procedural, Legal, Cozy
Fantasy – Urban, Dark, Low, High
Science Fiction – Dystopian, Space Opera, Steampunk

Creative Nonfiction – Memoir, Poetry, Biography, Personal Essay
Self-help - Health / Wellness, Career, Relationships, Spiritual
How-to – Home & Garden, Business, Travel 

The publishing industry follows a globally accepted system for categorizing books called BISAC, which stands for Book Industry Standards and Communications. Each BISAC code includes up to four layers of specificity, beginning with the subject general term. These universally acknowledged codes are what agents, publishers, librarians, or book buyers use for defining and organizing books. 

The other categorization to be aware of is age group classification. Books are classified as either adult, young adult, or children's, and within the children’s category there are several different sub-groups based on reading level and book length. It’s important that children’s writers understand the proper word choice, sentence structures, and word counts for their target age group.

Why Book Categories Matter

Genre and subgenre categories, along with age group classification play a very important role in a book’s marketability and discoverability when published. The categories you or your publisher assign to your book will determine where it is placed in physical bookstores, online retailer catalogs, and on library shelves. These categories are also how readers browse in bookstores or on websites such as Amazon. The more specific and accurate you can be with where your book fits in, the better chance you’ll have of reaching the right readers for your book. When categories are chosen strategically, you can increase your book’s visibility, the amount of positive reviews it receives online, and ultimately, your chances of reaching bestseller status in one or more of the categories assigned to your book.

Your book’s categories can also affect your publishing options. If your goal is to be traditionally published, you will need to identify your book’s genre, subgenres, and age group classification in the agent query process. Most literary agents represent specific categories of books, so you will need to do your research to determine which agents are accepting your type of book. If you submit your manuscript to an agent that doesn’t represent your genre, subgenres, or age group, they will automatically reject the submission.

Large traditional publishing houses use branded imprints to represent specific genres of books and some smaller houses focus on only select genres. When you or your agent are pitching your book to a traditional publisher, you will need to make sure the publisher accepts your type of book and that you are contacting the right editor for your book’s specific categories.

How Book Categories Work With Online Retailers

The book categories you assign to your book play a major role in your online discoverability and on websites like Amazon.Book categories play a major role in your book’s online searchability. Each book in an online retailer’s catalog is tagged with “metadata”, which is important information that you or your publisher provides when setting it up on distribution and retailer websites. This data includes your book’s title, ISBN, format, categories, keywords, description, and more, and is critical to connecting potential readers with your content. When a reader searches for books on retailer websites such as Amazon or Barnes & Noble, the search engines use this data (along with sales performance information and other factors) to filter, match, and list books the reader is most likely to enjoy and purchase.

Each retailer platform has a different “algorithm” or process it uses to filter, match, and list books. The amount of book categories you can assign in your book’s metadata will also differ by platform or channel. Amazon, for example, recently changed from allowing only two categories to be assigned at the time of set up to allowing three categories to be assigned. Authors can no longer email Amazon requesting to have more categories assigned to their book (up to 10), and instead, have a more comprehensive list from which to choose. The expanded list includes not only the standard BISAC codes, but also many new subgenres and sub-layers of subgenres that have become popular over time on Amazon. This means it’s more important than ever to choose the top three categories you believe will optimize your visibility with the right readers.

Tips for Choosing the Right Categories for Your Book

With over 3,000 BISAC codes to choose from and an additional 13,000+ categories on Amazon, how in the world do you choose the right three to five categories to focus on for your book?

By doing some serious research.

First, you want to make sure you have a clear understanding of what your book is about and whom you are targeting. Start brainstorming some keywords and search terms that you would use to describe and browse for your kind of book.

Second, look at published books similar to yours and see where they are placed in bookstores and where they are categorized in online retailer catalogs. This will give you a starting point with some general categories, and then you can drill down to your book’s specifics from there.

Third, once you have a few general categories of where your book best fits, start to drill down into the subgeneres and sub-subgenres that match your book’s subplots, subtopics, setting, or secondary themes. On Amazon, you can click on a book genre or “department” in their catalog, and then choose from a list of subgenres to click on. From there, you will see a list of sub-subgenres that you can click on to see any additional sub-layers. Here is an example for a book that falls into the “Health, Fitness & Dieting” department on Amazon:
When authors choose their book categories on Amazon, they should be as specific as possible.

Here are a few things to keep in mind as you finalize your category selections:

1. The first category you select will serve as your primary category, so make sure it best describes the entirety of your book.
2. For all of your category selections, you’ll want to drill down to the most specific category layer you can that makes sense for your content, without be too niche.
3. If you want to achieve a high sales ranking or even bestseller status on Amazon, look for the category matches with the least amount of competition.
4. Be consistent across all of your book’s formats. For example, the categories you choose for your paperback version should match the categories for your eBook version.
5. Update and test categories if your book isn’t getting the visibility you expected, or, as the market shifts and evolves.

Whether choosing your categories from the global BISAC code list or from Amazon’s expanded list, you’ll want to make sure you accurately identify your book. Choosing categories that don’t match your content will leave readers disappointed, and will likely result in negative reviews online.

Understanding and choosing book categories might seem complicated, but it doesn’t have to be. Follow the tips and steps noted above and with the right category selections, you can make sure your book is placed where it will connect with the most readers searching for your type of book.

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