In early 2016, the Book Industry Study Group (BISG) will add 512 new categories to the BISAC Subject Headings List, whose codes guide how books are marketed and found. The most significant changes will improve the ways in which young adult titles can be classified.

Until now, publishers have been using the same codes to describe books that were intended for both juvenile and young adult audiences. Users have had to rely on the grade or age range to determine the book’s intended audience.

By creating a Young Adult Fiction category, BISG has provided publishers with the ability to assign more relevant codes across subcategories, such as Family, Fantasy, LGBT, Magical Realism, Religious, Romance, Science Fiction, and Social Themes. As a result, a YA book once described as Juvenile Fiction/Love & Romance might now be described as Young Adult Fiction/Romance/Contemporary, improving its chances for discovery.

A similar structure has been created for young adult nonfiction titles, with subcategories such as Health & Daily Living, History, Language Arts, Public Speaking, and Technology. Separating Young Adult from Juvenile allows publishers to use existing and new subcategories to describe titles in ways that more closely align with the books and their intended audiences.

BISG maintains BISAC subject codes to help determine a title’s genre and provide a path for discovery in both physical bookstores and online searches. Codes are revised every year through the work of a standing committee, but the 2015 update is the largest in over a decade, largely because of the new young adult codes; 446 updated codes involve either Young Adult Fiction or Young Adult Nonfiction. The new codes also include 75 “literal” changes—updates to the way that existing codes are described. Another 18 codes will be inactivated.

As a comparison, the 2014 update included 75 additions, 31 name changes, 17 inactivations, and a single reactivation. The Subject Codes Committee recommended that the 2015 update be implemented at the end of January 2016, a timeline that BISG is currently working with its members to confirm and support. As part of that effort, BISG is planning to host some educational webinars on the new codes and their implementation; dates for the sessions are expected to be confirmed by early January.

A number of online resources are already available for publishers and data recipients to review the changes. After the proposals by the Subject Codes Committee were approved, committee chair Connie Harbison of Baker & Taylor provided BISG with updates to the complete BISAC subject headings list, an appendix of inactivated codes, and a comparison table that shows what changed from the 2014 edition. (All of these documents can now be found on the BISG website,, by following the Committee link under the Standards and Best Practices tab. The page also includes a tutorial and link to frequently asked questions, updated for 2015.)

The committee provided its recommended changes in August. A period of public comment followed before the final version was approved in November.

According to Harbison, “People should be treating this update as they would any other new edition.” She adds that the committee does not typically require that backlist titles be reclassified to align with the new codes, although any publisher could elect to do so if the new headings better fit any of its titles.

Reflecting on the changes, BISG executive director Mark Kuyper notes, “The whole purpose [of the category revision] is to help with discovery and better understand the market. We want market intelligence, and more granular data gets you that intelligence.”

Josh Weiss, v-p managing editorial/digital publishing services at HarperCollins Children’s Books, says, “We hope that having separate Juvenile and Young Adult codes will help libraries and retailers identify the best, most appropriate books for their customers, as well as improve online discoverability.”

Weiss, a member of the Subject Codes Committee, adds, “The changes reflect the importance of the YA segment of the market and should also help the industry better track and understand sales trends.”

A Long Process

Harbison says that efforts to update young adult codes stretch back to 2003. Before this year, the most recent formal effort to update the YA categories took place in 2011, when the results of a focus group of BISG members generated a good deal of excitement about potential changes. But uncertainty about the benefits and concern over the amount of committee work delayed implementation.

In November 2014, Harbison again proposed that the Subject Codes Committee revisit how YA titles are classified, and in March, BISG hosted a town hall meeting followed by a webinar for anyone who could not attend the in-person discussion.

During those meetings, the committee presented four options, with a strong preference for adding the two new sections for Young Adult Fiction and Young Adult Nonfiction, which the committee ultimately adopted.

The new sections adapt the legacy categories Juvenile Fiction and Juvenile Nonfiction for a young adult audience. Harbison notes that some categories, such as Pregnancy, moved entirely to Young Adult, eliminating the Juvenile equivalent. In all, a total of 16 Juvenile codes were made inactive.

Finding the Age Range

The committee suggested that publishers map Juvenile titles to readers up to age 11 and grades preschool through six. Young Adult readers are those between 12 and 18 years, or grades seven through 12. For content that spans age or grade ranges, “publishers must decide for which audience the material is better suited,” Harbison advises.

Because the update involves so many new codes, BISG is working to make sure that publishers and data recipients (which include but are not limited to wholesalers, retailers, third-party platforms that maintain metadata, and libraries) are ready. Some publishers have expressed concern that data recipients might reject the new codes if their systems are not ready. Data recipients have raised a parallel concern with any publishers that may not be ready to implement the new codes.

Asked about HC’s plans around implementation, Weiss says, “We plan to follow BISG’s recommended implementation timeline. We will update our product database to reflect the updated code list, and we will use our existing age data to map every book to the correct new codes.”

Committee chair Harbison notes that the Subject Codes Committee is providing all users with recommendations for moving from inactivated to valid codes. “The recommendations are not always one-to-one moves. Some provide users with a number of options that depend on the title’s subject matter and audience.”

The committee continues to stress what it considers best practices in using BISAC codes effectively. “Headings from the Juvenile Fiction and Juvenile Nonfiction sections should not be used with other headings outside those sections,” Harbison says. “As an example, a title should not be given both a Juvenile and a Fiction (for adults) heading.” The same practice applies to the new Young Adult sections.

According to Harbison, implementation across publishers doesn’t always follow best practice. “During our town hall discussions, we heard that people wanted to mix codes from different sections,” she says. While recognizing that a small number of titles may benefit by applying codes from different sections, Harbison feels that exceptions are made more often than is needed. As a result, publishers wind up describing a title more broadly than its intended audience, weakening discovery.

For publishers preparing to implement the updated subject headings, Harbison recommends that they focus first on frontlist titles, followed by efforts to remap inactive codes to one or more of the recommended alternatives. Although the Subject Codes Committee doesn’t require that backlist titles be updated, Harbison agrees that their subject codes could be updated to follow the new list, once the frontlist and inactive codes are addressed.

Although the 2015 changes are extensive, Kuyper sees them as “the right amount of changes to be making at this time.” He adds, “Trying to create any standard takes a tremendous amount of work. Even then, it’s hard to get complete agreement.”

At least one person wants to go even further. Weiss says, “With the addition of Young Adult Fiction and Young Adult Nonfiction, four of the 53 major BISAC subject groupings are for categorizing what’s broadly termed children’s books. I think there are opportunities to add additional BISAC codes to better reflect what people are actually looking for and help them find what they want.”

Weiss adds, “Where appropriate, we should follow the model of the adult side. For example, Humor on the adult side contains 19 subcategories, while in Juvenile Fiction there’s only the subcategory, Humorous Stories, and in Young Adult there are only three humor-related subcategories. It would be helpful to add options that allow publishers to better categorize the wide variety of humorous books for kids, which would in turn help readers find the right books.”