Saturday, July 13, 2013

A Sorting Hat for books would be easier.

It’s time for me to assign the BISAC code(s) for my new book. If you don’t know, BISAC stands for Books Intelligently Sorted into Awkward Categories.* These codes, in theory, determine where books are listed with booksellers. Choosing the category should be fairly simple. I think for some books it is because some of the codes are pretty specific.

But this book, like some of my others, is about couples meeting and falling for each other. Romance you say? I hesitate even to start there. My feeling is that the lines between romance and erotica have blurred. Maybe I’m wrong but I think most people expect anything labeled romance to have a decent amount of sex scenes. And this is part of what choosing categories is all about. No, not sex scenes. It’s about managing expectations.

If someone picks up a book hoping to read one steamy scene after another and finds that in the entire course of the book, the hero only takes his shirt off twice (and has another one under it both times), that reader is going to be disappointed. It won’t matter that the book happens to be a completely awesome story of a witty yet socially awkward young woman finding friends and then true love.** The reader will still be disappointed that it wasn’t what he or she planned to read.

Romance does have several sub-genres and even sub-sub-genres. The closest I’ve come to pegging my books though is to put them under the Romance sub-genre of Christian books. My books are not overtly Christian though and this leaves room for disappointment in the segment of the audience hoping for a profound message.

Yeah, I could just call everything Fiction. But readers cannot even form expectations about a book if they cannot find it, which brings us to the more awkward half of assigning a category. Amazon and Barnes & Noble and most other booksellers have their own categories. (Yes, the S in BISAC supposedly stands for Standards.) They ask publishers to assign a code or two and then they use that information to determine which of their own browse categories is (are) most appropriate.

I don’t know how this is accomplished. I’m guessing it either involves committees and secret handshakes or a dartboard. I don’t have a lot of faith in this system. I have already been surprised at what they thought was a match. And once I selected the same codes for two books and found them listed under different categories.

Even if I was new to this, I’d have doubts based on my experiences trying to find books that I want to read. Barnes & Noble, for example, still uses the same price sorts for ebooks as it does for print. These start at “under $10.” (Yes, even if you’ve already found the section for Nook books under $5, you can still sort them by those under $10.) Not only are something like 90% of all ebooks under $10, I think very few people sorting by price would be willing to spend more than that. Amazon doesn’t instill much confidence when it admits under Indie Books that the category is “hard to define.” Independent is pretty straightforward, but Amazon tries to characterize it by including “cool” in the criteria since there is nothing at all subjective about what makes a book cool.

I suppose the sorts and categories don’t matter all that much to anyone who mostly reads what friends recommend. If you’re like me and can’t get enough recommendations or you recently read something that wasn’t exactly what you had in mind, I hope you’ll appreciate that there are an awful lot of people trying to figure out how to put books in front of readers who might enjoy them. Some of us are putting a lot more thought into it than others. But we are trying.

* Actually stands for something else.
** Tongue in cheek of course, but still look up The 4th Floor Lounge if that sounds appealing.