“Peter, we had a few weeks of time together. We became close in ways normal people never will know. Alas, it was only a few weeks. Here in America, in your films, a man and a woman meet. They have an adventure for a couple of weeks. And it’s love for life. Happily ever after.”
Zara Khatum, June 2021
Why do you have to pick a BISAC code?
And while we’re at it, what is a BISAC code? And why do you have to fit within a genre?
One of the first things someone asks you when you say you writing a book or have written a book is “What is it about”? Well that’s a signal you should give the elevator pitch version of the book. It helps if you can say “It’s a thriller” or “It’s a mystery” or “It’s a romance” because most folks have an idea of what type of story it might be.
At the Writer’s Digest Conference in NYC this year, a renown literary agent, giving advice to the few hundred-strong aspiring author audience, made it very clear that she would need to know how to categorize your book in order to sell it to a publisher. “It’s a such and such, like this famous book but different in this way.” Classical marketing 101. What is it you are offering and why is it unique.
On this author journey, I’ve learned that many readers have a distinctive set of expectations for a book when it is listed as part of a specific genre. If that book does not follow these expectations for that genre, these readers feel dissatisfied which shows in their reviews. Hence, many authors face the peril of having to write to the unwritten rules of a specific genre.
BISAC stands for the Book Industry Study Group which has established 52 general codes for fiction and non-fiction book categories. When one files with the US Copyright Office, you are asked for BISAC codes. When you submit your book to Amazon you are asked for BISAC codes. That is a defining moment. What is your book?
How Amazon liberate us from tight genre definitions
In the world of the brick and mortar bookstores, that unfortunate dying breed of retailer, one can understand the need for book categories and classifications. The need for where should the book seller place your book? Which section and aisle of the store? And where might a such-and-such genre reader go in that store to find their favorite genre? And given a bookstore only has so many shelves, there are logically only so many classifications.
But now in the virtual digital bookstore, there can be nearly unlimited classifications due to the power of search engines and hierarchical hyperlinked lists. In my first writers’ meeting, I had the distinct honor and privilege of having dinner next to Melinda Leigh, who, little did I know at the time, is the number one Amazon author in Romantic Suspense. When she wrote her first book, she did not write to any genre but to the story she had envisioned. Amazon had approached her for publishing her book in one of their new companies. They were able to envision how her book crossed genres and how they were uniquely able to help her sell across genres. And Romantic Suspense was born. Her books lead on romantic suspense, mystery-crime-murder, and romance-mystery in Amazon. A traditional publisher would not have had that ability to merchandise so easily across genres.
At a recent writers’ conference sponsored by a chapter of the Romance Writers of America (RWA), Damon Suede, a RWA board member and an immensely popular speaker, gave a reflective talk about the state of the book publishing industry. As many published authors are acutely aware, the book publishing industry is in a downturn. The Kindle revolution was, at first, a boom to authors. But as self-publishing led to the pricing of books to drop tremendously, the quality of book offerings dropped as well. Consumers who used to rely on established traditional publishers to screen books for quality now are faced with a glut of books offered at nominal or free price which no longer have that quality control. Thus, the moral of this part of his talk was the need for authors to focus on quality, the best possible book they can write, to give readers the best product as opposed to producing volumes of books.
Perhaps, the most intriguing part of his talk focused on sheep. Wool? No, social dynamics as an allegory to genre bounds. Sheep will tend to stay in a flock for predator defense and consequently eat together at one spot until the vegetation is gone – right down to the roots. Survival of the flock depends on the “outlier” sheep who wander off and graze somewhere else. Most of these outliers will be eaten by predators as they no longer have the security of the flock. Once the flock has decimated the spot they are grazing, there are “bellweather” sheep who lift their heads and look around for where the “outlier” sheep are – that is the ones who haven’t been tragically eaten. And the “bellweather” sheep will lead the flock to new grazing grounds.
Hmmm…think about that when a sub-genre is over published with marginally original works. Are the outliers the future?
The Matriarch Matrix – A member of the outlier sheep family?
That dinner sitting next to Melinda Leigh, who told her life stories and author history, of course led to the fateful moment when she asked me politely what I was writing. And I couldn’t tell her anything other than “it was an epic”. Partially it was newbie disease, but I know understand mostly it was because I didn’t write to any genre in particular. As a reader, I read across a number of genres. In writing this book, I had a story in mind and I pulled from different genre styles as needed to tell that story. But I had no idea what genre(s) this book fit into.
At that same meeting, I attended a seminar on emotions given by romance author Virginia Kantra. My book was in review with beta readers at that time and I didn’t think I would need the craft she so artfully espoused. But a week later, the first of three eventual rounds of beta reader feedback arrived. Ouf – as the French say. I needed the craft that she taught. Perhaps the lack of deep POV was fine for an action-thriller, but no so if this book was to broach a broader audience. So, the next edit became more intense. And fortunately, I also attended Michael Hauge’s Story Mastery seminar from which I began to understand the concept of the inner wound and inner journey to deepen POV and reader engagement. I also joined RWA to access their huge library of past meetings’ mp3s. And I studied and incorporated these veteran RWA authors’ advice into the rewrites of The Matriarch Matrix.
Come September 2017. The moment of truth comes. What two BISAC codes do I select for the US Copyright Office? What two BISAC codes do I select for Amazon? I chose Metaphysical Fiction and SciFi Adventure. Why metaphysical? The book has a sub-theme about the characters’ religious beliefs which shape who they are and how they interact. I didn’t want someone who would dislike religiously based characters to be misled by the genre I picked. I had learned from a RWA lecture that what I wrote was not Inspirational Fiction. So metaphysical fiction was as close as I could get to signal to readers about the spiritual character based content in the book. And because the book had both a created past world, 9600 BCE at the founding of Göbekli Tepe, and a created future world in 2021, I listed it as a science fiction book and adventure as a sub-genre as the second half of the book had an adventure timbre.
And The Jury Says…
The power of Amazon in post-hoc defining “what is your book” comes from two sources. The first is the reader feedback in the reviews. The second comes from their infinite wisdom artificial intelligence which then starts categorizing your book based on sales insights.
I thank all of the kind people who took the time to write a review. All of your feedback has been invaluable and appreciated – high stars and low stars alike. Three of the many learnings I have made from the first thirty reviews are: 1) suspense and mystery began to emerge in the verbatims; 2) comments about how the book crosses genres which could be a positive or negative; and 3) some readers not feeling fulfilled or satisfied by the end.
I think #2 and #3 are linked. If you are expecting the unwritten rules of a certain genre as part of what makes a book satisfying to read, you might not like this book. I listened to many authors over the last year describe what their genre is and is not. And this book does not fit cleanly into any genre. That said, after the first thirty reviews I asked Amazon to change the Kindle classification from SciFi Adventure to Religious Mysteries and left the Metaphysical Fiction categorization in place.
Last week, the power of Amazon sales information revealed a number of things about this book. I ran the KDP free book program for five days and 3,500 copies were downloaded. The book hit #2 in the entire science fiction genre free Kindle books. #1 in science fiction/adventure. #1 in science fiction/metaphysical & visionary. #1 in religious mysteries. #1 in metaphysical fiction. People voted with button pushes. We will see in the subsequent reviews if the book meets their expectations of whatever genre they thought they were downloading.
In contrast, the paperback version reflects Amazon’s sales intelligence. They have the paperback categorized under: Metaphysical & Visionary Genre Fiction; Romance – Science Fiction; and Romance – Action & Adventure. The second two bowled me over. Perhaps the learnings I made from RWA authors came through in the final book? See my blog post “Is it a romance or not?”
All that said, I think this reviewer’s advice is best taken:
“I had heard a lot of good things about this book and I was not disappointed. Great plot, a lot of food for thought and good entertainment. If you don‘t mind reading About spiritual and religious topics, and are comfortable with books that do not bother to conform to unspoken genre rules give this great work a try. *** I have been given an ARc of this book and this is my honest and voluntary review.”
“I do not live in an American film, Peter. Love is something that happens over years. Over decades. Over a lifespan. And my love is for my mother, my family, and my country.”
Zara Khatum, July 2021
Romance Writers of America
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