Self-Publishing Basics: Why You Need a Category on the Back Cover of Your Book

by | Oct 6, 2009

When you become a self-publisher you have to learn to think like a bookseller. That makes sense, doesn’t it? After all, you are now responsible for the sales life of your book, and the most important single thing that you need to know is how to sell your book to the person who, even though they may not know it yet, really needs and wants your book.

That’s what booksellers do. They have the day-in day-out experience of selecting, displaying, marketing and selling thousands of books on hundreds of subjects in numerous formats. Walk into any sizable bookstore and look around. It’s a pretty big task.

Booksellers Need Your Help

With so many books in their stock, so many new books coming out every week, and so much change in the publishing business, booksellers have a hard time keeping up. One way you can help them is by printing the principal category the book belongs in on the back cover.

I really suggest you go on a field trip to a bookstore for this exercise. You want to look at the bookstore in a new way, as a publisher. In your new mindset you will see in a few minutes why you need to provide categories on your book.

Look at the shelves that make up the majority of the storage in the store. Notice those shelf tags, or the big signs on the tops of the shelves, or sometimes the ones they have hanging from the ceiling? Each sign tells you what section you are in, “Biography,” “Fiction,” “Cookbooks,” and so on. And that’s how the bookseller knows where to display his books, by the corresponding category.

Categories to Choose From

Here’s a sample listing of bookstore categories. This is pretty typical, and you can use it as a guide in determining the best category fit for your book. You can grab a copy for your use with the download link below.

Categories - click to enlarge

Categories - click to enlarge

Download the Bookstore Categories Guide. [ PDF – 468 KB ]

As you can see there are almost 150 categories to choose from. Pick one or two, print them on the back cover of your book. The bookseller who needs to shelve your book properly to have any chance of it selling, will see right away where it fits into their own scheme of categories.

Now You Know

You’ve worked hard to get your book this far, don’t let it get shelved in the wrong place. Study a local bookstore if you need to get clarity about where your book belongs. Among the many things you can do to help the people who will sell your book, this is one of the most basic, and now you know how to make the bookseller’s job easier.

Update: If you would like to use the authoritative Book Industry Study Group list of categories, you can now access both the major subject headings and all 2800+ subcategories on the BISG website, by using this link: BISAC Subject Headings. Enjoy.

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. LDC

    Hi, Joel. Your website has always been an excellent resource for information on matters of printed books. This post’s most important bit was the end where you mention the Book Industry Study Group. Though the link is dead (new link is – please confirm if this is indeed what you intended in the old link)

    Do you think Asian (Indian) publishers too would benefit from following the BISASC classification? Or do you know of any alternatives based on the region?

    • Joel Friedlander

      LDC, thanks very much for bringing that bad link to my attention, it’s been fixed.

      I don’t know of any regional alternatives, but anyone wanting to sell books in the U.S. should be aware of the BISAC categories.

  2. Carlen Maddux

    Joel… I’m looking at books similar to what mine will be, and I don’t see a Subject listing. Where would I find that on the back cover … by the bar code? Is it listed in code or in English? Tx

    • Joel Friedlander

      Carlen, I usually find it (and place it) in the top left corner of the back cover, although it’s not a rule and you can find them elsewhere on the back covers of most books. This is of most use in a bookstore environment.

  3. Samantha Wilding

    Realize this post is 5 years old, but it’s worth a shot to ask anyway. How many genres are acceptable for a single book? For example, my current project would fall under FICTION/Fantasy/Contemporary, FICTION/Fantasy/Dark Fantasy, and FICTION/Lesbian. Can I list all 3? Is there a downside to making my own category (eg. FICTION/Fantasy/Contemporary Dark LGBT Fantasy)?

    • Joel Friedlander

      Hi Samantha,

      You have to realize that the category is there primarily to help retailers decide where to shelve or display your book. Now, with search being the way many books are discovered, it’s a critical part of your metadata. It’s up to you as the publisher to pick the best category, and I strongly advise against creating your own, since that won’t really help anyone.

  4. Peggy

    Besides the category, is it necessary to print the BISAC Subject Headings code number? Ex: BUS071000 / BUSINESS & ECONOMICS / Leadership. (would you delete the BUS071000?)
    One publisher recently said to delete it. Is this correct?
    many thanks in advance!

    • Joel Friedlander

      Peggy, the publisher was correct; there’s no need to print the BISAC code number on the book.

  5. admin

    @BookWhirl, you’re welcome. I find when you are learning something it’s often the little things that people don’t bother to explain, but that’s exactly where I get tripped up! Thanks for reading.


    Thank you very much for this very beneficial information especially for all self-published authors who are still newbies of the industry. Your efforts on helping other authors is much appreciated. Keep on posting!

    Sincerely, | You have the book…We have the Marketing Resources.



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