Why the U.S. Publishing Industry Should Embrace Thema Global Standards
Thema is a new global subject code scheme meant to standardize how publishers, booksellers, and others describe book content. It’s something the U.S. publishing ecosystem should be paying close attention to. But before explaining why, we need to take a step back and understand a bit about subject codes overall. And any discussion of subject codes starts with the Book Industry Standards and Communications (BISAC) and the Book Industry Study Group (BISG).
Throughout our nearly 40-year history, BISG has provided the publishing ecosystem with a gathering place to solve common problems, as well as a mechanism to collectively understand key industry metrics for the benefit of all. From guidelines on how and where to place barcodes on physical books, to best practices for identifying digital products, to research data on myriad topics (including BookStats, our joint venture with the Association of American Publishers), BISG has been there to build consensus toward shared solutions and to facilitate innovation in the supply chain. Nowhere is this more evident than in the development and maintenance of the BISAC Subject Headings.
First and foremost, BISAC codes aid in discovery. Whether walking into a bookshop to browse the shelves, or searching online, BISAC subject codes allow readers to find the content they want in a rational, well-organized way. It’s not that readers have any awareness of BISAC codes; they don’t. It’s that the codes provide a standardized and seamless way for those who serve readers (e.g., retailers) to organize content in a rational, predictable way. Readers are the happy beneficiaries of the hard work done to create these standards behind the scenes.
Created in the mid-1990s by a committee of industry volunteers organized by BISG, BISAC codes are a detailed yet elegant method of describing the content of a book in a standardized way.
For example, consider these two books:
Five Billion Years of Solitude: The Search for Life Among the Stars
by Lee Billings (Current, 2013)
by Carl Sagan
(Random House, 1980)
Written at different times, by different authors, and published by different companies, these books share a common theme; they both contain nonfiction content that deals largely with astronomy, astrophysics, and physics. For these two books, publishers would likely assign these two BISAC codes to each:
You can see here that BISAC codes follow a predictable pattern; a three letter designation for the top-level category (in this case SCI, for science), followed by a six-digit number expressing a sub-category. It is a simple and easy-to-understand system. By making the identification of the subject matter consistent across relevant titles, BISAC codes provide a mechanism through which a reader can predict where he or she might find a particular book.
But this isn’t just about discoverability. Consider the acquiring editor who is contemplating making an offer on a layman’s guide to astrophysics. Understanding the sales history of comp titles is crucial to that decision making process. Without subject codes, identifying comp titles becomes nearly impossible.
The same holds true for retail merchandisers and buyers. As they sift through the vast catalog of all publisher offerings, they need tools to help them filter and curate. As the digital age has grown up, tools like Edelweiss, Title Source, iPage, and NetGalley have made those purchasing decisions easier. The backbone of these and other systems is metadata, and subject codes are one of the most important pieces of metadata that describe a book.
BISAC codes are used nearly universally in the U.S. and Canada, and they are ubiquitous. Almost everyplace you see a listing for a book, you’ll see metadata about that book, including its subject code(s). The metadata is parsed from a file that publishers send to downstream partners; the downstream partners have special software that makes the metadata presentable to users. This means that the BISAC codes I included above would be rendered in plain English. Look at the listing below above for Five Billion Years of Solitude on the Books & Books (indie bookstore in Coral Gables, FL) website.
All of this information comes from the publisher provided metadata file, including the highlighted subject codes.
If BISAC is working so well, you might ask, why then is the U.S. such a strong supporter of Thema, the new global subject code initiative? After all, Thema isn’t even based on BISAC. It’s modeled after BIC, the U.K. standard for subject codes developed a couple of years after BISAC. Nor is there a chorus of voices in the U.S. market clamoring for something to replace BISAC. So what gives? I’ll answer that with five easy words:
Glo-bal-i-za-tion. (Okay, yes, that’s actually one word, but it has more impact if you slow it down. Besides, I wanted to make sure you were still paying attention.)
More and more, BISG members, who count among their ranks virtually every major publisher and retailer, are operating on a global stage. Publishers are acquiring rights to books written overseas, and they’re selling to multinational retailers like Amazon, Google, and Kobo. Those same multinational retailers, now competing in market after market, need to help consumers in different cultures, speaking different languages, find the right book. And, of course, search engines are looking for clues in metadata to help users find exactly what they’re seeking.
While certain book industry standards—ISBN, ONIX, EPUB—are truly international, BISAC Subject Codes are not. In addition to the BIC Codes, there are dozens of different subject code schemes the world over, each unique to its market. As industry stakeholders develop international strategies, and as they begin to trade with partners beyond their geopolitical borders, a need for a global classification scheme has come to the fore.
Thema grew out of a project called iBIC, which was meant to be an international version of the BIC codes. iBIC was guided by a small consortium of national standards groups, and led by Book Industry Communication (BIC), BISG’s British counterpart and close ally in the world of publishing industry standards. When the U.S. and Canada (through BISG and BookNet Canada) joined the fray, iBIC morphed into Thema. By the time all was said and done, nearly 20 countries had taken part in the process, and EDItEUR, the U.K.-based but global standards organization, took ownership of Thema. EDItEUR is now managing it alongside both ONIX and ISBN. (A special and public note of thanks to both BIC and Nielsen for donating the intellectual property of the iBIC codes for this process. Hear, hear!)
The short-term purpose of Thema is not to replace BISAC or any other local subject code scheme (unless the market adopting Thema so desires). Rather, the intent is to create a universal set of descriptors that can map to all others. (A “one map to rule them all” sort of thing.) The hope is that U.S. publishers will continue to use BISAC, but will also include the appropriate Thema codes for books being sold outside of North America. This cuts down on the need for what Howard Willows of Nielsen, the original architect of the Thema standard, calls “map-o-rama,” the need to create a multitude of maps between your original subject code designation (in the U.S., BISAC) and local designations the world over (in the U.K., BIC, in France a subject code scheme called CLIL, etc.).
While it’s possible that Thema will, over time, become the de facto subject code standard worldwide, there is no expectation that U.S. publishers will stop using BISAC in the near future. The official publication of the Thema 1.0 draft at the Frankfurt Book Fair this past year is the beginning of a process, not the end. (Thema’s official launch was January 1, 2014, and swift adoption is already underway in some European markets.)
Thema and BISAC have similarities, but there are important structural differences, too. Consider the case of Scotland, the Story of a Nation by Magnus Magnusson (Grove Press, 2003). This sweeping (and wonderful) history of Scotland from ancient times to the modern day is easily classifiable; it’s a book about Scottish history. In BISAC, the book would be classified here:
HIS015000 History/European/Great Britain
Thema, however, is organized differently. There are many more qualifiers that get appended to subject codes. The idea is to reduce the number of core codes and to add flexibility. In Thema, the Magnusson book would first get a core subject code:
NHD European History
Then you would append a qualifier:
Leading to this:
While the codes themselves are perhaps a bit less intuitive, there is a bit more granularity within Thema, at least in this instance. The difference is that BISAC attempts to contain as much of the classification in a single subject code as possible, while Thema uses a model that distributes the classification across a series of subject codes and qualifiers. When you think about the geographic reach and application of each classification scheme, this makes sense. To try to account for every global locale in every subject code would overwhelm the list.
The BISG Thema Working Group (chaired by Kempton Mooney, Hachette) a sub-group of BISG’s Subject Codes Committee (chaired by Connie Harbison, Baker & Taylor) provided valuable input during the creation of the Thema spec to ensure that it met the needs of the U.S. market. The Group is currently hard at work on a map between BISAC and Thema codes. The map, which is actually a massive spreadsheet, will be a crucial tool in the propagation of Thema. It is available free of charge to BISG members (or to non-members who have purchased the BISAC Subject codes) from the BISG website this February.
With the BISAC to Thema map in hand, U.S. publishers can easily include Thema codes in their metadata, satisfying the needs of trading partners abroad. While there is no specified time for roll-out and adoption in the U.S., BISG encourages stakeholders to begin using Thema codes at the earliest reasonable date.
It is clear that the need for globalization across the entire spectrum of book industry standards grows increasingly important every day. Thema is a monumental step forward in providing consistency and rationality to what can sometimes seem like a chaotic supply chain. BISG asks its members to explore and begin using Thema codes alongside BISAC, and urges national groups the world over to join the dialogue, and to become part of the process.
Related story: IPA Endorses Thema