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Book categories, BIC and the customer

Just noticed that Howard Willows from Bookdata in the UK has responded to a letter I sent to the Bookseller. I may not have been as articulate as I perhaps should have been but point was really trying to highlight was the confusion that I come across at many publishers when it comes to categorisation coupled with what some of the retailers have been saying. With a twist of some articles on the organisation of publishers into subject guided publishing units (Thomas Nelson for example). Surely, whatever the rights and wrongs these are the two principal groups who should be primarily served by the categorisation system and they feel failed by it.

Anyway, my letter followed by Howard’s response followed by Emma Barnes of Snowbooks.

BIC: wake up
This is a letter to try to raise a little awareness of the categorisation problem that exists on both sides of the Atlantic in the book trade.

I was very interested in the recent article in Publishers Weekly about the publisher Thomas Nelson in the US moving away from organising itself along imprint lines but doing so by reference to the BISAC category codes. It seems largely because that better represents how people actually buy books, and also because of the data publishers collect, from Nielsen et al, about which categories are strongest, so they can identify any weaknesses in their offerings. This, of course, makes perfect sense, and brings me to the equivalent categorisation scheme in the UK known as BIC and propagated by the Book Industry Communication group. This scheme has long been a bugbear of mine and of many of the publishers that I visit.

As someone who has for many years provided databases to publishers containing fields enabling them to categorise their books via the BIC scheme, I have often been frustrated that it seems to be so imbalanced, and whole swathes of cultural phenomena seem to pass it by. For example, lots of archaeology but just the bare bones for fiction. Modern developments such as podcasting and social networking are nowhere to be found.

The BIC standard seems to be dominated by those who shouted the loudest, and I have not seen any mention of actually using the rich vein of data that has been gathered via electronic point of sale, BookScan and so on about how customers find the stuff they want.

What I would say slightly in defence of BIC is that there seems to be representation from almost none of the vast bulk of the actual publishers. Surely, categorisation should surely be an exercise between them and their customers (or their customer data at the very least)?

So many times when I am demonstrating software I find that the client publisher struggles to fit its “round” book into the “square” peg of the BIC system. How can that be sensible?

So, in conclusion, some suggestions for improvement:
1) Allow customer data to better inform the process.
2) Allow for a better balance (i.e. make sure that everything may be categorised to the same level, not some subjects to the nth degree and others only superficially).
3) Give more weight to the “long tail”. Categorisation should not be by a handful of the larger retailers and only the very largest publishers.
4) And for God’s sake it is 2006 and things change–so keep it contemporary, or whole swathes of books representing what people are thinking and feeling, how they are interacting and what they are doing now will slip through the net because no one can bloody find them.”

Howard’s response on 17 November 2006

Touchy subjects
I am always heartened when the oft-neglected issue of subject classification is raised in the book trade. But Robin Tobin (Letters, 27th October) mixes some good points with fundamental misunderstandings about the BIC Subject Categories scheme.

Perhaps Mr Tobin is unaware that BIC was updated this April. BIC Version 2.0 (BIC2) includes a Digital Lifestyle section, for iPods and so on, among other changes. By all means let the scheme be updated more regularly, but beware the pursuit of flash-in-the-pan trends.

Of course the “vast bulk” of publishers are unrepresented on the review committees–there are more than 70,000 publishers on BookData’s database. BIC2 contains input from a range of publishers, distributors and booksellers of all sizes, and is open to suggestions from everyone in the trade.

Despite all this input, BIC2 regrettably still has only the “bare bones” for Fiction; or, to be precise, 38 categories for Fiction, including Graphic Novels. If Mr Tobin can find a way of subdividing the great mass of general or non-genre fiction, I would be intrigued to find out how. I’m baffled by his proposed use of Epos data; the BIC scheme is for subject classification, not sales analysis.

Essentially, the BIC scheme operates as a kind of lingua franca between partners exchanging information about books. It has to cover the full gamut of publishing, while giving a level of detail to each area that is neither impenetrable to the layman nor laughably trite to the expert. In short, an impossible task, but we are always keen to have constructive criticism and suggestions.

Howard Willows
Nielsen BookData
85-95 Queensway, Stevenage
Hertfordshire SG1 1EA’

Emma’s response:

‘To the editor of the Bookseller:
Howard Willows wrote in recently to respond to Robin Tobin on the subject of BIC classification codes. Robin was disappointed that BIC codes don’t better reflect the way customers mentally group books. Howard pointed out that BIC codes are a kind of lingua franca for supply chain data – it’s not a sales grouping or a customer-led classification – it’s intended for internal use between publishers and retailers, so naturally it doesn’t attempt to reflect customer thinking. But that still leaves me puzzled. Because it’s for use out of sight of the customer, I can accept that BIC codes must be modelled on the internal data requirements of the supply chain. And if they happen to be at odds with customer thinking, then too bad: it’s not about them. But what are the internal data requirements of the book supply chain? And what would the classifications they generate be useful for? I hope I’m not missing the obvious, but all I can come up with is that the retailer would use those groupings for aggregating performance data and for planning ranges – in other words for putting together their customer offer and then reviewing its success. That’s a highly customer-dependent activity. Publishers too might look at which classifications their titles fall into as a way of gauging the strengths, and the gaps, in their list, as well as identifying where the profits are coming from: in other words, range planning and sales analysis. And both of those activities are best done with a classification based on the way customers mentally group books and then make their purchases.

Whether creating such a classification is a task that BIC – or anyone else for that matter – can truly succeed at is a different question. It’s likely to be a moving target, for a start. But that’s slightly off the point. I’m still at a loss to understand what internal supply chain use Howard has in mind that takes precedence over a customer and sales led approach. In the age of category management, when retailers reorganise their processes – even their office space – around the way customers group products, I think that the necessity that has drawn BIC away from thinking about the customer had better be an awfully good one.’

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