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The Future of Publishing

Thema: Developing A Subject Category Scheme for A Global Book Trade

Thema: Developing A Subject Category Scheme for A Global Book Trade

About the Author

Chris Saynor is responsible for EDItEUR’s book publishing standards, including ONIX, Thema, and EDItX. He joined the organization in late 2016. For the previous eight years, he worked as a metadata specialist and project manager for GiantChair Inc. in Paris, where he was responsible for implementation of the Onixsuite application in many publishing organizations. He is widely known for his work with French industry liaison body CLIL and with BISG committees. Prior to that, he has a 20-year background in bookselling with Waterstones and WHSmith.

Giving accurate information about the subject or genre of a book is an important aspect of marketing books to potential customers. This subject categorization is common to publishers, librarians and booksellers. Publishers create catalogues or marketing collateral showing the subject of the book. Librarians follow clear and precise cataloguing rules to attribute subject codes to the titles in their collections. Booksellers shelve titles in subject sections to help clients find the titles. 

With the growth of EDI (Electronic Data Interchange) various book trade subject category schemes were developed to provide standard subject headings and codes. These schemes support easy identification of subjects and consistent tracking of sales statistics. These subject or category schemes were usually created by national bodies. BISAC codes were one of the first, created for the U.S. market in 1995. The BIC subject scheme launched in 1997 in the U.K. There are equivalents to these schemes in many countries.

Since the first subject code schemes were launched, there has been an explosion in online selling and in the importance of digital versions of content. There is more and more content available to a greater number of consumers in an increasingly global market. 

The growth of this global market has been the background to creation of ONIX, the standard message format to transmit book metadata in the global book supply chain. The ONIX standard allows publishers to communicate the same information, to any trade partner, anywhere in the world.

However, a publisher trading in multiple markets and with retail clients who also trade in many countries would have to send multiple subject codes from many different book trade subject schemes: BISAC for the US and Canada, BIC for the UK , CLIL for France, NUR for the Netherlands, WGS for Germany, and so on. The ONIX code list of recognized subject schemes (list 27) is one of the longest of all ONIX lists. Mapping to various country subject schemes creates a lot of work for publishers, data aggregators, and retailers. Often, they have to create multiple mappings from the different schemes to their own scheme or to the subject scheme they prefer. These different schemes also increase the potential loss of detail or accuracy. 


The need to reduce the duplication of work where more than one scheme is in use, and the elimination of the costly and imprecise mapping process, inspired the idea that the international book trade needed a single global standard scheme to simplify the communication of the subject codes around the globe. The initial idea was an attempt to ‘internationalize’ BIC, which is very British and orientated towards the U.K. book trade.

Modified versions of BIC were already in use in Spain, Italy and other countries. During 2011 and early 2012, a proposal for a more internationally balanced version of the BIC scheme, at the time named IBIC, emerged. IBIC itself was never released in finished form but it led to the formation of a much larger group of stakeholders, including BISG and BookNet Canada, who were willing to work on a global scheme that ultimately became Thema

The goal was to create a scheme that was multi-cultural and multi-lingual, applicable to all parts of the book supply chain, and flexible enough to allow each market to retain its unique cultural voice, all while remaining a unified and simple-to-adopt scheme. It was, and still is, suitable to be used alongside existing national schemes. Thema is managed and maintained by EDItEUR, which also manages the ONIX standard. A number of national or regional interest groups, comprised of stakeholders in each market, send representatives to the Thema International Steering Committee and make suggestions and decisions about the development of Thema. The national and regional interest groups ensure that the scheme remains global and commercially relevant. 

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