Book description standard goes worldwide

Howard Willows
Opinion - Publishing 08 December 2015

Howard Willows provides an update on Thema, the subject classification scheme for the global book trade.

Much has happened since Graham Bell's BookBrunch article on Thema last year - most notably the fact that Thema is off the drawing board and is in active, everyday use.
As anyone working in marketing, product metadata, or export sales will surely know by now, Thema is the international standard subject classification scheme for the book trade. It sets out to solve the problem caused by the fact that previous subject schemes tended to be national - BIC in the UK, BISAC in North America, Thèmes CLIL in France, and so on. As the book trade becomes increasingly international, facilitated by international standards such as ISBN and ONIX, with the growth of digital products and online trading, the continued use of all these legacy subject schemes forms an obstacle to clear communication between trading partners. It was pointed out that publishers in the UK could send an ONIX message to tell booksellers in the USA every possible detail about a book precisely and directly - except what it was about.  International retailers found they had to set up numerous mappings to convert the various items of subject information they received into a version they could understand and use - all of which adds unnecessary cost and complexity.

It is obvious that international trade requires international standards, so that information can be communicated clearly and understood without conversion. Thema was set up to meet this need, with representatives from a growing number of countries submitting proposals for topics of local importance, to be added to a core list of subject categories and qualifiers drawn from the BIC scheme. Like all the best standards then, Thema was developed by stakeholders in response to a real business problem, rather than designed as an abstract ideal.
It became clear that book subject classification requirements were not that different across the globe - from USA to China - and Thema met with rapid and widespread acceptance. It turns out that all those national schemes had a lot in common, but each had a different way of expressing it.

Unsurprisingly, Thema was welcomed most readily in countries with no dominant national scheme, or where the main scheme was widely regarded as insufficient. In Germany, it is already the primary scheme, and is at the core of the new VLB books in print service. It has been widely adopted in Scandinavia, and will be used in the forthcoming Greek books in print.

In the UK and North America, where well-regarded national schemes are more firmly established, change has been less dramatic, but awareness is growing. Nielsen reports that it has over 10 million records on its database classified with Thema; and the scheme is also provided by Bowker, BDS and Booknet Canada. Online retailers are expressing an interest, and BIC (the organisation) has announced that there will be no further updates of the BIC scheme - so in effect Thema can be regarded as the new version of BIC.

Other countries round the world are at various stages of adoption. As well as the English, German, Norwegian and Swedish versions, Thema has been translated (to various extents) into Arabic, Danish, Spanish, French, Italian, Japanese, Polish and Russian; and Greek, Turkish and Chinese translations await approval from the relevant authorities.

Partly in response to this activity, EDItEUR has ensured that robust governance and review procedures are in place to meet the demands of users. Thus, the first revision of Thema, version 1.1, was successfully released, with supporting documentation, in November 2014, and work has begun on v1.2, due out in spring 2016. As with all new standards, there is something of a balancing act between the need for stability (to support existing users and encourage adoption) and responsiveness (to remain open to the needs of prospective groups). As a guide, Thema will be updated no more frequently than once a year, and this is expected to settle down to a two-year review cycle as the scheme becomes more established.

Thema is up and running, and will only grow in importance and acceptance in 2016. Especially if you want to trade internationally, the benefits are clear - you need Thema, and Thema needs you.

Illustration by Tom Gauld ( - but subject classifications can aid communications and sales.

Howard Willows is Senior Manager of Data Development at Nielsen Book, and Chair, Thema International Steering Group.

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