There is certainly always more than enough news in the Pagan community going around – just one glance at any of the Wild Hunt’s periodic news round-ups is enough to see that a lot is going on within and regarding our community at any point in time. But there is one big news story I haven’t seen addressed anywhere else…so I’ll go ahead and start the ball rolling. It’s Pagan news that overlaps with publishing news, so it’s right up my alley.
In fact, it has to deal with a regular part of my job. For every book we publish, we need to assign it a BISAC code so that bookstores and distributors will have some idea of where to store and shelf the book. What are BISAC codes, you may ask? They are the codes developed and maintained by the Book Industry Study Group (BISG) that are used for categorizing books by content. Unlike the Dewey Decimal System, these codes do not guide the reader to one particular book on the shelf, but they instead point to a whole category where the reader can then browse, so they are more popular with bookstores than with libraries. BISAC has 51 broad categories which are then broken down into smaller subsets. Often book buyers who work for large suppliers or distributors are assigned particular categories; in other words, at Barnes & Noble, you’ll have a different buyer for Young Adult Fiction, for Mysteries, and for Body, Mind & Spirit (which used to be called “Occult”). In turn, go to the Body, Mind & Spirit section in a store and it’s further broken down into different subsets on the shelf like Astrology, Tarot, and Witchcraft. It’s a handy way of splitting things up into smaller pieces.
These codes are not printed on the book, although there may be a very similar-sounding topic listed at the top of the back cover (for example, “Body, Mind, & Spirit / Witchcraft & Wicca”). This makes the BISAC code almost invisible to the end consumer and therefore, not of much consequence to anyone outside the industry.
While publishers can suggest a BISAC code that goes out with all its data to all its distributors, in the end a bookstore will decide where to shelf a book. Take our new book, Witchy Crafts, for example – we chose to give it the BISAC code OCC026000 – Body, Mind, & Spirit / Witchcraft and Wicca (note the OCC prefix which used to mean occult), but the bookstore itself might choose to put that book in the crafting section. This can happen with any book that spans two very different categories, whether it’s a book on witchy cooking (in witchcraft or with the other cookbooks?), witchy sustainable living (in witchcraft or with other books on sustainable living?), witchy gardening (in witchcraft or with other gardening books?) and on and on. (Hint: Llewellyn always will go with the occult BISAC, so most of our books are usually shelved there.)
As mentioned above, BISG maintains these codes, which includes periodically updating them; adding new categories as needed, rearranging this and that to more accurately reflect where a consumer might be looking for such a book.
So, on to the point of my story. At the very end of the year, BISG updated and released the new 2012 BISAC code listing. And here is where things get interesting.
As long as I have worked here, Witchcraft and Wicca have always been in the occult – er, Body, Mind & Spirit – category. I’d often eye the Religion category with envy – how come some religions were represented there (like Eckankar, Mysticism, Zoroastrianism, even Demonology and Satanism) but Druidry, Heathenry and Asatru, Wicca, and countless other valid spiritual paths were not? We were relegated to the Body, Mind & Spirit section – three great words, to be sure, but three words that could equally apply to any of the world’s religions. These religious choices or spiritual paths simply weren’t viewed as religions by anyone for a very long time, they were viewed as occult or slightly loony.
Obviously much has changed in American society at large. These are recognized religions in the eyes of the IRS. They are religions in the eyes of the US Army Chaplain’s Handbook, and, since 2007, the Veteran’s Administration. These are religions in the eyes of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. Pagans are taking an increasingly larger role in interfaith efforts, working at legitimizing our various paths or religions even if we continue to operate as decentralized, individual groups with no organizing body or imposed tenets, tithes, institutions, hierarchy, or dogma.
So here’s the news – Wicca, in the eyes of the book selling industry, is now a religion. It crossed over from OCC026000 Body, Mind & Spirit / Wicca and Witchcraft, to two separate BISAC codes. One remains in the occult section – OCC026000 is now simply Body, Mind & Spirit / Witchcraft. But Wicca itself is now REL118000, or Religion / Wicca. (Continued below.)
Let’s not even stop to think about what a headache it will be for me to decide whether any given book should go into the occult “Witchcraft” end of things or the religious “Wicca” end of things. Sometimes this distinction is made crystal clear by its author or its content, but much more often it’s a very blurry line. No, instead let’s allow that to just sink in for a moment. Imagine going in to your local bookstore chain (because this will probably not change how metaphysical stores or libraries operate) and, instead of heading to the New Age section (or whatever your local store calls it), you head to the Religion section. There, next to shelves of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim books, you will find your Wicca books. Strange feeling, isn’t it?
But there’s more. The BISAC code that used to be OCC036020 Body, Mind & Spirit / Spirituality / Paganism & Neo-Paganism (a relatively recent addition on its own) is also now listed in Religion, as REL117000, or Religion / Paganism & Neo-Paganism.
Is your mind blown yet?
Just to give you an idea of what still is over there in Body, Mind & Spirit, you will still be able to find the Divine Feminine there; Magick studies; Angels & spirit guides; Hermetism & Rosicrucianism; Sacred Sexuality (also a relatively new code), and so on. There is still no code anywhere for Druidry (we usually use Body, Mind & Spirit / Spirituality / Celtic) and no code for Heathenry or Asatru, which will just be lumped together with Paganism. These things might not matter much to book buyers, but they matter to the end consumer. If a Heathen has to pick through a bunch of “other” Pagan or Neo-Pagan books to find the ones that appeal to him or her, it’s a disservice to that specific path. But it is what it is.
Now that I’ve given you the background and the changes, I want to reflect on a couple ramifications of this change.
- Will our books now be bought by the Religion buyer? Here at work I asked various people in our sales department how this will affect them, and I got the full spectrum, from “no, we will continue to sell our books to the New Age buyer, the client probably won’t change their whole stores and/or operations because of this change to the BISAC code,” all the way to “whoever did this wants us to fail.” (I am completely paraphrasing here, for effect.) Why the pessimistic attitude? Because if our books do have to be sold to the Religion buyer, and that person is someone of faith who is much more comfortable with buying Christian books than Wiccan books, or has no understanding of our categories the way current New Age buyers do, we will have problems getting our books into stores. If the Religion buyer has only X amount of budgeted dollars to spend across their entire category, they will choose to spend it on mainstream religions, because hey, there are simply more of them, and more potential for greater revenue. It’s a business, folks. And yes, I can see how that could be potentially disastrous for book sales. If we were pushed out of the chain stores, we’d still have independent metaphysical shops to fall back on, but not everyone has access to one and they operate on very limited budgets, meaning we simply wouldn’t be selling enough books to survive. Amazon and ebooks would become our main lifeline if chain bookstores stopped buying our books.
- How does the Pagan subculture feel in being branded as a “religion”? One thing that most everybody is against is any dogmatization or institutionalization of our individual paths (see this great post by Lupa on the danger of creeping fundamentalism in Paganism), yet that kind of pressure to conform is almost literally evoked by the word religion. The word brings to mind stuffy, codified, socially imposed tenets and ties that bind. On the other hand, isn’t this exactly the kind of societal acceptance Pagans need in order to claim their deserved place at the table of world faiths? To think about it another way, as a Pagan, Druid, Heathen, or Wiccan, how often do you use the word religious when talking with others about your spirituality? Besides focusing our laser-like attention on dissecting labels like Pagan, Neopagan, Wiccan, Witch, Polytheist, and so on (which are all important), perhaps we need to take a step back and define whether we are, in fact, practicing religions vs. practicing spirituality?
- In light of the ongoing and recently refreshed division of polytheists who shun the word Pagan*, well… um… hate to tell you all, but there is still no code under Religion or under Body, Mind & Spirit for Polytheism. There is Atheism, Theism, and Deism under the Religion category, but they have no room for polys. Where do polytheists see themselves five years from now? Doesn’t it make sense to come along with other Pagans and Neopagans in the move out of the “woo woo” section and into the rarefied atmosphere of the Religion section? I have more to say on this debate (but probably will not get around to writing it up anytime soon) but for now, the main question is one of whether staying under the Big Pagan Tent for a bit longer, in order to grow and individuate, and gradually become part of the mainstream lexicon, wouldn’t be such a bad thing in the short term.
In conclusion, some of you may still be thinking that the change in some obscure code that only booksellers use… well, it’s not a sea change, is it? It’s not going to change how Pagans are seen at work, at school, by the law, or in their secular communities. At least not yet. But I believe it’s still an important barometer of how society views our subcultures and if it does lead to slipping sales of books, that’s something that will affect nearly all Pagans, except those that only refer to primary sources and academic works for inspiration on their paths.
For ease of following each other’s thoughts, if you’d like to make a comment here referring to any of the three points above, please include the number in your comment. I really want to hear what the community thinks about these recent developments.
* If you haven’t been following them, here is a great round-up of blogs written in the latest wave of the Polytheist/Pagan debate this month.
** Disclosure: I have also asked the BISG’s Subject Codes Committee Chair for comment on the reasons behind the change. If any of the committee members happen to read this blog and would like to share their perspective, I welcome your input in the comments section.