Desperately Seeking Good Data, Part 2: Don’t Let Bad Data Cripple Your Sales
by Linda Carlson
If you’re like most publishers, you check on how retailers are marketing your books online, and on how many libraries have purchased copies. Suppose you type a title’s ISBN into the Google Images search box, and up comes the cover of someone else’s book. Or Amazon.com shows the wrong author for your newest title. Or someone phones to say the local bookseller can’t find that new title in the Ingram database.
Chances are, these problems were caused by erroneous or incomplete information—or “metadata”—about the book, maybe a typo in the ISBN you used as a JPG’s name, for example, or a glitch in submitting the author’s name to Bowkerlink.com that kept the book title out of a database.
“Desperately Seeking Good Data: Why, How, and What Booksellers Need You to Tell Them” (April) provided definitions of the metadata elements you need to provide. This month, the focus is on why it’s so important to submit correct information on time to the companies that maintain bibliographic files, and on how you can make changes or correct inaccurate data (see “Metadata Nitty-Gritty,” below).
There’s a very simple reason distributors, wholesalers, and retailers need two or three dozen pieces of information on every one of your titles: that information is what ensures that the correct edition of your book gets through the supply chain from your warehouse to the customer in the desired format. Given the volume of books published today, and the fact that the title of a book cannot be copyrighted, a customer can’t order by title alone. When I asked my local bookseller for Jane Austen’s Emma, her database brought up 144 entries. Similarities among a publisher’s ISBNs mean that confusion over a digit or two could result in the wrong book being shipped—and then returned.
The additional information that is often requested has another purpose: to help a book sell when pictured on Web sites and in catalogs. That’s why publishers are asked to provide cover and back cover images, information on images, contents pages, and author photos and bios. Advertising schedules, author tours, and the like, often listed as “optional” on content submission forms, help booksellers of all kinds determine the size of their initial orders, how to display a book, and what special promotions to do, whether online or in a storefront.
What Squelches Sales
A few of you might be mentally protesting that none of this matters because you’re only doing books through digital printing/print-on-demand programs so that you can sell them in your storefront, or to your association members, or when you make presentations. If you’re planning to produce books through such vendors as Amazon.com’s CreateSpace or Ingram’s LightningSource, though, much of the metadata is still required—and if you don’t submit it as specified on your vendor’s Web site, your project will be delayed.
A couple of years ago, when he was speaking to the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association, Barnes & Noble’s Joe Gonnella pointed out what happens when metadata is incorrect or incomplete. Gonnella (B&N’s vice president of inventory management and vendor relations) and his colleague Marcella Smith (the B&N small press and vendor relations director) tell me these problems still exist.
If anything, they’re getting worse. As Gonnella explains: “At any given time, Barnes & Noble has $4 million in purchase orders outstanding on NYP [not yet published] titles more than 30 days past publication date. These orders will cancel after 90 more days. When we cancel these POs, we have to cancel any customer orders we might have taken via our Barnes & Noble.com presale program.”
Translation: That’s $4 million in sales that could be lost—at Barnes & Noble alone.
But that’s not all. Millions of dollars in backlist sales are also lost, Gonnella continues. This happens when:
U.K. or other international titles that were once imported are out of stock and not replenished.
Booksellers don’t know where to send purchase orders because distribution arrangements have changed and ordering information has not been updated.
There is no information about a book’s status in the metadata, and, without information about whether the book is still in print, no possibility of satisfying a customer’s request.
Gonnella offers three examples of how inaccurate or incomplete book data can cause delay, expense, and lost sales.
First, if publishers don’t provide a book description and a table of contents, a search for a subject that is not explicitly mentioned in the title won’t bring up the book, “squelching any possible sale to that potential customer.”
Second, if delivery of a backlist title slips more than 30 days past the on-sale date you’ve entered into metadata, Barnes & Noble asks customers if they want to cancel the order. Typically, they do.
Finally, Gonnella and Smith emphasize the importance of a piece of information that many publishers overlook: the quantity of books per case. Especially when a title is being rushed to market before a media event, the initial orders could be done by case, saving countless hours of labor in Barnes & Noble warehouses.
“Publishers should know the carton quantity at least six weeks in advance of the on-sale date,” Smith points out, encouraging publishers to evaluate carton pack in terms of easy fulfillment of reorders.
The quantity of books in a carton is also important to the regional wholesalers I consulted. It’s easier to order, and to warehouse, books in full cartons. And carton pack is an easy number to obtain from your book manufacturer. Once a book is in production, the spine width will have been calculated, the printer can tell you what its usual carton size is, and you can specify a different size if you need that and your budget allows. When I published and distributed job-search guides, making lots of deliveries myself, I always asked that cases not weigh more than 30 pounds, and I based my discounts on case pack, to encourage orders of that quantity.
Duse McLain, whose Thistle Press in Bellevue, WA, sells pocket-sized guidebooks for walking tours, often to tourist-attraction gift shops, told her printers to reduce the number of books per case because few customers were willing to buy 140 books at a time.
Providing inaccurate data means running still more risks. Especially with a backlist title, it might mean the book would be dropped from the store’s inventory. “If a book appears to be unavailable for several months due to us not having updates on its status, the buyer may replace it with another title,” Smith notes.
Even if a bookseller keeps the title in its database, difficulty in obtaining stock will affect the book’s sales—and that affects how its inventory level is modeled. At Barnes & Noble, models are based on anticipated sales of a title in a category in a store, to ensure that Barnes & Noble has what it considers the ideal inventory level for a particular branch.
How Good Data Helps You
On the upside, providing complete, accurate book data on schedule increases the chance of your books being better promoted by booksellers. As Smith explains, chain stores develop their merchandising and promotion schedules at least six months in advance. Barnes & Noble buyers need that time to review books, get them in the database, and place orders. Even though most of us don’t have the good fortune to have our books selected for chains’ advertisements, getting our information in 180 days in advance of publication gives stores like Barnes & Noble a chance to have books in stock when our publicity begins.
If you remember the 30-some pieces of information last month’s article specified as needed even in a basic Bowker entry, you may be feeling overwhelmed or exasperated by this point. All this information doesn’t come your way all at once in a tidy package. That’s true, Smith acknowledges, and she emphasizes that she doesn’t need the information all at once. “Send us your data as you receive it,” she says. “Don’t hold it to send it all together.”
Wendall Lotz, vice president of metadata, Ingram Book Co., underlines the value of timely data in making sales. Getting text 180 days in advance and images 120 days in advance at Ingram is especially important in library sales, he says. “We need to place orders with publishers four or five months in advance of the on-sale date to be able to respond promptly to library purchase orders,” he told me, because when library acquisitions staff see books reviewed, they want to place orders immediately.
Theoretically, Ingram could process a book in as little as a month (receiving the metadata from the publisher, forwarding it to buyers, getting the buyer to place an order, having the order received by the publisher, the books shipped to Ingram, and then received and processed at Ingram warehouses), Lotz says, but if a title had to be processed so close to its on-sale date, it could not be included in any of Ingram’s many promotional programs, many of which do not involve extra fees to the publisher.
“If you can’t find it, you can’t sell it” is one of Lotz’s maxims, and he described how Ingram tries to find titles that its customers want. It tracks what’s on Oprah, what’s on PBS, what’s on NPR, and what movies have tie-ins, so that booksellers can get those titles. (As he and so many booksellers have noted, a customer may ask for a book seen on Oprah but remember only the author’s name and the color of the cover.)
Ingram’s most important new tool for bookstores is the Ingram Wire, Lotz says. Launched in December 2009, it includes a downloadable desktop application with stock information. Booksellers can also use the app to receive alerts on top awards and breaking events. The titles in the app link directly to Ingram’s iPage. Publishers whose titles are receiving such national publicity can arrange to notify Ingram as often as daily of upcoming media appearances and tie-ins to keep metadata updated.
Linda Carlson (lindacarlson.com) writes from Seattle. She spent more than 10 years publishing job-search guides but had never spoken in terms of book metadata until beginning this series of articles.
Convinced that metadata is vital to the sales of your titles?
Once you have the 30-some pieces of information outlined as necessary by the Book Industry Study Group (see “Desperately Seeking Good Data: Why, How, and What Booksellers Need You to Tell Them” in the April 2010 issue, archived at ibpa-online.org) and any additional information that distributors, wholesalers, chain-store buyers, and the trade press want, you can start by checking what’s online for your existing titles and for any forthcoming titles you’ve submitted to Bowker.
If you don’t already have your book titles entered for Google Alerts (google.com/alerts), spend a few minutes with this and other search engines. They will quickly show you what data is being used by online retailers, libraries, and reviewers.
Then, if you spot inaccuracies or missing information, the logical next step is contacting Bowker via bowker.com/index.php/data-file-submission. If Bowker has correct data but you’ve found errors elsewhere, check the April issue of the Independent for appropriate contacts at Amazon.com, Baker & Taylor, Barnes & Noble, Borders, Ingram Book Co., and the Online Computer Library Center.
You’ll also use these contacts when creating metadata files for your newest projects.
Remember that although you may see metadata referred to as ONIX—ONline Information eXchange—this is only a format, an XML (extensible markup language) DTD (document type definition). Most organizations within the book distribution channel do not require submissions in ONIX format.
If you are dealing with firms that do require or expect data in ONIX, or if you would prefer to outsource the dissemination of your metadata, you can work with a vendor such as:
Firebrand Technologies, firebrandtech.com. Fran Toolan describes his company by saying, “We offer software that helps publishers track projects from acquisition through publication.” Its Eloquence Metadata Solutions service distributes bibliographic information to such retailers, wholesalers, and aggregators as Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Ingram, Baker & Taylor, and Bowker. Monthly subscription rates are based on the number of active titles.
HeadStart Software, booksonix.info. Customers of this firm can upload metadata into their own databases on the Booksonix server. Booksonix then disseminates the information in whatever format the recipients prefer. Subscription fees are based on the number of titles.
NetRead Software and Services, netread.com. The company’s Web site describes it and its metadata product as providing “marketing solutions that publishers access through their web browsers.” Its JacketCaster is an ONIX-conversion service available for as little as $99 annually for publishers with 25 or fewer ISBNs.
Want another reason to ensure you have a correctly formatted 13-digit ISBN printed on your book? Cost. At Barnes & Noble, for example, you’ll pay 13 cents for each book that must be stickered with an ISBN-13 with the price embedded, and with a human-readable price in the correct size and location, in the correct colors.