Desperately Seeking Good Data, Part 3: Blame It on the Nature of Publishing Today
If you feel as if the “Desperately Seeking Good Data” series has been bombarding you with demands to get your book data together and get it to Bowker, distributors, wholesalers, and retailers accurately, completely, and much earlier than you think is possible, you may find Scott Lubeck’s perspective on metadata refreshing and reassuring.
Lubeck, the recently appointed executive director of the Book Industry Study Group, which handles metadata best practices and standards for the United States, can calmly explain how these dozens of pieces of information and the way they’re submitted came to be so important and how publishing is only one of many industries dealing with metadata today.
When we talked, he started out with a reminder: “Metadata is an intimidating word. What we’re really talking about is, very simply, how to describe a book.”
This is nothing new. Customers have always wanted to have books described to them. But when distribution was less complicated, someone other than publishers took care of most of this description—and less of it was required.
As I mentioned earlier in this series, today my local bookseller has 144 references to Jane Austen’s Emma in her online database. I don’t know how many listings there were 10 or 20 years ago, but I can almost guarantee you that there were far fewer—perhaps as few as 25 percent of today’s references.
When I started publishing books in 1990, booksellers were relying on microfiche from large wholesalers, paper catalogs from smaller wholesalers and publishers, and Books in Print—in print. If a customer wanted to know which edition of Emma to order, a bookseller, often the store owner, may well have been the one who made a recommendation, based on having seen display copies. (Remember, until 15 or 20 years ago, lots of communities had independent bookstores; and in 1989, Barnes & Noble had only 23 stores.)
“We can’t be so casual today, because information is exchanged on a global basis and exchanged mostly online,” says Lubeck. And, of course, much of this information is accessed without a bookseller—or any other human.
Moreover, what he calls “discoverability”—the ability to find what you need and purchase it online—is now important in every industry: “This demand for really good information comes from the consumer.”
What Matters Most
But in case you’re still feeling overwhelmed, he emphasizes that metadata is not a technical issue: “It’s an analytical issue, like an index.” What BISG wants publishers to recognize is that the quality of the information is far more important than the ONIX tags.
Lubeck cites two kinds of stumbling blocks for publishers as they strive to provide good descriptive data about their books. Some publishers think of themselves as craftspeople. Many of us started as writers and continue in the dual role of writer/publisher, and we are impatient with chores such as inputting metadata. Other publishers, perhaps especially those in large companies, don’t realize that when roles are defined in terms of departments and books are passed from one department to another, nobody is taking responsibility for ensuring that all data about them is correct.
Although some firms use title management systems that force the gathering of metadata, Lubeck says publishers can operate with a simple spreadsheet—as long as specific people are accountable for the information on that spreadsheet.
In general, Lubeck says (and others in the industry interviewed for this series of articles agree), almost no publishers provide data six months in advance of on-sale dates, and most publishers are unaware that much of the data they enter is inaccurate. Ask publishing executives to evaluate the quality of their metadata, he notes, and most give themselves high marks, failing to recognize errors and gaps.
How to Ruin Your Reputation
But errors and gaps in book information can create serious credibility problems for a publisher with everyone in the supply chain. “Bad metadata creates a bad impression of the publisher in the same way that a book riddled with spelling and grammatical errors does,” Lubeck explains. “Being ‘almost right’ isn’t good enough: it tells the buyer not to trust you.”
A publisher often has only one chance to sell to a customer, he emphasizes, and if that customer—often a bookseller—commits funds for a book that does not arrive as the metadata says it will, or if it is not what the metadata says it will be, it’s unlikely that a good long-term relationship will develop. A publisher can expect a similar problem with its authors if its metadata has errors, especially if the errors are not corrected, Lubeck believes. A publisher, he notes, is a steward of metadata, and he suggests asking yourself, “How good a steward are you?”
Besides working to help publishers recognize the importance of metadata—accurate, timely metadata—the BISG executive director says his organization wants to see technology that is affordable for even the smallest publisher, so that almost all data can be submitted in machine-readable form, even by one-book publishers with day jobs. A U.S. program similar to the BookNet Canada’s BiblioShare would be “great,” Lubeck says. (For more information, see booknetcanada.ca.)
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. You can follow her at twitter.com/carlsonideas.
Correcting Errors: A Cautionary Story
Carin Smith of Smith Veterinary Consulting and Publishing Services was checking on the class-action suit against Google last winter when she discovered an error in her book data on Google’s Web site and—even worse—on Amazon.com. Because her metadata is correct on Bowker’s site, Smith suspects that many online retailers are using Amazon, rather than Bowker, as their source.
“It’s frightening how an error can be magnified when so many retailers use a single other site for their information, especially when they are using another commercial site,” Smith says.
To complicate the situation, these errors have not been easy to correct. Smith contacted Amazon.com, which responded by deleting her company’s name from the book description and retaining the wrong publisher’s name. She also notified Google—but three months after she sent her email, the inaccuracies persisted. (And she adds that Google told her they will not be corrected until the Book Rights Registry outlined in the Google Settlement is established. Updates about the settlement and its progress will reportedly be posted online at googlebooksettlement.com.)
Smith’s advice for other IBPA members:
- Check every detail of all your listings on Amazon.com and on the Google settlement site.
- Check your listings after you’ve been notified that errors have been corrected, and see if your information is truly accurate.
- Enter the erroneous information in a search engine to see how many online retailers and other Web sites copied the inaccurate information into their text, and notify them of the errors. (By entering the errors in Google Alerts, google.com/alerts, you will be notified of those Web sites that continue to use bad data.)
All of “Desperately Seeking Good Data”
The first two articles in this series—“Why, How, and What Booksellers Need You to Tell Them,” and “Don’t Let Bad Data Cripple Your Sales”—appeared in the April and May issues, respectively. They’re available at ibpa-online.org. Click on “Independent Articles” in the navigation bar on the left of the Home page and use the search function after that. To view the three articles of this series together, please click on the following link Desperately Seeking Good Data