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Introducing ONIX: Why & How to Start Using a Powerful New Publishing Tool

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In the e-commerce era, every publisher has to be able to send usable digitized data to its sales channels. For example, you need to transmit cover images, contents listings, and possibly an excerpt or two to Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com so that they can easily and accurately display these materials, encouraging consumers to browse and buy. Using ONIX (which stands for Online Information eXchange) is the best way to do that.


Until now, your promotional materials have probably appeared in a number of different formats, with some in hard copy, some in electronic files, and some (covers, for instance) as mechanicals. Moreover, each of the major channel intermediaries–wholesalers, data suppliers, and retailers–has had its own requirements for receiving promotional material from you. As a result, publishers have had to create separate data streams for each trading partner.


A Standard Is Born

To address this set of problems, the Association of American Publishers began development of the new ONIX standard. Thanks to the efforts of the Book Industry Study Group in the U.S., Book Industry Communication in the U.K, and EDItEUR internationally, ONIX is now becoming the international standard for book “metadata” (data about data). The U.S. and U.K. are using it, France and Germany have set up national implementation groups, and it has been translated into French. The ONIX DTD (Document Type Definition) has been extended to accommodate the trading practices in these countries. Belgium and Finland have begun transmitting test messages. Also, ONIX has been used as the model for a new database developed in Argentina for Latin American publishers.

The latest version of ONIX (Release 2.0) covers e-books. An expansion to encompass scholarly journals and other periodical publications (“serials” in library parlance) is in development. A further extension that will cover video and DVD has been drafted and is to be tested later this year. Recorded music will be covered in due course. And the Library of Congress has “mapped” ONIX into its “MARC” system, so that libraries will be able to incorporate specific ONIX data elements into their catalogs.


What’s in It for You

What is ONIX? It is a communications format for sending metadata to any channel intermediary. In a single XML DTD (Document Type Definition), ONIX combines all the information about a title that could be required for promotion: title, author(s), format, price, table of contents, first chapter, and jacket blurb are included in a single record. The ONIX DTD defines how specific pieces of information should be arranged in the file and how the data relate to other pieces of information, and it standardizes codes for commonly used terms.

With ONIX, you have a method for structuring your information in a format that wholesalers and retailers can accept. If you have a Web site, you can put the ONIX files for your titles on the site and let your trading partners download the data. Or better yet, you can automatically transmit data to your key customers.


Getting Started

How do you implement ONIX? First, go to the BISG Web site—www.bisg.org—to download the DTD, look at the frequently asked questions, and ask your own questions on the Implementers’ E-mail List. So far, most of the implementers have been major publishers, such as McGraw-Hill and John Wiley & Sons (you’ll find a list of implementers and key contacts on BISG’s site), but it’s designed for firms of any size. (Note: Updating of our BISG Web site is in the works. If you do not see ONIX 2.0 on the site, click on ONIX International Version 1.2. You should be linked to a page offering the 2.0 version.)

As you’ll see, the DTD is fairly lengthy, and it helps to have some knowledge of XML to create an ONIX file. However, that should not stop you from beginning to work on ONIX. With the DTD, you can obtain help from your Web site designer or local technical support to design a template to enter the data. Once you have an ONIX template, you should be able to build and maintain your ONIX database on the PC you currently use. (Note: This will depend on the size of your list and your PC’s memory, etc.)

In addition, there are commercial organizations such as NetRead and Quality Solutions that can assist you in creating ONIX files. BISG is looking into creating how-to manuals, offering training programs, and creating tools to assist in the adoption of ONIX, much as it did for the ISBN and bar codes when they were first introduced.


The Stick & the Carrot


Why should you adopt ONIX? The short answer is that you will have to if you want to do business with major wholesalers and retailers. Just as they came to require an ISBN and a bar code, they will come to require an ONIX record for a new title before they consider the book.

The U.S. ONIX Steering Committee recently established recommended target dates for implementation within the U.S. publishing community, times by which all segments of our publishing industry will be able to create and deliver ONIX files and companies will stop accepting metadata in any other form.

Specifically, the Committee recommends that publishers and their trading partners target March 1, 2002 as the date by which ONIX will be the preferred method of communicating metadata. By December 31, 2002, the Committee recommends and expects that the industry will be fully upgraded to the ONIX Release 2.0 format, which is available now. In fact, many companies are already transitioning to it.

Although these are recommended rather than mandated deadlines, it’s important to remember that major wholesalers and retailers are eager for the savings in money and time that ONIX will bring them.

Beside, even before these deadlines, you will benefit by implementing ONIX. It provides an easy, quick, and cost-effective way to get information about your titles to the marketplace.


Quality Counts

Of course, ONIX is only a standard transmission format. How much it helps you will depend on the quality of the data you put in.

Accuracy is critical if you want consumers to be able to identify your titles and purchase them, and you should choose your subject categories from the standardized BISAC Subject Codes (available, along with information about ONIX, via the BISG site).


Frank Daly is Executive Director of the Book Industry Study Group, a not-for-profit research and technology standards organization whose members come from every sector of the publishing community. The Study Group, which publishes the annual Book Industry Trends, is a forum for managing change and enabling interaction among publishers, booksellers, librarians, wholesalers, manufacturers, authors, and suppliers. For more information, visit www.bisg.org.

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