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Metadata Decoded

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by Margaret Harrison, Director of Product Metadata, Ingram Content Group —

Margaret Harrison

When people come to talk to me about metadata, a lot of times they’ll ask me about XML or industry standards. Don’t get me wrong; I love taxonomy as much as the next geek. But if that’s what metadata is to you, you’re missing the point.

There is one north star we should all use when creating metadata, and it’s not a format. It’s audience. Certainly this means knowing your desired readers. Is this book for a general adult audience, or does it contain mature content? Is it an academic monograph? Is it a board book for the youngest readers? As you’ve no doubt heard before, your metadata should appeal to your intended audience in tone as well as content.

But even before information about your book reaches an end user, it is intercepted by a virtual platform, whether that’s the back-end system of a major online bookseller, or a point-of-sale system in your local indie gift shop. It’s important—but not always easy—to understand the intersection of these two audiences. Armed with this knowledge, you can help give your book the best odds of being visible—and being purchased. Here are some tips.

Do Your Homework

Last year, HarperCollins published a debut novel about a dysfunctional New York family called The Nest. In 2015, Kenneth Oppel received acclaim for his young adult novel that was named an ALA Notable Book. The title might sound familiar: The Nest. You might also have heard of a digital thermostat system called The Nest. And, if you’re interested in home decorating, you might also follow a popular blog called—you guessed it—“The Nest.”

This turned out fine for HarperCollins and Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney, thanks to, we will assume, a hefty budget for marketing efforts (including a star-studded book trailer). The book went on to earn rave reviews and awards during 2016, despite its numerous name fellows.

For those of us with more modest marketing resources, our own debut novel entitled The Nest would likely never see the light of day. Before you finalize your metadata, including (and especially!) your title name, check the following:

  • Title: Are there other recent or popular books with the same name? If so, what could I change about my title to make it more discoverable?
  • Author: Do bestselling authors or celebrities share my author’s name? If so, could I add a middle initial or name to differentiate the author?
  • Series and brands: Do popular series or brands share the name of my book title or series? Be sure to check Barnes & Noble’s “Books by Series” and “Top Collections” pages. Searches for products with these names may result in some undesirable outcomes if your book shares one of these names. For example, a search for “American girl” at BN.com automatically filters search results to toys and games, assuming the customer is looking for the collectible dolls.

One more thing can help differentiate your title: a unique identifier, known in the book industry as an ISBN. It’s recommended that you have one per format (i.e., one for your hardcover, one for your paperback, one for your e-pub e-book, and one for your Kindle e-book for a total of four). In the US, Bowker supplies ISBNs (ISBN.org).

Get Results

Now that you’ve done your research, your title, author, and ISBN are uniquely discoverable by anyone who has that information at hand. But, suppose you’re hoping to surprise and delight a customer browsing online. There are more than 16 million books available in the US. Without metadata, your book looks just like the others. How can you give your book the best odds of being surfaced to a relevant reader?


Categories are an important part of your metadata; many readers browse books by category, both online and in-store. Also, large chain bookstores and wholesalers assign book buyers by category. Categories are an important filter in narrowing your competition.

As a general rule, you should avoid “general” categories. And, if your book is fiction, listen up: Avoid the “general fiction” category! This is a veritable death sentence for your title’s discoverability, as it will be placed alongside hundreds of thousands of other books. There are plenty of more specific categories from which to choose.

Get as specific as you can and then move on. For example, say I’ve written a collection of biographies about women who are named after roses, with stunning photos of the flowers to accompany each story. I might choose “biography and autobiography/women” as my primary category. I might also choose to apply “gardening/flowers/roses” as a second category. I would not need to also select “gardening/flowers” as a category, since I’ve covered that, nor should I use “biography and autobiography/general.”

Note that when a book is cross-listed in multiple categories, the first category will probably determine the buyer. So, in my example, a biography buyer would consider stocking my book instead of a gardening or hobby book buyer. I should also consider that in the “roses” category, my book has fewer than 1,000 competitors. In the “women’s biography” category, I face more than 45,000 competitors. I might choose to put “roses” as my primary category. (In fact, this example is a real-life title, a lovely book entitled, Women in My Rose Garden; it ranks far better as a gardening book than as a biography.)

Describing Your Book

Consider your elevator pitch for your book. What sets it apart? What would appeal to your audience? Maybe it’s won awards. Maybe it’s illustrated. Maybe the author’s previous book sold well and you want to appeal to her fans. Consider this opening from Soho Press’s fictional biography of Rosalie Rayner Watson, Behave:

“From the author of The Spanish Bow comes a lush, harrowing novel based on the real life story of Rosalie Rayner Watson, one of the most controversial scientists—and mothers—of the 20th century.”

Cleverly, the publisher has included both the subject of the fictional biography (whose name is not in the title) and the author’s previous work in the opening line of the description. We find some other interesting keyword phrases: “20th century mothers” or “20th century scientists” could be search terms.

Amazon is ahead of the competition in terms of using book descriptions and keywords in search results, but I think we’ll see B&N and other major bookstores catch up within the next year. Plus, keyword-rich descriptions make your books more discoverable through search engines like Google and Bing.

Put Your Metadata to Work

Now that you’ve focused on a few critical components of your metadata, and you understand how metadata connects with your audience, send your metadata out into the world and keep a close eye on the results. Do you notice your title is lagging in more general categories? Go back and update your metadata with more specific categories, and monitor those changes. Is your description lackluster after reading through it a few more dozen times? Go back and edit it. Don’t forget to add any positive reviews that come in.

Armed with this knowledge and insight, your book is sure to catch the attention of more readers.

Metadata Checklist

Make sure your book doesn’t leave home without:

  • Title: Fewer than 80 characters long
  • Contributor: Name(s) and bio(s), 50-250 words each
  • Description: 200-600 words, with a bolded opening line and paragraph breaks
  • Series: Name and number, and avoid changing
  • Categories: Choose two to three specific categories
  • Review Quotes: Include two or more positive review quotes, from industry sources or relevant blogs
  • Audience Code: Choose general/adult, juvenile (0-11), YA (12-17), or other relevant audience
  • Age & Grade: Choose age as well as grade range where appropriate; use a two-year or grade range for children and a four-year or grade range for YA

Margaret Harrison is the director of product metadata at Ingram Content Group. She lives in Nashville with her husband and two sons. Tweet your metadata questions to her @metadatable.

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