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Metadata Makeover

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by David Wogahn, President, AuthorImprints.com –

David Wogahn

A five-point checklist for metadata maintenance and a case study using a two-year-old book.

The days of releasing a book and never revisiting or monitoring its metadata are long gone. Instead of being a one-time task in the pre-launch countdown, ongoing sales success will increasingly rely on metadata monitoring and maintenance.

Today, with more than half of all print books sold online, and essentially 100 percent of all e-books and audiobooks sold online, metadata has become the secret sauce for online discovery. It’s broken free of the confines of Books in Print® to be mashed up with bits of information that can and does change over time. Multiply this by the growing number of online bookstores and our own direct-to-reader sales efforts, and we have the justification to be more attentive to ongoing maintenance.

Perhaps even more relevant to IBPA members, I’d venture to say that the smaller the publisher, the larger the percentage of trade sales that take place online.

In this article, I’ll reveal my top five tips for improving a book’s sales and marketing opportunities using metadata. I’ll close with a case study on a recent metadata makeover for a two-year-old book, Runaway Inequality by Les Leopold.

The Top 5 Opportunities to Improve Any Book’s Metadata

As much as I believe metadata matters a great deal to bookselling, I also know there are diminishing returns on one’s time investment. There are two ways to address this:

  1. Allow sales and marketing to dictate your attention. Books that have sold well in the past are candidates for close monitoring, as are books that are lucky enough to ride the coattails of current events. A good example of the latter is John McKinney’s HIKE Griffith Park, which got a sales boost thanks to the popularity of the movie La La Land.
  2. Be forced to act. This can happen when Amazon inadvertently adds a duplicate listing of a publisher’s title.

We’ll talk more about these examples, and others, as I walk us through our five-point checklist for high value metadata maintenance (for additional reasons for the significance of maintenance, click here.)

1. Monitor Your Categories

Each year, the Book Industry Study Group releases updates to its recommended subject categories. Some years’ updates are more extensive than others, as was the case in 2016. What’s important to keep in mind is that these are recommendations, and implementation, not to mention specific category terminology, is ultimately decided by retailers.

Publishers have two tasks. One, monitor the changes to see if you are impacted. Of the more than 500 new BISAC Subject Codes implemented in 2016, 446 applied to the new top-level Young Adult Fiction and Young Adult Nonfiction categories. By comparison, there were only 124 changes for 2014.

Two, evaluate adjacent categories. A related category may have books that are not as popular as yours, where reaching a higher ranking is easier. Or your book may reach new readers by switching to another category.

2. Update Your Keywords

Not every store supports keywords, but for those that do—notably Amazon—the keywords need to be specific to that store to be truly useful. Using a keyword you enter for Amazon won’t return the same search results that it will when used at Barnes & Noble, or Google for that matter. Know that the terms you provide to your aggregator or distributor may apply to all distribution points equally.

Keywords (aka search terms) change over time. When popular topics and phrases enter our vocabulary, they tend to squeeze out other terms, pushing those results further down the page. Remember, the keywords our readers use may not be the same words we would use.

Finally, search results based on user-entered keywords may be dictated by the search engine you are using. Google’s goal is to show you what you are looking for and send you on your way. A retailer’s goal is to sell you products. I liken it to endcaps in a market. The products will remain in that location for as long as they are selling.

I use three methods for identifying keywords, but I don’t overly obsess about it. It’s the Pareto principle in action where 80 percent of the results will come from 20 percent of your efforts. Just remember that keyword effectiveness—at least on Amazon—is activated and reinforced by sales. In my experience, if your book appears due to a keyword search, and no one buys it, your book will be demoted.

  • Ubersuggest.io is great for generating keyword ideas. Start here to double check your ideas, and to come up with new ones.
  • If you have a free AdWords account, the Google Keyword Planner will report actual search volume for specific terms. But a few words of caution: The results are only for searches on Google, not bookstores, and results may not be as relevant for narrow or specialized topics. Still, I like it because it gives you an idea about the relative popularity of search terms, and it can be trusted because it represents about 95 percent of mobile search query volume on a global basis.
  • With Amazon auto-suggest, you can enter a term into the search box and it will show you similar popular terms. Just be sure you are entering your search in the Books or Kindle Books stores, not for the entire website. Then click each term to see if the search results show books that are in fact comparative to yours. If so, bingo.

3. Use Reader Feedback

Have you ever read a Zagat review? The bolded terms are direct quotes from restaurant voters.

“Delicious steak and seafood” and a “wonderful selection of wine and cocktails” lead the lineup at this “romantic” surf ‘n’ turfer in Carlsbad; though some find it “a little expensive,” a daily happy hour and all-night Martini Mondays are a good bet to score some “bargains.”

After a book has accumulated some reviews, you’ll tend to see certain themes repeated by reviewers. This reader feedback is like market research and can be incorporated into a book’s description. Pull quotes also work, but look for ways to adjust the actual phrasing of your description to more closely align it with the terms readers use.

4. Remove Duplicate Listings

It is not uncommon, on Amazon at least, to see duplicate listings of our books. One of my clients had seven extraneous book listings—all duplicates of their primary listing. It can cause confusion for the shopper, and you may be missing out on sales if shoppers end up buying a used copy.

Do a search for your books based on author and title. This is especially noticeable for books with a strong resale market. Here’s what Amazon support says about this:

“Sometimes, when a book is listed by Marketplace sellers, it receives its own Detail page instead of being correctly listed under the original Amazon sales page.”

The remedy is to notify Amazon about the extraneous ASIN and ask that it be merged with the correct ISBN. Once done, all the sellers and customer reviews will merge with the official listing.

5. Consider Your Branding

I’m using this term to refer to unexpected events, or changes in direction for your imprint. The two that come to mind are book covers and launching a book series.

If your book has won awards, update the cover image that is used online. Or maybe it’s time for an entirely new cover (perhaps influenced by reader feedback?). It’s an easy win that doesn’t require stickering covers or replacing covers inside the e-book.

Another makeover opportunity I like is straightening out a book series. Keeping this updated is helpful for two reasons:

  1. Readers get a clearer picture of their options. It’s essentially a sales tool that says if you like this, don’t miss that. Or this is the order in which you might want to read these books.
  2. The series field is often indexed by store search engines. That means that readers searching for words used in this field may see search results that show your books.

I made an earlier reference to one of John McKinney’s hiking books. In fact, that book is one of 20 in a growing series, each being a unique 3.5” x 5” pocket size. Based on reviewer feedback about the unexpected small size of the book (cover images on Amazon are all the same size), and interested in cross-marketing the growing series, John settled on a series name of Trailmaster Pocket Guides. Once all the metadata has been updated, he can market Trailmaster Pocket Guides and search results will show the entire series of books.

Case Study: Rebooting Runaway Inequality

Runaway Inequality by Les Lepold

By late 2016, two years after its release, print and e-book sales of Runaway Inequality had tapered off just as the US political climate was reflecting many of the principles discussed in the book. Sensing a renewed interest in the subject—from voters in both political parties—Labor Institute director and author Les Leopold sensed an opportunity.

Les was considering adding the e-book to Amazon’s 90-day exclusive KDP Select program because most e-book sales were in the Kindle store. He was also considering lowering the price from the current $9.99.

Another consideration was his marketing budget. As a not-for-profit, he had recently applied for and received a monthly Google AdWords budget of $10,000—free advertising he was using to drive people to the book’s website.

What Did We Change?
  1. After looking at the book’s competition on Amazon, we decided to leave it at $9.99. This is an established author, with a well-researched book, and 46 reviews with an average of 4.8 stars.
  2. As with the price, we decided not to make the e-book exclusive to Amazon. Even though sales were concentrated there, exclusivity went against the ethos of the subject. It made more sense to offer readers a wide variety of purchasing options since we were also marketing broadly.
  3. Because the book was recently revised, we decided to run a promotion. The most notable near-term event relevant to the book was President Trump’s 100th day in office milestone, so we settled on that as a reason for the sale. We would manually reduce the price to $4.99 during this period and promote it with a few daily deal sites. (Our choices were greatly limited since these websites normally specialize in books priced less than $2.99.)
  4. If you are going through the effort and expense of running a promotion, make sure you also look for opportunities to do more than sell books. In our case, that meant promoting e-mail list signups.
  5. The final step in the program was to review and update the store metadata: categories, keywords, and description. I also found that Goodreads metadata needed updating—notably the cover was missing—so that was updated as well.

Online bookstores have varying levels of metadata support and, among them, Amazon’s is the most robust. As such, it is constantly changing and being updated to reflect the interests of shoppers. Here’s a summary of what we changed:


We felt the description text was fine as is. The book had sold 40,000 copies, so something had to be working. But the formatting was not inviting and we wanted to tell people about the half-off sale. Using my free Pretty Amazon Description formatting tool, I added italics, bold, and made the bullets look nicer. I also added a larger font heading calling attention to the fact that the price was half off through April 29, and a closing call to action (“Scroll up and click buy!”).


Keywords change over time. We also felt that other terms might be more popular in 2017 and/or would bring us different readers. These terms were no longer showing up in Amazon’s auto-suggest tool:

  • “Wall street reform”
  • “Inequality” (too broad)
  • “income inequality gap”

We replaced them with:

  • “wage gap”
  • “labor relations”
  • “economic inequality”


Choosing the right categories can expose the book to new readers and provide a new opportunity to reach bestseller lists, which in turn motivates Amazon’s algorithms to show books to more shoppers.

We ended up pulling the book out of the Nonfiction > Business & Economics > Economic Conditions category where the #20 book had an Amazon sales rank of 34,800 at the time. This was replaced with Nonfiction > Political Science > Labor & Industrial Relations, which had a #20 book with a sales rank of 193,252—a far, far easier ranking to beat.

By the way, it was an “easier” category to rank in but much harder to reach #1, as the top title, The Radium Girls, had a sales rank of 1,767 (versus 2,327 for the top book in the old category). Yet the #3 book was showing a ranking of 33,000, so I figured we had a good shot at the #2 or #3 position.

The Results
  • For the week, we had 78 unit sales of the Kindle e-book, five in the B&N Nook store, and one in the Apple iBooks store (it rarely sells in either store).
  • The print book is distributed by Chelsea Green, so those numbers take a little longer to gather. But looking at BookScan, print sales jumped about 50 percent during the sale week and for one week after.
  • Mailing list subscriptions also increased by approximately 20 percent based on prior weeks. Depending on one’s business strategy, subscribers may provide more long-term value than one-off book sales.

And what about sales ranking? We in fact did reach #3!

David Wogahn is the author of Register Your Book: The Essential Guide to ISBNs, Barcodes, Copyright and LCCNs, the Lynda.com course Distributing and Marketing eBooks, and the president of AuthorImprints.com, a professional self-publishing services company that helps authors publish books and metadata.



4 Reasons Why Maintenance Matters
  1. The words and phrases we use to look up information evolve over time. Popular terms become less popular, and new terms are introduced or become more popular.
  2. New books are released, news and events come and go, and tastes evolve.
  3. Publishing strategies evolve. For example, we may see an opportunity to expand a book into a series.
  4. Because we can! Imagine trying to make sure your book is in the right location in every bookstore in the world. A misfiled or miscategorized book isn’t going to sell many copies.

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