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Metadata Matters

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by Graham Bell, Executive Director, EDItEUR —

Graham Bell

It has become a cliché: Metadata is marketing. With online sales becoming yet more dominant, and sales through physical bookstores shrinking further, data about your product—as opposed to the product itself—becomes your primary con- tact with the customer and reader.

All too often, metadata is treated as a chore. I suspect that few publishers agonize over the wording of the “short description” in their metadata to the same degree as they do over the wording of the flap copy or the back cover text. But the aim is the same: capturing the attention of the potential purchaser, then converting that attention into a sale.

Improving your metadata‑which is then sent direct to retailers or distributed throughout the trade and library world via services such as those operated by Bowker and Firebrand—pays off directly through improved sales.

Considered in this light, metadata is about discoverability—making product details available so that customers can search for and find (or simply stumble upon) your book.

But metadata isn’t just about discoverability. An equally vital function is ensuring that your product can be traded efficiently; so critical elements include ISBNs, dates, and alternatives for occasions when “This isn’t quite what I’m looking for,” plus accurate price, discount availability, and ordering information.

Getting this administrative stuff right reduces customer service issues at every link in the supply chain, cuts costs, and eventually puts more of your sales revenue on the bottom line. But the organizational challenge of integrating and distributing data that’s often managed by different departments—even in a small publishing organization—is consider- able. It takes time, effort, and expertise to manage the data, to deliver it to the organizations that need it, and to keep it updated throughout the life cycle of the product.

Picking Programs; Hiring Help

Got work to do? Of course, you can use several off-the-shelf commercial software tools and services designed to help independent publishers grab hold of their metadata issues. Most of them implement ONIX, the global industry standard for book trade metadata, which EDItEUR manages.

A market survey of the available tools and services might start with the technology vendors listed at editeur.org/154/Users-and-Services-directory or with one or more of many other directories, and a Web search for “ONIX publishing software” should reveal a dozen options in the first 25 search results.

It would be invidious to recommend any particular offerings, but here are a few pointers on what you should be looking for.

  • Something geared toward the future that implements ONIX 3.0—the latest version of the standard—and that makes provision or newer standard identifiers such as the International Standard Name Identifier (ISNI) as well as the usual ISBN and your internal identifiers or project numbers.
  • An approach that treats books, e-books, and maybe even mobile apps together, rather than treating e-publishing as a semidetached afterthought.
  • A database that makes it simple to manage data once, for all products based on a particular work. If you are publishing the hardcover, the paperback, and three different varieties of e-book, you don’t want to do every task five times.
  • A system that allows you to manage a far richer set of data than you currently aim for. Booksellers and libraries are calling for tables of contents, sampler chapters, full international sales rights, and prices (not just the North American details), visual collateral beyond the front cover, audio extracts, author biographies and interviews, extracts of text from reviews, and a strong set of links to related products and other resources. Nobody delivers all that right now, but the ability to do so in the near future could make all the difference.
  • The ability to extend this richness to the use of neatly formatted descriptive text and a full set of “foreign characters.” If your author is Polish or Czech, shouldn’t you be able to include the relevant diacritics in the author’s name? And if your descriptive text needs italics, or a bulleted list, or just multiple paragraphs and proper curly apostrophes and quotation marks, these need special treatment to ensure they can be carried through to online bookstore catalogs.
  • An application that supports other parts of your business process or work flow. It shouldn’t be about collating metadata for its own sake or as an isolated task. A good solution should integrate metadata activities with acquisition and editorial management, production planning, sales order processing, social marketing, sales analysis, and more. And of course the same data should drive your own Website. Data that drives your internal business process is much more likely to be accurate and timely than data collated at the last minute just because some trading partner demands it.
  • Capabilities that match the scale of your ambition. Some applications make sense only for the largest indie publishers, while others work well in companies where the staff can all sit on a single sofa (or a single chair). This is in part about functionality and pricing, but it is also about the level of support you get, and the choice between a traditional software purchase and an online service where you pay “per book.”

For More Sales

Whatever you choose—or even if you stick with Excel and a non-ONIX data flow—providing good-quality metadata isn’t easy. But it’s worthwhile. In the most comprehensive study of the commercial benefit from improved metadata, Nielsen compared books with data that met a fairly simple minimum standard called BIC Basic, which calls for just 11 key data fields, against books with data that lacked one or more of the basic set of 11 elements.

The result? On average, twice as many copies sold when titles met the minimum standard. Unsurprisingly, the sales increase was even more than double in fiction, but it was also significant (33 percent growth) for specialist nonfiction (the term covers STM and the more academic and professional nonfiction areas) and academic texts.

Perhaps still more important was the conclusion that going beyond the basics enhances sales even further, particularly in online channels. The more comprehensive the metadata, the more copies the book sold. (For detailed information about the study’s findings, see The Link Between Metadata and Sales by Andre Breedt and David Walter.)

Then again, maybe you think you’ve got your metadata in good shape already. If so, why not benchmark yourself against the best? Watch out for BISG’s upcoming revised Product Data Certification Program, which aims to recognize those publishers that deliver the comprehensive, accurate, and timely metadata that the trade needs.

Graham Bell is executive director of EDItEUR, the international group that coordinates development of the standards infrastructure for electronic commerce in the book, e-book, and serials business, providing its members with research, standards, and guidance. This article is derived from one originally published on the UK IPG blog (see ipg.uk.com).

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