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Tips for Better Metadata

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Metadata matters—it matters a lot. Defined as data about data, it is information about your books that is communicated to others, in part, through a set of descriptive keywords.

It matters because skillfully chosen keywords in your metadata can make it easy for readers to find your books. In fact, if you are publishing e-books and/or POD, almost the only way potential readers can discover your books is through the carefully selected keywords in your metadata.

There is nothing new about metadata. As far back as the third century BC, the Library of Alexandria was recording metadata in the Pinakes, which was the very first library card catalog, as far as we know. For each of its 500,000 books, the librarians wrote down the author’s name, birthplace, and education, along with a brief summary of the book. They assigned a subject to each book and placed it in the room designated for books on that subject.

Much later, in 1876, while he was working in the library at Amherst College, Melvil Dewey refined this ancient system when he dreamed up a book organizing method based on Roman numerals and wrote about it in his first Dewey Decimal System pamphlet.

Everything was fine until the 1960s when computers came along and started talking to each other. We had to help them by figuring out a way that electronic data could be structured and transmitted in a consistent manner so that it could be easily received, interpreted, displayed, and stored without much interference from us humans. Hence, modern metadata.

Since we humans give the computers the information they need to create the metadata, we are ultimately responsible for its quality. So the question becomes how to create specific, tailored-to fit- your-book metadata that can help your customers/readers slice through all the noise out there and find what you have published. This can feel intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

Here are some things to focus on so that you can create effective metadata. As you fill out forms from trading partners, remember that a key “word” can also be a phrase such as “career change” or “self-publishing advice,” and the more specific your keywords are, the more effective they will be in distinguishing your book from all the others out there.


Include the book’s full title and its subtitle if there is one, along with the author’s full name, any contributors’ full names, and a classification such as novel, anthology, or essays.


Be specific and original. Instead of “romance” say “teen-age paranormal romance, thriller,” or instead of “science fiction,” say “dystopian, zombie, Italian love-story.”


Think about what you want your readers to feel—amusement, inspiration, suspense, advice, excitement, compassion, or desire. Communicate the feelings in the section of metadata forms that provides a description of your book.

Story Elements

When and where is your book set? Is your protagonist an artist, trumpet player, tight-rope walker, investment banker? The more details the better. This material, too, goes in the book description section.

Target Markets

How old are your ideal readers? Are they rose gardeners, or poets (or both)? Is your message religious? Does the book include adult content? Be sure your keywords include these sorts of specifics.

Marketing Suggestions

Is your book the perfect gift for Mother’s Day? For anniversaries? Will it help readers lose 10 pounds before a high school reunion? Provide keywords to describe all special sales opportunities.

Bisac Subject Headings

Book Industry Standards and Communication codes were created to help standardize the way books are categorized, and many online retailers use them. Browse the list of subjects at www.bisg.org; avoid relying on general descriptions such as Fiction/General, and choose those subcategories specific to your book. (For detailed guidance, see “Using BISAC Subject Headings.”)

As Jason Matthews, author of How to Make, Market and Sell Ebooks, says:

Keywords and metadata help search engines at Amazon (and elsewhere) do what the ancient librarians of Alexandria did: help readers find the books they’re interested in. Adding a variety of carefully selected keywords to your title, subtitle, book description, tags, and categories, as well as to the actual text inside your book will make a big difference—often giving your book first or second page placement in Amazon results rather than several screens later.

Where else will good metadata make a big difference? All over the place—especially in databases such as Bowker’s and with retailers such as Kobo, Barnes & Noble, and Apple.

Chocies to Consider

Remember that whoever purchases ISBNs for your books will be listed as the publisher and will control the metadata, so it’s wise to buy your own ISBNs from Bowker’s identifier services page.

Once you’ve done that you can log in, click on your ISBN, and start to supply your metadata by filling out the full title detail form, using as many keywords as possible that convey the specifics of your book.

For instance, let’s say you are publishing a thriller set on the tiny Caribbean island of Saba in the early nineteenth century, and the prime suspect in the murder of the magistrate’s daughter is a Spanish pirate who has a pet cheetah and loves to play the violin. It’s pretty clear that Caribbean murder mystery, pirates, cheetahs, Saba, and nineteenth-century adventure are all words you should consider for your metadata. For more help on coming up with just the right keywords for your book check out www.googlekeywordtool.com.

If you still need some help, try going to www.Amazon.com/books and taking a look at how other publishers of books in your category describe their books. You can even narrow your search by going to www.amazon.com/Kindle-eBooks and typing in a descriptive word or two to see other words pop up in a drop-down menu.

Metadata can work like magic when it comes to connecting with your readers. It is now the language of online selling. Be sure to study it, understand it, and try to make the most of it for every book you publish. And bear in mind that you can update your metadata at any time, making it fresher and more effective.

Betty-firstBetty Kelly Sargent, the author of seven traditionally published books and one self-published book, is the founder of BookWorks, and of The Educated Author, which will launch in January. She was editor-in-chief of William Morrow, executive editor at HarperCollins, and fiction and books editor at Cosmopolitan. To learn more: http://www.bookworks.com/blog/.

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