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ONIX Explained in One Easy Page

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By Jonathan Perry —

(This post originally published at Jared & Perry Metadata. Used with permission.)

ONIXOne can’t go very long in the book industry without reading the term “ONIX.” Yes, it has a lot of details, but the high-level view is extremely simple, and you need to know it. Here we go:

“ONIX” in our world refers to “ONIX for Books Product Information Message.” It is a global standard for expressing information about books in a way that can be easily exchanged, and in fact ONIX stands for “ONline Information eXchange.”

ONIX isn’t your books’ data, nor the database that holds that data. ONIX isn’t software. It is just a free set of standards used to create, and then read, a file. Think of an ONIX file as a shipping container for your book’s data. You create the file and then send it to a trading partner, via FTP, email, or whatever. It is just an XML file, which is just a text file in which your data is surrounded by “markup” which is a bunch of codes, tags and brackets.

The power of ONIX is that it enables mindless computers to have accurate “conversations.” If you know that your book’s title is “Robinson Crusoe” and both you and your customer have followed the ONIX rules, then the words “Robinson Crusoe” will appear in your ONIX file surrounded by certain tags and codes agreed upon for expressing Title. Once you send that file to your customer, their computer software will in effect say to itself “get ready, here comes a string of characters tagged as being the Title…yep, here comes the start tag…Robinson Crusoe…and here’s the close tag. Everything between that start tag and close tag, no matter how long, short or weird, is supposedly what the industry agrees upon as Title, so we’ll put the letters “Robinson Crusoe” in our database in the Title field.”

This example is simple, and if all book data were this simple, we might not need ONIX…but what if you needed to explain more? Suppose your book had an alternate title (as does the actual Robinson Crusoe)? An abbreviated or translated title? ONIX has tags and codes for these and many other complexities. ONIX has over 200 different data points commonly needed in the book world, with numerous possible values and ways to express variations. ONIX files can also support plenty of “rich data” such as various types of descriptions, back- and jacket-flap copy, author biographies and more. The latest version also has much more support for ebooks.

Is ONIX perfect? No. It can’t cover everything. It is complicated. Besides, many players use “standard” ONIX in different ways, either in creating or receiving files. That said, ONIX is by far the most powerful method for conveying data among book trading partners. It is here to stay.

About the Author
Jonathan Perry

Jonathan Perry

From my first day in my own bookstore, I quickly realized I needed correct information – to find a book for a customer, to order ​inventory from a publisher – to organize my store in a way that made shopping pleasurable and actionable.

While working in bookstore management, and later in sales and sales management for a couple of established publishing companies, I found I was spending up to 25% of my time doing database and metadata work. I chose to do so because many of the books I was trying to sell had such limited information; customers could not find them, much less make a purchase! It was clear to me that without complete, accurate information – metadata – I had problems; and with it, I had happier customers and increased sales.

For more information about Jonathan and his company, visit Jarred & Perry Metadata.

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