Metadata matters by Thad McIlroy

Metadata matters by Thad McIlroy

Thad Mcllroy is author of The Future of Publishing & founder of Publishing Technology Partners.

When I first started writing about metadata I took pains to point out that there is, if anything, an embarrassment of riches in the metadata ecosphere. Remember that metadata for books started as a task for libraries, and this goes back centuries. But libraries come in many types and sizes and comprise a complex market with practices that are quite different from book retailing. New standards were needed to support bookselling.

When I worked as a bookseller in the pre-Internet era the metadata available to help sell new books was sparse: the title, author, format, price and the main subject matter, so that we knew which section of the store to shelve each book.

(Public domain image from the Harvard College Library)

But once bookselling began to move online in the mid-90s it became obvious that we were going to need more metadata for online display, and in 2000 ONIX was born. It has been enhanced steadily since — version 3.0 launched in 2009 and has seen modest updates since.

EVERY book has competition. In a broad sense: if they don’t buy the new novel that’s getting all the great reviews, maybe they’ll instead buy the controversial new political bestseller. But look more closely at your list: there are very few topics that do not have at least several direct competitors, and many topics that have dozens (think, for example, of Italian cooking).

What is going to bring the reader to your book ahead of the competition? Great metadata...

A big problem in current ONIX metadata workflows is the disconnect between what you, the publisher, create, and what gets used by the supply chain. We’re never quite certain which online retailers use which data. We know they each ingest metadata in their own sweet way: there is no accepted standard for recipients. And what data they record and display changes frequently. 1

This is a disincentive to improved metadata practice: why both creating more rich, detailed metadata if the supply chain won’t use it?

Which is where Supadu comes into the equation. Supadu has the flexibility to expose all of the metadata you create, via your own web site, and this can be a powerful step in making your titles discoverable.

To gain a better sense of the data richness that ONIX supports, take a look at List 17 within the most recent ONIX Codelist 44. List 17 is all about contributors. There are nearly 100 categories, listing every conceivable role that can go into the creation of a book, from original author to editor, to translator, series editor and so on.

As far as I know, there’s not a metadata recipient in the world that ingests all of this data. Yet certain classic books are nearly as famous for the author of the foreword or introduction as for the title’s author.

For example, an early edition of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four appeared with an afterword by psychoanalyst/philosopher Erich Fromm. A 2003 edition contains a forward by novelist Thomas Pynchon. Which version would you prefer? Further, some listings spell out the title “Nineteen Eighty-four” while others record it as “1984” (Orwell spelled it out). What’s more Orwell’s real name was Eric Arthur Blair.

ONIX can easily disambiguate these differences and details. This information matters to book buyers, but it doesn’t get the support in needs from online resellers. Go to Amazon and search “Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.” You’ll see the problem immediately.

Using software such as Supadu, you can surface ALL of your metadata on your own website. This absolutely will improve the findability and discoverability of your books. As I see it Supadu encourages best practices for publisher metadata. And that’s a fine thing.

The work I do as a consultant to publishers on metadata has two parts. First is just to make sure that they are following best practices, and capturing the core metadata that every book requires.

The second part is more important: encouraging publishers to look far beyond the core, and to routinely endeavour to capture far more robust metadata.

Why would you capture just the author name when you can also record:

Publishing competition is ruthless; more so every day. There are 15 million books for sale on Amazon and a million new titles added each year. Metadata mastery comes from understanding that with that much competition, every additional metadata point gives your book one more chance to being found and bought and read. You owe it to your books; you owe it to your authors.

1 BIC has an important project underway, the BIC Metadata Map, that will soon show where the metadata goes, what happens to it, who uses it, and how.

Thad Mcllroy - writer and publishing consultant is our guest contributor this month.

Author of The Future of Publishing & founder of Publishing Technology Partners, he has a deep understanding of how metadata directly impacts on the success of publishers around the world.  Discoverability is key!

Thad can be reached at

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