Book Metadata – an Introduction

Part one of Anthony Finn's series of posts on data management which also includes
Metadata, Customer Data and Title Management Systems, Data Strategies in Academic Publishing and ISBNs – Vital or dying in e-publishing?

Data strategies and governance are vital to any publisher’s business. So it can be surprising how many publishers are resistant to establishing long-term policies to handle their metadata. We publish great books by amazing authors. Collecting and managing data is a boring and pretty unnecessary part of a publisher’s activity. Not an actual quote, but a sentiment expressed in one way or another by more than a few publishers I’ve worked with over the years. In this post I’d like to give a brief introduction to the topic of metadata and examine why data quality matters.

Who needs good data?

“Only four types of organisations need to worry about data quality:
Those that care about their customers
Those that care about profit and loss
Those that care about their employees
Those that care about their futures.”
Thomas C. Redman
Senior Consultant with Cutter Consortium

In a consumer world where books, movies, and newspapers are no longer on our bookshelves but in our pockets and handbags, metadata is king. Why? Because it’s the main way that readers find books.

Data quality matters

Missing or incomplete metadata has one devastating result; customers searching for author’s works will not find them.  And it’s worth bearing in mind that this issue will be entirely visible to the author. Even if they are not typing their title and name into Google their colleagues / readers / mum will be. And via social networks an expectant reader can easily let any author know that their work is not showing up.

Bad data can seriously harm your business:

  •  Your product data is inaccurate, incomplete, late or simply not distributed properly
  • Publication date slips and you don’t update : your title will be marked as unavailable by the trade
  • You have increased the price but books continue to sell at the previous price

Golden rules of good metadata

In the digital world, metadata is your AI sheet, your sales pack, it’s access to your product. So:

  1. Make sure it’s accurate
  2. Get it out on time.
    If your metadata is wrong, correct it quickly. The longer incorrect information is available, the more it proliferates, and the more it damages your business.
  3. Ensure it is high quality
    Make sure you use correct formats, identifiers, and author naming conventions, etc.
  4.  Distribute it to all proper channels

You may have a global market, or market restrictions, but you should know everywhere your data is going.

And a 5th golden rule: Enhance it!

The BIC basic metadata requirements are:

  • ISBN
  • Title
  • Product form/binding
  • Main BIC subject category
  • Publisher/Imprint name
  • Publication date
  • Cover image
  • At least one supplier name (distributor)
  • Availability status
  • GBP retail price inc. VAT
  • Statement of rights relating to UK

And enhanced requirements begin with:

  • Short description
  • Long description
  • Author biography
  • Reviews
  • Prizes
  • Promotional / marketing information
  • Full market rights, foreign prices, currencies
  • Tax inclusion or exemption

Fairly immediately it becomes obvious that basic metadata is pretty basic and that enhanced metadata is more likely to capture readers who have misremembered some part of the author’s name or the book title, or have a vague idea that it won an award or was reviewed somewhere.  But whilst it’s important to move beyond the basics to drive sales it’s also important to get those basics right.

A short note on Title Classification and BIC qualifiers

Be specific and use the BIC and BISAC codes. For example:

  • P = Mathematics and Science
  • PS = Biology, Life Sciences
  • PSB = Biochemistry
  • PSBF = Carbohydrates

Further BIC qualifiers cover other key data

  • Geographical area by continent, country, region, county/state
  • Language
  • Time period
  • Educational purpose; primary, secondary, academic
  • Specialist interest

And yes. This is the very minimum of information that you should be providing for each of your titles! Why? Because if it’s inaccurate, you might find a situation where your fiction titles show up as primary maths textbooks, or your biochemistry list under military history. There are particular issues here for backlist titles. A publication date of 1834 doesn’t render the contents of the book History. It might be Biochemistry, or Religious Studies. If you don’t give search engines and aggregators that information, they may fall back on the publication date to determine the subject classification. (Based on a true story!)

The standard for representing and communicating book industry product information in electronic form is, of course, ONIX . ONIX for books was created by EDItEUR in association with BIC (Book Industry Communication- UK) and BISG (Book Industry Study Group – US). For more information see

Metadata and discoverability

The purpose of all this metadata is to drive discoverability and increase sales.  And the reason it’s so important is because of the size of the databases that readers and buyers are searching when they’re looking for titles. Kobo carries over 3.2 million titles, serving 190 countries in 68 languages; Nielsen carries 22 million English-language titles, 12.5 million images and 2 million ebooks. That’s a huge forest in which to get your tree to stand out!

The most important piece of metadata to provide is also the one that can get left out of the process – the cover image.  Due to its different file format the image can be tricky to manage, but it’s a vital aspect of metadata provision that really drives sales. In their whitepaper The Link Between Metadata and Sales Nielson report the impact of enhanced metadata to be a 35% increase for offline sales, and 178% for online sales.

For publishers I’ve worked with, the greatest impact of enhanced metadata data is felt on backlist sales, so add cover images and enrich data on backlist as well, particularly if these titles are available online, or through POD.

Good data is one of a publisher’s most valuable assets. Not only does it drive sales, it allows you to manage your business efficiently and make confident decisions. If you are still in any doubt that good data matters, ponder on Amazon for a moment. I rest my case!

Author: Anthony Finn