Welcome to the Metadata Millennium: A Complete Overview of What Metadata Can Do for Publishers
Although metadata has been around since well before the NSA was outed for collecting information about our phone calls, the extent to which the word "metadata" is bandied about in blogs and tweets these days is an indication of just how mainstream it has become. I bet I don't even need to define it for you. But I will. In the context of publishing, the easiest way to think of metadata is this: it's not the content, it's information about the content.
To use an industrial age metaphor for what we think of as an information age concept, metadata is the oil that keeps the machinery of publishing cranking smoothly. It's how publishers sell their content, and it's how we find that content; it's essential throughout the editorial, production, and distribution processes that publishers use; it's at the heart of cataloguing and librarianship, search, and discovery.
The importance of metadata goes beyond books and magazines. It's increasingly essential to all media: print, ebooks, images, videos, blogs, and all the rest of the content we produce. It's what makes it all work together.
Supply Chain Metadata: It's How Books Are Sold
Let's start with the metadata publishers are most aware of: supply chain metadata. You see some of this metadata every time you go online to buy a book. Pretty much everything you see except the cover and the preview pages is metadata.
Publishers send out what are called "feeds" on a regular basis to all the retailers, distributors, aggregators, and other business partners they deal with. These feeds contain all the essential (and some non-essential) information about the books they have for sale. This information includes obvious things like the title of a book, the names of its authors, the publisher and imprint, perhaps the names of other contributors like illustrators or translators, and a host of other such bibliographic metadata, such as identifiers (ISBNs), which we'll get to later.
Related story: Metadata Handbook