Everything You Thought You Knew About Metadata…

The cover is the most important metadata element. For sales, no other element comes close.

This is ONIX. This is your book on ONIX.

The Metadata Handbook, by Renée Register and Thad McIlroy. Published by DataCurate, 2012.

…But Were Afraid to Ask

It’s no surprise that there’s a lot of confusion around metadata for books. It’s complicated. If only they hadn’t used the “M” word—metadata. It reeks of digital complexity. And then you read the standard definition: “Metadata is data about data.” Gee, thanks. As if your eyes hadn’t already glazed over.


Here’s what metadata really is: It’s all of the title information that used to reside just in your title catalog and your EDI (electronic data interchange) system, like Pubnet. Since online selling became tops for combined digital and physical books, the title information became paramount, as it’s the only way publishers can guarantee online retailers list their books correctly.

To put it another way: Metadata is your book online.

Online, your customers can’t grab a copy off the shelf, read the back cover blurb, and thumb through the pages to scan a selection of the text. That’s all metadata now: The back cover becomes the title description. The advance reviews are carefully tagged for online. “About the author” is now a separate web page on Amazon.com. And that’s the easy part!

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More challenging are, for example, making sure that the online preview doesn’t waste precious pages on the prelims; that your author Brian Smith doesn’t link by mistake to Brian W. Smith, author of My Husband’s Love Child—a Novella; that the video shows up online; and many more concerns.

Basic metadata is pretty easy, but ONIX, the metadata standard, now defines more than 200 fields. And these days there’s intermediate metadata, and then there’s advanced.

Today we’re going to test your skills: Beginner, Intermediate and Advanced.

You Think You’re A Beginner

You’ve got the basics in hand—if you’re in the U.K. you know they’re called BIC Basic in the U.S., it’s BISAC Core Data Elements. Did you know:

Thad McIlroy is a publishing consultant and president of The Future of Publishing.

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  • Thad McIlroy

    Since this article went to press I’ve been doing some work on metadata ROIs with Michael McGill, a student in the Masters of Publishing program at Pace. We also looked at the staffing issues that are getting in the way of metadata practice. I reported the results here: http://thefutureofpublishing.com/2013/01/the-roi-on-metadata-for-books/