Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.
There’s a lot of discussion about the importance of metadata in publishing and bookselling, but confusion remains about what it is and how to do it well. Here are five things you should know.
1. Metadata isn’t a new concept.
Recording information about books is one of the oldest forms of metadata. Book metadata is at least as old as the Library at Alexandria, constructed in the 3rd century BC. Book information for the approximately 500,000 volumes was recorded in the Pinakes, the first known library catalog. Metadata included title, the author’s name, birthplace, educational background and a summary of the book. Subjects were assigned and books were housed in separate rooms according to subject. Sound familiar?
Book information continued to be recorded in written or printed form until advances in computer science facilitated widespread machine-to-machine communication, starting in the late 1960s. Our current understanding of metadata is informed by the requirements of electronic communication. Information must be structured and shared in a consistent way so that it can be easily received, translated and displayed without much human intervention. However, it’s humans who create the initial metadata and who play the greatest role determining its quality.
2. Metadata is the language of online selling.
You can’t avoid it, so why not use it to your advantage? The need to communicate electronically using metadata is not unique to publishers. Every seller’s website is made up of metadata that describes products. The consumer is searching and viewing information about the product, not the product itself. Behind the scenes, metadata also drives transactions and communication related to commerce. Metadata includes both product description and business communication, two things every business wants to do well.
Think about metadata as:
- Information needed to fully describe a book–what consumers needs to know to discover books of interest and make buying decisions.
- Information needed for effective commerce–what publishers and their trading partners need to know, track and analyze for business purposes.
3. Languages have vocabularies, rules and grammar. Metadata does too.
As with any form of communication, there must be some shared principles in the way authors, publishers and booksellers create metadata, or we would never understand each other.
- To communicate effectively, metadata must have a vocabulary with agreed-upon definitions.
- As any editor knows, written language has rules to provide consistency in how meaning is expressed. There are rules and style guides for metadata as well to ensure consistency in how titles, author names, dates, editions and other information about a book is expressed and displayed to the user.
- Grammar is the structure of language. Structure is especially important in electronic communication. Metadata is structured, with the various pieces of data placed in tagged (named) fields, so that it can be received and interpreted electronically. Well-structured metadata facilitates efficient sharing with multiple trading partners, results in web displays that make sense to users and produces data that works correctly behind the scenes in search environments and for business intelligence.
4. You don’t have to be a techie or a data geek to understand the basics of good metadata.
The technical component is just one aspect of metadata. Just as you don’t have to know all the technical aspects of how retail websites or social media applications work to be successful in online marketing and Web content creation, you don’t have to be an expert in XML or ONIX for Books in order to create good metadata. Knowledge of your books, your readers, your organization and your selling partners is still the most important thing.
The biggest hurdle is in understanding what you can and want to communicate with metadata and committing to integrating it into your workflows and systems. There are tools, services and systems for publishers of any size, but you have to know enough to choose your technology wisely.
5. You already know more about metadata than you think you do.
Creating and distributing metadata is communicating what you know about your books, what you want your readers to know, and what your trading partners need to know, with the goal of helping readers discover, select, and purchase them. Combine your knowledge with the available tools and technology to build metadata that works for your organization and your readers.
To help you do so, join the course I’m leading at Digital Book World University, Introduction to Metadata for Books, starting August 4th. We’ll cover the latest metadata skills, strategies and best practices plus a practical approach to metadata’s ongoing evolution in the current landscape and near future.