Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.
In the last installment of this series, I talked about front-facing metadata. While book descriptions, bios and reviews help close the deal, customers need to be able to find your book first. This is where all the invisible metadata comes in.
Subject codes help categorize your book on retail sites. When looking on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Google, GoodReads or any number of sites, you’ll see subject categories in a sidebar or dropdown menu somewhere on the front page, and you’ll get to decide where your book falls within those.
If you’re in the US or Canada, you’re looking at BISAC codes. The UK has BIC, Germany has WGS, and France uses CLIL. There are others, but a relatively new identifier is Thema, which very closely mirrors BIC codes, aiming to be an international scheme and working alongside the others, but not replacing them.
Aside from being a standard required metadata element for most retailers and trading partners, BISAC codes are necessary to aid physical stores to shelve books, to aid online SEO, and to and help publishers, customers, media and others compare title performance against similar titles.
More BISAC codes means more discoverability—only one is required, but having multiple allows a book to come up in more search results. And because they started out as a guide for physical stores, many rules are held over from those days, which apply to all the above coding schemes.
We’ll be focusing on book items only, so if it’s not a book or if it’s a blank journal, then your code of choice is NON000000.
The first question you need to ask is: Is it a children’s/young adult (YA) book or not? In the BISAC and BIC code lists, there are specific headings for both of these audiences—anything else qualifies as general trade. These headings are mutually exclusive, meaning a book can’t be for both children and for adults. So-called “crossover” titles happen organically, but are aimed at the YA audience and find a place with adult readers later on. Don’t force it if it’s not meant to be.
The next question is: Is it fiction or non-fiction? Within children’s, YA and adult sections, there are headings specifically for fiction titles. Again, these are mutually exclusive—with very rare exceptions, a book can’t be fiction and non-fiction at the same time.
Be as specific as possible. No book is so broadly fictional, referential or family-oriented that it can’t be sorted into a more specific category, which is also why multiple codes are recommended. One is required, two is good, but three is great. Supplying more than three codes can cause a book to get lost in the shuffle. It can’t be everywhere at once, but having more than one code can help identify a book that is an espionage historical thriller featuring an LGBT main character. Keep the most relevant code as the primary.
In situations where subject codes are strictly controlled by their issuing parties, publishers have a lot of leeway with keywords. Subject codes organize books and meet the needs of publishers and retailers, but keywords meet the needs of customers. Consider them “search terms” rather than “keywords.”
Because keywords are newer, most retailers don’t use them yet. But Amazon and Google certainly do, and including them in your metadata can bring your titles up higher in search results—sometimes by a few spots and sometimes by pages.
Use keywords alongside subject codes when the book encompasses a new or trending idea (e.g. “spiralizer”), when the title doesn’t adequately describe the book’s theme (“paranormal research” for Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife), or when synonyms for BISAC codes might be more common words (“movies” versus “films”).
As more retailers pick up keywords, there are some best practices you can engage in when assigning keywords, such as limiting the number of keywords to about 20-25 and ordering them by priority. We don’t know if retailers will truncate the data available to them, so it makes sense to put the most important keywords first and keep the list meaningful.
Look for synonyms in other metadata, like the book description and subject codes. A book about Christmas is a book about holidays, Santa Claus and December. Likewise, use varied spelling or misspellings of the title, themes or your authors’ names: chrismas, x-mas, xmas, santa clause, etc. Include awards, honors and other notable achievements, such as “Oprah’s Favorite Things,” “New York Times (and NYT) Bestseller,” or “Newbery Award Winner.”
Save space and avoid redundancies by not reusing words that already appear in the title, subtitle, series, or contributor names. Think about it: how did you search for your books before keywords? If your book is called Campfire Cuisine, it doesn’t make sense to say “campfire,” “cuisine” or “campfire cuisine” again. Instead, use meaningful variation and say “campfire cookbook.” All search engines are capable of interpreting plural forms of words, so those can be dropped as well.
Here also is where you can hide your metadata that says your YA novel could also appeal to older audiences or be really specific with your target audience. Use terms like “young adult for grownups” or “kids book for boys” to zero in on whom you’re trying to appeal to.
However, the most obvious way to get your book in front of the right age group is by using the proper audience codes and age ranges. While ONIX has codes for children (defined generally as ages 0-12) and young adult (ages 12-18), many retailers further break these two audience types down by narrower ranges.
Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Google all feature similar age groupings:
Avoid using broad age ranges like “5-12” or using “and up”/”all ages” marketing, because a board book won’t have the same level of appeal or use for a two-year-old, a 13-year-old and a 42-year-old. Having a narrower age range allows for better positioning on retail sites, and it also aids in submissions for awards.
To further drill down to who should be picking up your book, supply Lexile and Fountas & Pinnell leveling when possible. These will help teachers and knowledgeable parents in choosing just the right book for their little ones based on both age and reading proficiency.
But all the above shouldn’t just be set and forgotten. Metadata is a living thing and needs to be kept fresh. The final installment of this series will talk about why and how you should revisit your old titles.
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