Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.
Old publishing problems often reappear in new forms, as any senior publishing executive will tell you. One obvious example is the basic book title information we now call “metadata.”
Metadata runs like digital lifeblood from publisher to retailer, and is critical to making books pop on the retailer’s homepage and in personalized marketing emails to readers. Over the past decade, publishers have developed new workflows for managing their metadata, and some have even migrated their data to ONIX, the highly efficient XML format for sharing metadata throughout the industry. However, it remains critically important for publishers to continue to upgrade their metadata reviews and workflows, as retailer websites and the industry pipeline continue to evolve.
To that end, here are five questions publishing executives need to ask their teams right now about their metadata:
1. Who owns the metadata processes at each step of a book’s life cycle?
When it comes to optimizing metadata, publishers typically focus on new releases, since they are the most likely to be promoted and to attract media attention. In addition, all of the team members who can deliver the best metadata are actively engaged: the author, as well as the publisher’s editorial, marketing and publicity teams. But what happens after a few years pass and a book becomes a backlist title?
As a book moves through its life cycle, publishers need to ensure that backlist metadata will get the dedicated attention required on a regular basis. This may mean regular title reviews by category to ensure all BISAC codes reflect current keyword trends and the latest guidelines from the Book Industry Study Group (BISG). There may also be regular requests for author bio updates to reflect a new bestseller status, any awards received, or related book releases (especially in a series). Over the course of a year, publishers should cycle through their entire catalog if possible—or perhaps every two years for deep backlist. This will ensure that older titles have a chance to continue to sell perennially.
2. Should we be using ONIX 3.0?
ONIX helps publishers establish consistent metadata, which in turn allows retailers to display the titles to their best effect, enabling readers to easily find them—and buy them. Retailers also typically process ONIX data before spreadsheet data, leading to a shortened time to market for ONIX publishers. Additionally, ONIX allows errors to be addressed more quickly across a group of titles.
Despite these benefits, most publishers are still using spreadsheets to manage their metadata. But even multiple spreadsheets do not replicate the richness of the XML format on which ONIX is built, which can represent more than 200 fields, and allows publishers to maximize sales through better engagement with the elaborate algorithms used in retailer search engines.
Integrating the ONIX standard into publisher workflows takes some planning and effort, but has proven valuable for publishers with at least 50 books, who are adding five or more titles per month to their catalog.
However, most publishers currently using ONIX are working in version 2.1, which is more than a decade old and was primarily designed for print processes. Version 3.0, which has been available since 2009, is significantly better at handling not just print books, but also the different needs of digital products. While some publishers may have delayed migration to 3.0 because many retailers still don’t accept it, a good distribution partner should be able to help publishers get the right version of ONIX to the right retailer in order to take advantage of the benefits of ONIX 3.0 where possible. Moving on this is critical to positioning your company for growth, just as the migration from PDF to EPUB was for publishers in the past five-plus years.
3. Are we leveraging our BISAC codes to drive better sales?
Up-to-date BISAC codes allow retailers to properly tag and display book titles on their websites and in stores. BISG reviews the codes annually in order to add new ones, remove outdated ones, merge redundant codes and update terminology. For example, a unique code for “New Adult” books was added in the past year as a direct result of a boom in the genre, which was previously represented by “Juvenile codes.”
Currently, there are more than 3,000 subject codes, and they can be very specific. So it’s important to keep up with the new guidelines on trending topics. As a publishing executive, you should know who is responsible for tracking changes and getting them instituted throughout your list.
For new titles, drilling down to the most specific and appropriate subject codes ensures they will be placed in the best possible category on retailer sites. This will increase your title’s chances for higher rankings. For example, let’s say there are 111,638 titles under “Science Fiction” at Amazon, but only 243 are listed under “Cyberpunk that features AI.” Your title could go from ranking #94,562 under the more general category to #63 in the more specific category. More importantly, readers who want to read your book will be able to find it, and buy it.
For ebooks, we recommend that publishers use up to four BISAC codes to really hone in on their market, even if you typically use fewer codes for print books. Placing the most important code first is critical to driving sales, however, because some retailers will accept only one code, while others will take two, three or more.
4. Do we need a partner to get the most out of our metadata?
If you have P&L responsibility at a publisher, you might be tempted to believe that it’s cheaper, easier or even more efficient to maintain all control of the metadata process internally. But the difficult truth is that ONIX management can be overwhelming for publishers. To maximize efficiency and drive sales, it may make more sense to identify the right partners, for the right part of the process.
As Thad McIlroy noted in his excellent article “Everything You Thought You Knew About Metadata… But Were Afraid to Ask”:
“If you feel that your inner pinball machine just tilted and froze, it’s time to look for a metadata partner. Potential partners offer services from basic to holding your hand, and their prices are thoroughly reasonable. You just need to find the right one for your scale and mission.”
Regardless of whether you handle your ONIX internally or externally, here are some key questions to answer to ensure your metadata is effectively getting your book properly represented in the marketplace.
a. Do we have a single source of the metadata or are we cobbling information from many sources? What would it take to get to a single point of truth?
b. What are the process steps to update metadata? How much of that process is manual or requires multiple levels of human interaction to update? The more touches, the greater the chance for errors to be introduced.
c. Is the information going out in the fastest manner possible? When updates need to be made, how quickly can they get from our system to being live at the retailers?
d. How quickly and efficiently can we add new retailers or trading partners?
Evaluating your team’s ability to manage metadata versus using a third party (either a distributor or a company that specializes in metadata management systems) is an important step to take when considering your long-term sales potential of your titles.
5. How do retailers handle our metadata?
It’s important as a leader that you are confident that the work your team is doing to create great metadata is being properly executed at retailers. We recommend sending retailer specific feeds of metadata that ensure they receive the metadata fields they require, and ideally, nothing more. This decreases errors at the retailer sites. Again, as McIlroy states:
“You’ll need to learn the idiosyncrasies of each online reseller’s handling of the main metadata elements—if indeed they handle them at all. Keeping up with these changing idiosyncrasies is another reason to find an able partner.”
You should be clear on whose role it is in your publishing house to audit retailers on a regular basis in order to keep pace with changes in how metadata feeds to retailer sites and to individual title product pages by regularly reviewing older titles to be sure they conform to current standards, and verifying that title details show up correctly on retailer sites.
Metadata is a critical topic for publishing leaders to understand. Engaging your team in a discussion about workflow and processes can highlight opportunities to improve the discoverability of your titles and drive sales to grow your business.
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