While there’s no shortage of innovation on the digital book front when it comes to new platforms and features, questions of the digital future inevitably seem to lead back to a discussion of discoverability and, by extension, metadata. Up close and personal with XML and tagging, metadata can be the key for expanding audiences and simply being found. Especially for trade publishers, the right metadata can get books into classrooms and retail spaces where they might not have been before. The trick, of course, is to understand how metadata is used and interpreted and to integrate its development into every stage of the workflow process. Keeping up with ever-changing technology and continually updating metadata for backlist titles may seem daunting, but that is why The Metadata Handbook (DataCurate 2012) by Renée Register, Founder of DataCurate and metadata specialist, and Thad McIlroy, epublishing analyst and owner of The Future of Publishing blog, hopes to help clarify what metadata is and why it is important.
For the metadata experts and enthusiasts, The Metadata Handbook doesn’t delve too much into the minutiae; rather, it focuses on giving a comprehensive lay of the land in the first three of five parts of the book, and then featuring interviews with publishing professionals about the future of metadata in the final two parts. The former tries to define current metadata practices and how we got there, while the latter addresses the biggest issues facing its use in the future. Most of the themes of the book echo what has been said at conferences for the past few years, but the authors seem intent on covering the basics that everyone in the publishing industry—not just metadata specialists—should know about metadata.
The two main themes are the need for standardized metadata across the industry, and the importance of publishers devoting the resources to maintain and develop metadata at all stages of the publishing process. As Len Vlahos, Executive Director of Book Industry Study Group, says in his interview, “I think the industry needs to convene a metadata congress of sorts, with willing participants from all corners of the supply chain. There are problems that can be solved by implementing consistent business processes between trading partners, and…through better communication.” This collaboration, he says, can especially help as more publishers move to ONIX 3.0, which he hopes to become even more standard across the industry since it allows users to send changes only to record fields that need to be updated, cutting down on wasted effort.
In addition to creating more uniform metadata practices, many also call for the merger of print and ebook metadata processes to accurately track sales. “Ebook metadata is handled through different systems and often times there is not a complete list of all ebooks available in a single feed,” says Pat Payton, Senior Director at Bowker. “(Bowker often finds that certain titles are only sold through particular channels and their metadata is only available in that retailer’s template rather than a publisher’s central database.) Cover images are forgotten and thought to be part of the ebook itself so no separate marketing image is needed. All these issues can be addressed if a publisher integrates their workflow for these two formats.”
Across the board, everyone agrees that metadata is a basic tenet of the publishing process and serves as the foundation for any book development. “If you’re spending money on author interviews or promotional videos but you haven’t got high quality, rich, comprehensive and accurate product record—up to the standards of your very best records—for every single pbook and ebook you have in your catalogue then, you have your priorities wrong,” says Jonathan Nowell, President of Nielsen Book. “For pbooks metadata is crucial, for ebooks it is critical.”
Nevertheless, there are understandable concerns, particularly from big houses, of how exactly to implement metadata expertise and continue to maintain metadata as titles move to the backlist – in other words, can it bring in the sales to justify the expense? The Metadata Handbook doesn’t offer any concrete answers. Instead, it seems to be more about how much publishers stand to lose by neglecting metadata management. Co-author Thad McIlroy sums it up best: “We need to know which categories of metadata provide the best ROI and get all publishers focused initially on where they’ll find a tangible return on investment… I won’t guarantee that metdata will sell your book, but I guarantee that your book won’t sell without metdata.”