Metadata: A Guide for the Perplexed

‘Anyway, those tickets, the old ones, they didn’t tell you where you were going, much less where you came from. He couldn’t remember seeing any dates on them either, and there was certainly no mention of time. It was all different now, of course. All this information. Archie wondered why this was’.   

White Teeth by Zadie Smith (2000)

In spite of the above quote, 2000 may well now appear to have been a golden age in terms of information. In those long gone halcyon days, none of us had to worry about terms like big data, discoverability, feeds, and, quite possibly the scariest of them all, metadata.

All of us are awash with information now, drowning in an ever expanding sea of data. But it’s worth remembering that one school of thought, Clay Shirky’s, holds that there’s no such thing as information overload, only filter failure.

Let’s focus on metadata: What is it? Why are people always talking about it? And what’s it got to do with me anyway?

Definitions are never easy. But actually, in this case, it is. Metadata is simply information that describes your book, things like the ISBN, the price, the title, the author, the publication date, the description, the format, etc.

These things can be about identification (ISBN), they can be bibliographic (author, title, format) or transactional (price). What they have in common is that they’re all pieces of information that describe your book. And that’s it.

A key thing to remember is that metadata isn’t new. We’ve always needed this sort of information (think Advance Information sheets, the humble forerunner of the data feed) and we’ve always had people who care about it (the even humbler Information Manager).

But why do I hear so much about it now?  

To help answer this, let’s pause for a moment to think about iTunes. Here’s an iTunes library below. (It isn’t mine by the way, before you silently condemn my taste in music).

We’ve all seen this before and it’s familiar. But what are we actually seeing? Well, we can see information about artist, song title, album, genre, length of song, etc. You can probably see where I’m going with this: we’re looking at information that describes this collection of music. We’re looking at metadata.

And as we know from using iTunes, it’s incredibly useful. It allows you to group together genres, find favourite songs, create playlists, sort, filter, remove. The list goes on. So imagine your iTunes library without any metadata. You wouldn’t be able to do any of those things. In fact, your library would be pretty much unusable.

Let’s carry that analogy over to books. Imagine walking into a large bookshop and finding that all the book covers on all the shelves were blank and none of the shelves were marked.

If you had a book that was among all this, how would you possibly find it? The simple answer is, you wouldn’t. And neither would anyone else.

Now take that bookshop, and imagine it to be 1000 times bigger with 1000 times more books. And imagine it to be open to practically anybody in any country in the world at any time.

That’s the internet. And the miniscule needle in this gargantuan haystack is your book.

Without good metadata, you’re effectively putting your book with a blank cover up against hundreds if not thousands of competing titles in the biggest bookshop you can imagine. In 2000, when high streets bookshops were plentiful and ebooks a distant glimmer, metadata was important. Now, in the online environment, it’s life or death.

This is a good time to bring in another one of those scary words. Discoverability. Many publishers spend huge amounts of money and commit vast resources on complex methods of boosting discoverability for their titles.

This isn’t necessarily misguided, but having good metadata is the first step towards discoverability, which is ensuring that your book can be easily found online. It’s a step a surprising number of people skip. Making sure your metadata is in order is quick, easy and incredibly effective in terms of helping your book reach its intended audience.

So how do you do that? What is ‘good’ metadata?

A really good place to start is Book Industry Commission, the book industry’s supply chain organisation. They have developed a standard called BIC Basic which outlines the minimum metadata requirements for a title.

The information you need to supply to Nielsen, ideally four months ahead of publication, is shown in the example below. If you are self publishing you will also need to supply the information to your distributor and if you are publishing directly with platforms such as Amazon KDP or Kobo Writing Life, you will need to enter it onto their systems too (they provide step by step guides).

Title: Azar’s Brilliant First Novel

ISBN: 9780000000000

Product Form: Hardback

BIC Code: FA (Modern Fiction)

Publisher: Azar Classics

Imprint: Debut Dazzlers

Publication Date: 26th March 2015 (This might slip)

Supplier: Wonderful Warehousing

Availability Status: Not Yet Published

Price: £9.99

Territorial Rights: World

Description Copy: A day in the life of a beleaguered information manager, the digital Ulysses for the 21st century.

There are other things you can do, but the above is the bare minimum. If it’s the one thing you remember from this article, you won’t have wasted your time. Supplying the book jacket in good time is also highly advisable. We do all judge books by their covers and a blank placeholder will impress no one.

Many people think metadata ends there. You send it out  pre-publication and the job’s done. But metadata should be thought of as evolving and it often needs revision. For example:

Have you sold US rights? Don’t forget to change your Territorial Rights statement so retailers in the US know they should stop selling your edition. Forget to do it, and you could have a lawsuit on your hands.

Has publication date slipped? Make sure you update your metadata. Unless you want to confuse your would-be readers by making them wonder why they can’t have your book when you said they could.

Have you won a prize? Been shortlisted? Add it to your description copy. It all helps.

Want to experiment with pricing? Have you got a promotion on? Make sure the right price is visible at the right time (and in the right place).

The above examples all lead to a final point which is equally important:

There’s only one thing worse than having no metadata, and that’s having incorrect metadata.

Sending out the wrong price is the equivalent of having your reader pick up a book for £7.99 in a shop only to be told at the till it’s actually £12.99. Or telling your reader that their book will be in tomorrow only for them to return and you to say it actually won’t be in for another two weeks.

If you’re in any doubt about any of your metadata, you’re actually better off making no statement. Because as a number of celebrities, politicians and users of social media have discovered, once you’ve released information online, you can’t claw it back.

Metadata is the lifeblood of your title. And all you have to do is make sure you cover the elements of BIC Basic as above and maintain them as necessary. I hope the above has convinced you that metadata is vital to the success of your book, but if you ever need a reminder, just look at this:

Some useful links:

An Introduction to ONIX – The industry standard for communicating metadata

BIC Basic – The minimum requirement for your metadata

BIC Codes – Find the right BIC subject code for your title

Book Industry Communication – The book industry’s supply chain organisation

Book Industry Study Group – BIC’s US counterpart


  • Azar Hussein

    Azar Hussain is Information Manager at Faber & Faber with responsibility for data management and for maintaining and developing information systems.

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