What is the one thing that can prevent your book from dying a cruel death by obscurity? 

In publishing, what you don’t know can get you into trouble. But today, we’re going to talk about a topic that many authors don’t know that they don’t know.

Metadata.

Yes, that’s right. Ladies and gentlemen, today we’re going to nerd out about metadata.

Don’t click away yet!

Good metadata can save your book by making it easy to find and increasing your sales. 

To help us understand why it’s so important, I interviewed a true metadata nerd. He’s helped publishers do metadata and technology well. He’s an expert in metadata and an acclaimed teacher on digital publishing who serves as the Director of Sales and Education at Firebrand TechnologiesJoshua Tallent.

Thomas Umstattd, Jr.: Some authors feel allergic to metadata. Can you give us a simple definition that will simplify the concept?

What is metadata?

Joshua Tallent: Metadata is descriptive information about something. For example, I have a blue mug on my desk. To describe it, we might say it’s ceramic. It’s blue, It’s got “greatest dad” written on the side. Those are all metadata descriptors of that cup. 

When we’re talking about books, metadata is information about the book. It’s the title, author, keywords, the price, and all the details about your book.

Thomas: If you don’t pay attention to that information about your book, it’s left blank, or it’s inaccurate. If metadata is innacurate or left blank, your book will be hard for readers to find, and your book will not sell.

Joshua: Metadata is a critical component of book sales. There is a direct relationship between metadata and sales. What you put in your data will make a difference in your book’s visibility to readers.

It also affects whether or not readers view your book as a professionally produced work. Many clues tell consumers about the quality of a book, whether it’s on Amazon or Barnes Noble, or anywhere else. You must acknowledge the connection between your book sales and your metadata.

It’s about quality. As an independent author and publisher, your goal is to create the highest quality book so you can compete with more prominent voices that have more money and power. Your book’s quality must be equal to or better than your competitors. That’s where metadata can help.

Thomas: I remember my mom taking me to the library to research for my first report about the planet Jupiter. Back then, the library had card catalogs. Each book in the library was represented by a physical index card that had metadata on it. The author, title, topic, and every piece of information you’d need to find the book was indexed on that card.

Every drawer of cards was a perfectly egalitarian space. There were no shining golden cards for traditionally published books or tattered cards for indie books. It was just information to help you find the book you wanted.  

The card catalog is a good metaphor for how metadata still works. All the information about a book is now stored in a digital database. In some ways, that makes it more important because now you can search that database quickly and easily.

If the publisher attaches the metadata to the book, who uses the metadata on the other side?

Who uses metadata?

Joshua: It depends on how the publisher is sending it out. There are different ways to send out your data to different retailers, but many authors and independent publishers do it manually.

You go to Amazon’s Author Central or your KDP Dashboard, and you fill out a form. The more descriptive data you enter, the more often it’s going to be shown to customers in the Amazon store.

The same thing goes for other retailers as well. The more data you give them, the better they can connect your book with people who are looking for it.

There are some limitations. Sometimes Amazon and other retailers don’t use every piece of data you provide, but it’s the consumer who benefits from that data. The more descriptive data you can give, the better off you’ll be.

Thomas: Libraries also use metadata to help readers find your book. The more often your book is checked out at the library, the more copies they’ll order.

 How do authors control the metadata?

When I published my book, I attached the metadata to the ISBN using Bowker. If I wanted to update my metadata, I would update it in one place. Is that what you recommend? Or do you use different systems?

Joshua: I recommend going to the retailers directly to manage data yourself. Bowker is great for getting data out, but Bowker also doesn’t send data to everybody because not everybody wants Bowker’s data.

You want to make sure the information is accurate and available in the stores where you’re selling the book. If you’re selling it through Amazon, then you should have an Amazon account where you can enter the data and manage it in that location.

I recommend that authors create a single source of that data on their own computer. It can be a Word document or an Excel file. If you have a lot of books, you want to have a single master source of that data.

When you go to different retailers like and Amazon or Ingram to list your book, you’re copying the same descriptive information from a single place. That way, your metadata will be consistent. You’re not typing something new for every single place.

Thomas: One mistake authors and small publishers make is that they don’t have a single source of data, so they’re going from memory. 

Components of the data get mismatched, and that can create confusion for customers.

If one customer found your book on Amazon with the keyword “dragon novel,” she’ll tell her friend to search for “dragon novel.” But if her friend searches on iBook, and “dragon novel” isn’t one of the keywords there, her friend won’t find the book.

She may find a similar book, but it won’t be yours, and you will lose that sale.

Can books have meta keywords words?

Joshua: Yes. You can assign keywords to a title, but right now, only Amazon and Apple use the keywords you provide.

Think about how a search works. If you go to Amazon and search for that cup that I mentioned earlier, you could type “cup” in the search bar, and that’s going to give you millions of results.

The millions of search results are not helpful. I want to search using more specific keywords. It’s called a long-tail query.

Instead of “cup,” I’ll type “mug,” “coffee mug,” “blue coffee mug,” or “blue coffee mug best dad.” The more words I add, the more precise the search results will be. That’s where keywords come into play.

The more keywords you can add when you set up your metadata, the better the search results are going to be.

Amazon only uses a couple of fields that you provide to them as the basis for their search algorithms. Their search algorithm will use the title, the author, the publisher’s name, keywords, and the BISAC subject category you chose for your book.

So, a key point here is that Amazon doesn’t use the book description.

Thomas: There are differing opinions on that. According to Amazon, they do use the book description, but they use machine learning to index the words. 

Some authors search for a strange word that’s unique to their book description to test whether Amazon indexes the book description. But that doesn’t work because it’s not an index for strange words.

Joshua: Right. It’s not using every word in your book description. They may be using machine learning to pull out specific keywords and add them to your keywords behind the scenes, but they’re not using the entire book description.

If you pull up a Harry Potter title, copy some text directly from the book description, and paste that text into the search bar, it’s not going to bring back a list of results that includes Harry Potter.

When you’re thinking about long-tail queries, remember the vast majority of people find products on Amazon by searching. Relying on Amazon’s algorithms to search your description with machine learning is not as effective as using the keyword field itself to give keywords that are beneficial for the search.

Thomas: The cool thing about Amazon is that it allows you to choose the most important keywords, which Google does not do.

Does Amazon have custom metadata fields that are unique to print or ebooks?

Joshua: There’s nothing that’s custom for an ebook specifically. There are some metadata pieces that publishers can use to track their ebooks, and eventually, those will be helpful in the marketplace.

Take accessibility, for example. Your ebook should be accessible, meaning that it can be read by someone who has a vision impairment or is blind. You want to include that information in your metadata to describe what kind of accessibility features your book has.

Retailers do not currently accept those things, but if you have your data stored locally, as we mentioned before, you should include the accessibility features.

Should ebooks and print books have different metadata?

People ask if they should make a different book description for their ebook than for their print book.

Normally, I say no unless you have something special in the ebook. If your ebook has additional photos that are not available in the print book, or if it has videos or other multimedia, you’ll want to mention that in your book description for the ebook.

You want people to see and understand that the ebook is the electronic version of the print book. It’s the same book—the only difference if format.  

What mistakes do authors make when they’re setting up their metadata?

Thomas: What mistakes do authors make when they’re setting up their metadata?

Joshua: The biggest thing is not giving enough information. If you’re doing the bare minimum, then you’re not doing enough. Fill out everything. Give as much data as you possibly can, because more information is better for consumers. It’s helps their decision-making process.

Think about how you go to a bookstore and buy a book, or how you go to Amazon to buy a book. The more information you see, the better feeling you’re going to get about that book. The more you know, the more likely you are to decide to buy it.

The other mistake is making bad decisions about how you enter the data. Misspelled words, grammatical errors, and word choice can affect the visibility of your book. Take the time to set up that information at the beginning.  

Thomas: Having a record of your metadata on your computer is a real pro tip.

Go to Amazon or ISBN.org. Copy all the fields, and paste them into a word document on your computer. Then type the answers to each field. Who’s the narrator? Who’s the illustrator? Fill in as much as you can, and then you send that document to an editor.

Many of us forget to get a second set of eyes on this. It’s difficult to proofread metadata once you’ve sent it out. Amazon detects misspelled words and corrects them, but maybe Barnes and Noble doesn’t. Maybe you misspelled “fantasy” in the category, but since Amazon corrects it, you don’t see it.

However, the error still shows on Barnes and Noble. When someone tells you there’s a typo in your book, you can’t find it because it’s corrected in some places but not others.

Save yourself that hassle by sending your metadata document to an editor.

We also have a lot of listeners who are traditional authors. For them, metadata is hidden away. They don’t control their metadata. What advice do you have for traditionally published authors?

How can traditionally published authors control metadata?

Joshua: First and foremost, be in contact with your publisher. Your publisher controls that data. If you see a problem, reach out to your publisher.

A lot of publishers don’t watch the metadata themselves. They should be. There are a lot of tools out there that can help them watch the metadata on different websites, but they may not see the same things you’re seeing.

It’s good to reach out and let them know something is wrong in your book description or that your author bio needs to be updated.

Traditional authors should be taking advantage of available tools on various retail sites. For example, you can create an account on Amazon’s Author Central, and it will directly affect the quality of the data on your book’s page as well. Claim your Author Central page and manage it well.

You can use that for marketing to people who buy your books because there’s a “follow” option there. When people follow you, they have the option of receiving notifications of your blog posts about what you’re writing next or what’s going on with your writing this year. There’s a lot of cool stuff you can do. Be more involved in that process and engage your publisher when it comes to managing the data.

Thomas: Having worked with traditional publishers as a literary agent, I know they are responsive to metadata fixes. It’s almost a point of pride that there shouldn’t be any mistakes with metadata for publishers because they hire companies like Firebrand Technologies to help them manage it. 

With a spreadsheet on your computer, you can manage your metadata for a dozen books or maybe even 50 books. But when a publisher has 500 or 5,000 books, it gets exponentially more complicated.

It’s embarrassing for a publisher to have that kind of mistake. Maybe a contributor’s name is spelled wrong, or maybe the person who wrote the foreword isn’t listed. Your publisher will be eager to fix those errors. If they give you a hard time, then you call in your agent with the big stick.

Metadata requires ongoing work. You’ve got to maintain it. It’s a garden that you have to keep weeding and watering. So, what do we need to watch for with metadata?

Do I need to update my metadata?

Joshua: I usually describe it as evergreen or a perennial. It’s it is a process of periodically going back and checking. It requires less maintenance than other aspects of publishing, but it still requires attention from time to time.

If you publish a book today, a month from now, it will probably have more reviews than it had today. A year from now, it may have other published reviews. Maybe it was reviewed by Publishers Weekly. Adding those reviews to your data can help the sale of the book.

Authors should also remember that times change. Maybe you write a book on a theological or political topic, and years later, that topic is center stage on the news or in the cultural dialog. Suddenly, your book is extremely relevant.

That’s why I recommend going back regularly to review the data you have for your books.

Also, we talked earlier about Bowker and Amazon having data for your books. Sometimes Bowker gets it wrong. Sometimes other places send incorrect or outdated data to retailers. It happens all the time. As a publisher or author, you must pay attention to what your books look like on those retail sites. Because if the data gets overwritten by someone else, you want to make sure it’s correct, and change it if it’s wrong.

Thomas: When Steve Laube bought the publishing company now called Enclave, the first thing we did, after changing the name and logo, was to clean up the metadata.

He went back and made sure every field for every book was filled out correctly and connected to the right place. That made a meaningful impact on the sales and discoverability of the books.

I know that this is not as exciting as social media, but it matters. If you only have one or two or ten books, it’s not a lot of work.

Myths about Metadata

Joshua, what’s a myth about metadata that you want to debunk?

Joshua: I think the biggest myth is that you don’t need to deal with it regularly.

There are some other myths and ideas about how keywords might work or don’t work. There’s a lot on Twitter and author forums about what works and what doesn’t and how you should do things.

When it comes to any of those discussions, my recommendation is to take the professional approach. Whenever an author on some forum says you should do something, ask yourself if traditional publishers are doing it. Is that the standard approach to metadata? Because if you’re too far outside the realm of normal, then it’s going to be harder for retailers to engage, or it may not work. You might do something that breaks their system or goes against their policies.

Work with metadata the way it’s intended to work, and don’t try to do crazy things.

One example of this is when authors try to put marketing data in their book title or subtitle. You should not put the word “bestseller” in your title. Do not make your subtitle, “The Most Amazing Thriller of All Time.”

That is marketing language. Authors sometimes put marketing language in the title so that the search algorithm will index it. But that’s bad practice in publishing. It’s common in non-publishing industries, but in publishing, the title and subtitle fields should be used only for the title and subtitle.

Use keyword and book description fields for those other marketing language pieces that you might want to include.

You see people doing those things all the time. It’s not the way it’s supposed to be because it breaks the system. It’s not the way the publishing ecosystem or the metadata is supposed to work.

Thomas: There is a place for marketing superlatives. You can put a sticker on your book that says, “From the bestselling author, So-and-so.” You can put those marketing superlatives in the description, and you can include it in your marketing copy.

But the superlatives in a title or subtitle don’t help someone find the book. No one is typing “bestseller” into the search field. If they want the bestseller, they’ll click on the bestseller list and choose from there.

Put your hype where the hype goes, and you put your description where it belongs.

What is the future of metadata?

Where do you see metadata going in 2040? Is it still going to be relevant, or is it going to be replaced with machine learning?

Joshua: We’ll still have the requirement of creating metadata. And you want to create your own metadata. Machine learning and A.I. will get better as we go along, but I don’t think it’s going to replace the human brain and what we can come up with to describe the content creatively.

We’ll have better tools 20 years from now and better consistency across the industry.

The Publishing industry has a better handle on metadata many other industries, because, at least in traditional publishing, we have consistency in how data is delivered around the ecosystem.

Traditional publishers use Onyx, which is an XML standard for metadata. Publishing is the only industry that has its specific format that’s accepted across the board by the vast majority of retailers in our industry.

If you look at other industries, there’s no standard for that. They are struggling with the quality of their metadata, and their metadata fields lack breadth.  

In the future, we will have better tools and better analysis. We’ll probably have tools to tell you whether you’re writing something that’s crap or not. Some quality control may come out of that. But the need for publisher created metadata is going to continue.

Thomas: God bless the librarians. They are the reason publishing has such an advantage over other industries. Publishing has been managing databases with people and paper for a century longer than other industries.

Before there were computers, librarians created the Dewey Decimal System. They sorted the books and wrote metadata on pieces of paper. That was innovative at the time. Most other retailers are new to the game.

Where can authors go if they want to learn more about metadata?

Joshua: I did a training seminar for the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA). I always recommend that traditionally published authors, self-published authors, and small publishers join IBPA and get involved in that community.

Learn about metadata from the source. The Book Industry Study Group has information about this. There are other resources online about the standards in traditional publishing about the quality of metadata. It’s not hard to create quality metadata. It’s usually harder to set up a system internally to track it.

Thomas: Do you have any final tips or encouragement?

Joshua: Continue. Keep going. Never give up. It’s a constant process. Keep learning. Learn more about how metadata works. Continue testing your data because you may change keywords that have an impact on the visibility of your book. Take the time to go through that process and learn more about the data and put more out there.

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Bonus Metadata Checklist

Joshua’s metadata checklist will help you prepare your book for publication and keep tabs on the metadata after your book comes out.

The metadata checklist is for

  • indie author’s who don’t want to overlook important aspects of metadata
  • traditionally published authors who want to assist their publishers in keeping metadata current

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