Serendipity is the great unsung hero of publishing. We can never be sure of the precise value arising from chance encounters in bookshops, the flash of a good jacket catching the reader’s eye, igniting the purchase instinct so that before they know it they’ve bought another book. We’ve all been there; we’ve casually browsed, and probably found many of our favourite books this way – by chance, in bookshops, passing time, scanning idly. We’ll never know what this is worth, but it is likely to be very large indeed.
How about in digital environments? Well, there has been a great attempt at not just replicating the mechanisms of the physical world but surpassing them, and a good deal of web innovation has centred around recommendation engines, affiliate networks, filtering systems, automatic suggestions and the prediction of taste.
To some this is a world where abundant culture becomes easily discoverable, where we can find what we like and structure our experience in a totally customised way; to others it is what Eli Pariser has called the “filter bubble”, an egotistical echo chamber where we are never challenged by newness or difference aside from our pre-existing predilections.
Regardless of the rights or the wrongs, one thing is clear: where chance is lost, where algorithms replace luck and the keyword search term is king, metadata is the fulcrum of discovery. Metadata, in short, decides whether your book is found, and by extension whether your book is bought.
So what is metadata and why is it important? The word is part of the problem. It sounds fairly technical and abstract, the kind of thing requiring specialist knowledge. In fact metadata is easy. Metadata is just all the information around a book that isn’t the content. That’s it. People have been using metadata for centuries; they just called it something different.
The name of the book is metadata, the cover is metadata, the word count and page count are metadata, as are the formats. The blurb, the tagline, the keywords attached to those (e.g. which words summarise the book best?) are all metadata. Price, publication date, review quotes, sales points, promotional opportunities, territorial rights, ISBNs and the author name are all metadata to.
Then there are the subject categories, known in the US as BISAC codes and in the UK as BIC codes. If you Google for your subject you will quickly find the correct codes for your books. Metadata can become quite ‘granular’ as the parlance would have it, looking at details like different author roles and different identifiers, but for the most part it sticks to the information readers would find relevant about a book.
Metadata influences search, it influences territoriality and categorisation – metadata is the advert, the sales pitch, the sell in and the advance promotion; metadata is the random book left on the table, the fervent recommendation of a friend, the arresting blurb, the good review, serving the random browser and the determined buyer alike.
Bad metadata means your book is invisible and un-purchasable. Yet compared to many industries either totally or increasingly focused on digital commerce, publishing lags in its understanding of SEO practices, metadata standards implementation, data collection and analysis and systems investment.
A few brief principles for metadata, whether self-published or working with a book publisher, will enormously help your book’s chances.
1 Accurate metadata – it all has to be correct. Wrong metadata confuses the system. This means you need to be meticulous when inputting your metadata and check everything through. One of the difficulties of metadata is that different retailers have different metadata requirements, so you or your publisher need to make sure the right metadata is going to the right retailer. This can be a painstaking and time consuming process but it’s worth it.
2 More is more – if you don’t put the metadata in, it won’t be discovered. Many people only put the bare minimum in. Metadata is boring and tricksy. However by not putting absolutely everything in you will increase the visibility on offer. So if you are uploading work yourself fill out every field on offer. If you are working with a publisher supply them with as much information as they need and monitor what the output looks like.
3 BUT go for quality not quantity. Making sure your metadata is complete is one thing, overloading is another. Book blurbs, tag lines, review quotes, puffs, different regional pricing are all great; but don’t go overboard. A well drafted piece of copy is a much better piece of metadata than a lengthy, search engine friendly piece of text that no one will want to read.
4 Lastly, familiarise yourself with the basic tenets of SEO. Yes, this is a chore and a distraction from writing. We all have to recognise the world we live in, and in that world a bit of simple knowledge can go a long way. All of the above applies. You don’t need any technical knowledge, just an awareness of what kind of thing might help. Have a look at something like this introductory guide from a well-known SEO website: http://www.seomoz.org/beginners-guide-to-seo.
We still haven’t fully figured out how to replace the experience of shopping in a bricks and mortar store, that sense of surprise, fun, the unexpected – and we haven’t worked out how we can create and capture those impulse buys. We are going to need to, and the answer will be found in a revolution of what metadata we supply, and how we supply it.
Michael Bhaskar is Digital Publishing Director at Profile Books. Before that he worked at a literary agency, an economic consultancy and Pan Macmillan. He writes, speaks and blogs regularly about the publishing industry and can be found on Twitter as @ajaxlogos. His book, The Content Machine: Towards a theory of publishing from the printing press to the digital network, is forthcoming from Anthem Press.