Over the past few years maintaining our IT systems here at Vearsa I’ve seen a few different approaches to ebook metadata. Here’s a brief introduction to metadata, why it’s so important (and I’ll never tire of talking about how important it is!), and how publishers should manage their metadata.
I’ll stake my colors to the mast at the start, I’m writing this because I want everyone to be able to send and receive ONIX and I think there’s a compelling case for most publishers to invest in tools to manage their metadata for them.
Our publishers, through their writers, editors, proofreaders, designers, typographers and many other skills, create awesome books. They have marketing departments to tell the world more about the book, the author publicists their books too, through interviews, bookstore tours, book fairs, social media and any other means they can think of. The publisher contracts with distributors, physical and digital, in order to get the book out to the retailers and onto the (virtual) shelves.
But how do the distributors and retailers know how much the book is worth? How do they know how heavy the book is, or how heavy 1000 copies of the book are, or if the book is a fictional romance or non-fictional popular science, is a hot new release, a new edition of last year’s hot new release, or is standard backlist, or if the book can be sold in Nigeria or in airports in the UK?
More pertinently, for a backlist book with no active marketing effort behind it, how can readers find the book and best decide that it’s a book they want to read?
All these answers lie in the metadata. Metadata is data about data, in this case data about books, and - as you may have gathered - there’s an awful lot of it. So how can publishers represent this data and share it with other parties?
Of course, Excel’s an amazing tool, it can do anything! The first spreadsheet was a killer application that drove businesses to buy PCs, and it’s still a killer application to this day. It can do brilliant things in the right hands, pivoting over data, graphing it, emailing or snail-mailing all your customers, and allowing you to do all this in Comic Sans.
At first managing book metadata in Excel can seem great, but once you have a few different pieces of information to track it starts to get unwieldy. For example, here at Vearsa we allow publishers to send us metadata using an Excel template we provide. This template currently uses columns from A to EN, with a few obsoleted columns along the way that’s still the bones of 140 columns, and we’re planning to add a few more in the coming weeks to cover new customer requirements. We continue to support this Excel format because unless a publisher is a catalogue management system they’re putting the metadata together by hand and Excel is a good fit for that.
It’s an amazing tool, and if your supply chain and retail partners have a format of Excel they’re happy to receive you can send them your Excel metadata one day, update all your pricing the next and send it out again. That’s awesome, as long as all your partners support the same format of Excel sheet, otherwise you’ll soon find yourself maintaining five different Excel sheets.
If you do find yourself maintaining metadata in Excel sheets be very careful about how you manage this, designate one of your Excel sheets as the one true source of data and ensure you propagate changes in the same way each time - comparing Excel sheets is a real pain and can get very confusing!
This is the gold standard for metadata in the publishing industry. The ONIX specification is managed by EDItEUR, with the support and collaboration of the national publishing groups like BIC and BISG.
These industry groups have analyzed the requirements of all the different stakeholders in the supply chain and designed a comprehensive format to describe book metadata. It’s not easy to work with, though; an ONIX file is a complicated structure and someone editing this metadata by hand will invariably break the file and make it unusable.
The advantage is that it’s a standard all software vendors can work towards and support, so by supporting ONIX well a system can receive ebook metadata from anyone and send metadata to anyone else. The problem with juggling multiple different format Excel sheets disappears.
At Vearsa, and speaking personally as one of the maintainers of our IT systems, we’re big fans of ONIX and all industry standards. Hopefully we’ll see EDItEUR’s other specifications and recommendations around book classification (Thema) and sales reporting (EDItX) gain more traction and wider adoption and make life easier for all partners in the industry to communicate.
MARC for Bibliographic data is another standard, this is most popular amongst libraries and has its roots in the US Library system, and looks as if it will soon be replaced by BIBFRAME - the Bibliographic Framework Initiative. Here in Ireland, and focusing on ebook distribution, we haven’t encountered much demand for MARC from either publishers or retailers.
Other data formats
There are so many standards around representing data these days, from CSV to XML to JSON to YAML. Both ONIX and MARC are XML formats and benefit from its power, and suffer from its verbosity - though ONIX Short Codes go a long way to addressing this problem, and any other proprietary format will suffer from the same disadvantages as Excel in terms of having to maintain specific infrastructure and not being widely supported.
As the industry standard ONIX is difficult for humans to manage by hand we strongly suggest that publishers with more than a handful of books invest in an ONIX-compatible management system.
Any such system may also help with royalty payments as well as asset tracking and can go all the way up to full business management.
At a minimum you’ll know that all your book metadata is safe in one central location and not scattered across multiple Excel sheets and Word documents, and you should realize great savings in time and hassle by knowing that your book management system is handling generation of metadata for your distribution partners, freeing you up to spend time on more interesting and valuable work.
Head of IT at Vearsa
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