Managing Metadata: Mastering Mountains of Minutiae

[Originally published in the magazine Romance Writers Report, April 2015.]

Metadata. We’ve all heard the word. We know we’re supposed to pay attention to metadata, manage it, leverage it to advance our career in either traditional- or self-publishing. But what is metadata, really? And how can we best track it in a useful, constructive manner?

“Meta” means “self-referential.” Metadata, therefore, is self-referential, secondary data that describes and gives information about primary data.

In the case of a novel, the primary data is the story itself, the content from the first word in the prologue (if there is one) to the last word in the epilogue (again, if there is one.) Metadata is the complete collection of secondary data that describes that book.

Let’s Start at the Very Beginning

Metadata includes truly basic descriptive information—the title of the book and the name of the author, along with essential definitions such as word count, word count with front and back material, and page count.

Additional metadata attach to a book after it is published. They include the name of the publisher, the imprint (if any) of the publisher, and the date of publication. (These might be set by traditional publishers or self publishers.) Baseline data may also include an International Standard Book Number (ISBN), a unique identifying number linked solely to one book, usually in one format, and/or an ASIN, an Amazon Standard Identification Number. Price (for ebook) and price (for print) also describe the underlying work.

Some books bear multiple layers of publication metadata. Mid-List Novel might have been published by Literary Imprint of Traditional Publisher, as written by Peggy Pen-Name. However, upon reversion of rights, that same book may be re-issued as Exciting Re-Release by the Books You Need imprint of Margaret Moon Press, a self-publishing endeavor managed by Margaret Real-Name (the same individual who wrote as Peggy Pen-Name.) If Margaret uses ISBNs, her re-issued book will have a new one, different from the one used by Traditional Publisher. Margaret’s book may also have different word counts, word counts with front and back material, and page counts. Both the old and the new metadata might be used to describe or refer to the same basic content; therefore, both the old and the new should be tracked.

Promotional Power of Metadata

Promotional gurus frequently exhort authors to manage their metadata effectively to increase sales. Vendors use metadata, applying trade-secret algorithms, to help determine a book’s ranking. (While a work’s ranking is partially defined by the number of sales made over a specific period of time, metadata factor into the equation as well.)

Therefore, metadata can go far beyond the relatively “fact-bound” examples listed above. At a minimum, metadata can go to the core of an author’s promotional scheme for a novel. For example the following information about a book might be used to promote that book and to achieve better ranking in vendors’ algorithms:

  • A tag-line (for use on the front cover)
  • Cover copy (for use on the back cover)
  • Keywords (for use in vendors’ sales systems, to help customers find similar books)
  • Categories (for use in vendors’ sales systems, to help customers find similar books)

Traditionally published authors may be involved with the creation of some or all of this information. (Typically, an editor drafts the metadata, but authors might be allowed to make suggestions or specific edits.)

Self-published authors are responsible for creating all of these metadata. They must draft and edit the tag-line and cover copy. They must review vendors’ required, recommended, and accepted lists of keywords, bearing in mind restrictions on specific words and number of words or characters. They must determine categories using vendor-specific systems as well as Book Industry Standard and Communications (“BISAC”) codes, primarily used in the United States, and Book Industry Communication (“BIC”) codes, primarily used in the United Kingdom.

An additional wrinkle is added by selling through multiple vendors. Amazon, Kobo, iBooks, and Nook Press each have different rules about different types of metadata. For example, Amazon allows seven keywords (defining a keyword as any number of alphanumeric characters and spaces followed by a comma). Nook Press allows one hundred characters total, regardless of how many individual words or phrases are included in those characters.

Self-published authors can—and should—attempt to manipulate vendors’ algorithms, modifying their metadata in controlled experiments to achieve higher rankings. For example, an author can upload individual new keywords and measure the effect on sales, keeping the keywords deemed most effective. (Traditionally published authors can work with their publishers to experiment with metadata changes; however, most traditional publishers are slow to react to suggestions that cover copy, keywords, categories, and other metadata be modified. Incremental changes in metadata are usually beyond the ability of a traditionally published author to modify.)

A Book Description by Any Other Name

The book description field offers uniquely fertile ground for testing metadata tweaks. For most vendors, the book description can run up to several thousand characters. Traditionally, authors include the back cover copy; however, some authors add much more information.

Extensive book descriptions are most likely to be helpful with increasing sales at Amazon, where the algorithms definitely consider the book description. As recently as mid-2014, iBooks confirmed that book descriptions are not a searchable part of their database. The extent of searchability is not clear at Nook Press or Kobo; however, it appears to be limited. For those publishers, the book description serves primarily as information for customers who have already landed on a book’s page within the system.

Authors seeking to maximize their use of book descriptions on Amazon might include a “lead-in line”, summarizing the book (e.g., “A hot romantic suspense novel by New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Racy Writer.”) The lead-in line is an opportunity to reiterate sub-genre phrases that customers are likely to use when searching for Ms. Writer’s books.

After the lead-in line and the cover copy, some authors include yet more information. For books that are part of a series, the book description might include the name of that series, along with the titles of each book in the series, and the heroine’s and hero’s names within each book. Such inclusion increases the likelihood that customers searching on the series name will find each book. It also helps readers who might remember books by character names rather than by titles.

Still more material can be included in the book description. Some authors include a series of “mock keywords” separated by commas. These are not the limited seven keywords Amazon permits in its KDP profile for the book; rather, they are a “kitchen sink” jumble of words that might apply to the work, each separated by commas and printed in a block in the book description field. For authors writing a series, there are likely some keywords that apply to all books in the series, then some keywords that apply only to individual volumes.

Book descriptions can be further supplemented by adding “mock categories.” Again, these are not the two or three categories permitted by the vendor and selected when the book is initially uploaded for sale. Rather, these are approximations of relevant categories, drawing on words and phrases customers might use when searching for a book. Each mock category is represented as if it were a “drill-down” search. For example, Ms. Writer’s book might include the mock categories

  • Fiction -> Romance -> Romantic Suspense
  • Fiction -> Mystery -> Romance
  • Fiction -> Romance -> Spicy Romance

Finally, the book description field might be supplemented by a list of similar authors or similar books.

Some authors believe that supplementation of the book description field is not “playing fair” within the Amazon rules. Other authors believe that some supplementation (e.g., mock keywords and mock categories) is fine, but other supplementation (e.g. similar authors and similar books) goes too far. Occasionally, Amazon will request a modification in expanded book descriptions, when a book is first submitted for publication. Other vendors are far more likely to request modifications in expanded book descriptions.

Still More Metadata

Some vendors permit other types of metadata to be included for books. For example, outside reviews are often included. Each review contains three sub-types of metadata – the text of the review itself, the name of the reviewer, and the name of the publication.

The author’s biography is also allowed at many vendors. Some sites have severe restrictions on length of biographies; others permit thousands of characters.

Finally, the URLs of books available for sale serve as a type of metadata. Obviously, the URL differs for each vendor. Some authors may generate multiple URLs for the same vendor, depending on whether the URL includes the author’s affiliate code (which provides for a small payment to the author each time a purchase is made through the affiliate code.)

Spreadsheet to Manage Metadata

Authors benefit from maintaining complete, current listings of their metadata because those listings guarantee an author’s message is presented uniformly across sales platforms (within the limitations imposed by vendors.) Ideally, metadata is similar in tone and format for all books in a series, and possibly for all books by any individual author.

Alas, managing metadata can become a herculean task. Fortunately, a spreadsheet can help authors keep their information organized. The most useful spreadsheet tracks all of the metadata for all of an author’s books in all of her series.

One page in the spreadsheet should be designated the template. Every possible category of metadata should be listed in Column A of the template. (See sidebar for possible categories to include.)

An additional worksheet should be added for each series the author writes. Stand-alone books can either be grouped on a single “Miscellaneous” worksheet, or they can each receive their own worksheet.

Every worksheet should initially be created by copying the template. Then, the author can review the template categories, making a determination if every category of metadata is necessary for that particular book or series. For example, works that are self-published originally will not have a reversion date; therefore a worksheet for an originally published series can delete the reversion date row for all books.

After the different types of metadata are listed in the first column of the worksheet, individual titles should be listed across the top (Rows B through whatever, depending on how many books are in the series. Omnibus editions should be included as separate columns, because their metadata will vary somewhat from the listings for the individual books that comprise them.)

Tracking metadata for each book is a simple matter of filling each cell with the appropriate information. Keeping all books in a series on a single page of the spreadsheet allows the author to copy information that is uniform across the series. The cell arrangement makes it easy to see what information is lacking (either intentionally or unintentionally) for any particular work.

Once the spreadsheet has been created, it can be used in a variety of circumstances. New books can be uploaded to existing vendors with consistent metadata. New vendors can be added for existing books. New fields of metadata can be added for all works when information needs change. All of the information is available for whatever promotion or marketing purpose arises, with a minimal amount of ongoing maintenance for the busy author.

Sidebar – Common Metadata for inclusion in Spreadsheet

(This list includes the metadata most often used for Amazon, iBooks, Kobo, Nook Press, Smashwords, and CreateSpace. Individual authors might use additional vendors and additional fields of information.)

  • Title
  • Publisher
  • Former Title
  • Price (Ebook)
  • Price (Print)
  • Original Publication Date
  • Original Title
  • Original ISBN (Ebook)
  • Original ISBN (Print)
  • Author’s Re-Issue Publication Date
  • Author’s Re-Issue ISBN (Ebook)
  • Author’s Re-Issue ISBN (Print)
  • Word Count
  • Word Count (w/ Back Material)
  • Page Count
  • Subtitle
  • Tag Line
  • Lead-in Line
  • Cover Copy
  • Series Summary
  • Mock Keywords (Series)
  • Mock Keywords (Book)
  • Mock Categories
  • Similar Authors
  • Similar Books
  • Smashwords Short Cover Copy (limited to 400 characters)
  • Amazon Keywords (limited to 7 keywords)
  • Nook Press Keywords (limited to 100 characters)
  • Smashwords Keywords
  • CreateSpace Keywords
  • Amazon Categories
  • iBooks Categories
  • Kobo Categories
  • Nook Press Categories
  • Smashwords Category
  • CreateSpace Category
  • Author Bio
  • BIC Codes
  • BISAC Codes
  • Review 1 Text
  • Review 1 Author
  • Review 1 Publication
  • Review 2 Text
  • Review 2 Author
  • Review 2 Publication
  • Review 3 Text
  • Review 3 Author
  • Review 3 Publication
  • Amazon URL
  • iBooks URL
  • Indiebound URL
  • Kobo URL
  • Nook Press URL
  • Smashwords URL
  • CreateSpace URL