Metadata Matters. A lot.
By Azar Hussain, Information Manager, Faber & Faber
“Television? The word is half Latin and half Greek. No good can come of it.”
– C P Scott Editor of the Manchester Guardian 1846-1932
I often think of Scott’s comment when I’m asked to define metadata. It has a similarly unhelpful hybrid etymology. On numerous occasions I have seen colleagues and co-workers flinch or wince (often both) when I’ve used the term. Metadata seems to be yet another one of those newfangled technical terms that have been foisted on us in the last few years causing untold distress and perplexion to many.
But it needn’t be this way. Metadata isn’t new. It’s always been around and we’ve always used it.
What’s happened in the last few years is that it has suddenly become increasingly important. But before we look at why that’s so, it’s worth clarifying what metadata actually is.
The standard definition of metadata is ‘data about data’. But I soon realised, on being confronted with a persistent series of blank looks, that this definition had scope for improvement.
I came up with ‘descriptive information’. Metadata is information that describes and qualifies your title. So things like, the title, the author, the price, the pub date, ISBN, BIC code, the territorial sales rights. The sort of things in fact, that you’d find on a title information sheet. The sort of information we’ve been collecting, storing, managing and exchanging for years. So it’s nothing new and certainly nothing to be frightened of.
But why does it matter?
Imagine walking into a bookshop and coming across a table of books.
Now imagine those books having completely blank covers. No author, no title, no price, no description, no ISBN, and of course, no jacket. How would you find anything? How would even try, short of randomly flipping through whichever book happened to be nearest to you?
This is what you’re effectively doing when you don’t communicate metadata. But it can get worse. Much worse. This is when you communicate inaccurate metadata.
This is the equivalent of having a price of £7.99 on your book only to have your customer take it to the till and find out it’s actually £12.99. Or telling your customer that a book about the Napoleonic Wars is a gripping historical novel, but it’s actually an academic account of military strategy (fiction instead of non-fiction).
Or omitting to tell them that a book about castles is actually aimed at 8 year olds instead of adults. (Sometimes, the only difference between a BIC code for adults and children is that the children’s code is prefixed by a ‘y’).
In short, metadata matters. A lot.
Metadata has always been important but its profile has been raised in recent years for a number of reasons. The most obvious ones are:
1) The Internet
Yes, that again. The proliferation of online retailers, open at all hours, and in all countries, all of which require your metadata, has made the provision of accurate metadata critical to sales.
These have brought about a massive shift in the distribution landscape (amongst other things). To date, Faber have sold ebooks to 193 countries. It’s essential we’re supplying the right information at the right time in order to maximise sales.
The sheer number of titles now available online, along with the ever increasing amount of information around generally, means it’s now more important than ever to make sure your metadata allows your titles to be found online. Full and accurate metadata is the cornerstone of discoverability.
There are other factors too, but we can see these three are all related and interdependent.
They’re part of the world we now live in, and for publishers to thrive, and indeed survive, we need to adapt and be comfortable with this new landscape. Because if you neglect your metadata, you might as well be producing your books to look like this.