Metadata: We've only scratched the surface

Five years ago, metadata was just bibliographic information about a book with some defaults in it that no one put much effort into. Today it’s more than that – it’s a tool, it can influence buyers and impact sales, it has ROI, and it gives publishers more control over their products and sales than they’ve had before. Metadata is important now. Our approach towards it and use of it has changed rapidly just within a decade. Significant strides were made over such a short period of time, and they’re not slowing. I expect we’ll see technology and solutions around metadata evolve to new levels of sophistication over the coming years.

Within the 6 years I’ve been at LibreDigital I’ve watched the industry’s mentality towards metadata transform. Where a metadata specialist was once a few-and-far-between, part-time, nice-to-have job for a publishing house, it’s now a more common role, at least one full-time position in most publishing houses, and a highly sought after person for guidance and direction. Today “metadata” is one of the biggest buzzwords in the industry.

Focus shifted from metadata being just bibliographic information about products to rules and instructions for products – rules and instructions for vendors, third parties, retailers, libraries, and maybe eventually printers. Most publishers and systems had defaults for everything besides title, ISBN, author. A decade ago metadata was akin to a manifest – here’s the stuff you’re getting, vendor. Now? Less defaults and more control for the publisher. The publisher manages what is sold, where it’s sold, and how it is to be sold.

Information moved out of spreadsheets and into ONIX, an XML format established by Editeur in 2000 and adopted by the industry as the metadata standard, and today more retailers accept ONIX than ever before. Comfort levels with the XML format and technology have grown. Frequency in which channels can accept ONIX has increased as publishers have started to make more updates, often and quickly. But the trend that started 5 years ago and continues still today is one that goes beyond mastering the technology and ONIX XML language. Despite Graham Bell’s march forward and continued progress with ONIX, the format hasn’t been fully taken advantage of. The problem is still a question of how do we do more with metadata and do it faster.

Five years ago we thought using metadata as instructions for distribution was an ingenious idea. We could use it to determine which products should be sent where based on price, format, rights, and dozens of other criteria. Now this seems to be the norm. But why did we start doing this and how did it become the modus operandi? In just a few years the number of retail opportunities grew, new devices hit the market, new formats evolved, and retailers started interpreting metadata differently or sometimes incorrectly – major market disruptions and new opportunities. To customize what’s distributed to retailers for sale and what’s not distributed to them became a necessity in order to maximize opportunity, minimize problems, and give retailers precisely and explicitly what business warranted. Supply chain management became so complex that it needed ONIX to help govern and drive it. The focus on metadata and such specificity within it became critical.

The importance of metadata is more widely understood, and reliance on metadata will continue to increase as publishers collect more data, gain more insights, and power their sales and marketing efforts. Where retailers were once relied upon for the best pricing and marketing of the book, publishers have taken more control, realizing they can influence sales using different pricing tactics to attract particular buyers at each retailer. And today publishers are exploring ways they can influence discoverability and sales based on what’s included in the metadata for subject categorization and keywords.

With such little time into this new metadata-driven world, I believe we’ve only touched the surface of what all we can do and power using metadata as a tool. There are still untapped areas of opportunity. If publishers continue to take ownership over pricing and marketing, if rights and pricing continue to change dynamically, then our abilities to efficiently manage metadata must be fluid enough to keep up with the growing complexities. More instructions via metadata, more product and price updates, and the need to do it more quickly. With advancements in natural language processing, machine learning, and SEO, how will metadata’s use and role evolve again? As publishers continue to refine production workflows and sales strategies, we will continue to invest in our tools and platforms and take advantage of the evolution of new technologies that create competition, with metadata being the centrifugal force connecting publisher, product, author, third parties, retailers, and strategy.