Publishers are struggling with metadata; enter BookEngine

Publishers are struggling with metadata; enter BookEngine

New research released this week shows that metadata is a high priority for publishers - but also that they're struggling to get it right. Enter BookEngine... 

The pitch

BookEngine is a title manipulation and distribution software. It takes metadata from a publisher’s title database and pushes it to all their own websites, Facebook, Shopify and beyond.

"BookEngine supercharges your catalogue data," explains Andy Bell, Director of New Ventures at Mint Digital, the digital prodcut development agency behind the software. "Typically publishers have a batch of imprint, author and topic sites, and perhaps also Facebook pages and Shopify stores. It’s time-consuming to keep them up to date. BookEngine makes that easy. It allows the publisher to get their title information to all the different places that the book buying public might be browsing."

The team

Based in London and New York, Mint Digital started in multiplatform TV, with projects for Channel 4 including Osama Loves, Islandoo and Sexperience. The team then began to specialise in personalisation, founding Sticky9 (personalised magnets) and Boomf (personalised marshmallows). 

Over the last five years, the thirteen-strong team has completed a series of projects in publishing, "building modern web systems that are a joy to use". Recent clients include Scholastic, Agatha Cristie, Open Road, Random House, Workman and Pearson. 

What's the gap in the market?

This week saw the release of a report from the Copyright Clearance Centre showing that, across publishing, metadata ranks joint lowest for ‘current capabilities’ and highest for ‘importance to business’.

© Copyright Clearance Centre

"From what we see, there is great scope to improve information management at publishers," Bell explains. "Better data systems can make publishers more efficient and effective. It is well known that the publishing industry is often burdened by old technology in a world of tight budgets. BookEngine makes the old new again and breathes life into existing investments." 

BookEngine began as a way of linking an ONIX feed to a Shopify store. But as Bell's team spoke to more imprints, they kept being asked to reimplement the system in different situations. Over the last year, they realised that BookEngine could become a more generally useful metadata manipulation system. "There seems to be a blind spot with metadata when it is applied internally at a publisher," Bell says. "The existing systems might score B+ at getting data to Amazon, Nielsen, Ingram etc but D- at getting it elsewhere, for example the publisher’s own websites, Facebook or Shopify. "  

Success so far?

It's early days for BookEngine, but they team is building the software in tandem with the demands of their clients, so they're confident they're answering real needs every step of the way.

"Our initial BookEngine client keeps asking us to further develop and extend the software," Bell reports. "That’s what got us excited initially. It showed we had built something that really meets a need. We’ve just started showing it to other publishers. Everyone we have shown it to has given us positive feedback, and we’ve had lots of comments along the lines of: ‘this totally solves a problem we are struggling with’."

Last week's London Book Fair also gave the team a valuable opportunity to extend their conversations and get further feedback. "As a newbie to a big industry conference, it is natural to feel nervous but everyone we spoke to was friendly and interested. Book people are nice people!" Bell laughs. "We were delighted that when we talked about BookEngine, people got it. It is rather abstract, but when we described the problem it solved, every meeting led to nodding heads and murmurs of ‘yes, we know that pain’. So we came away from London Book Fair pretty excited - it confirmed our hopes that BookEngine might be broadly useful across the industry."

A BookEngine sample dashboard

Biggest challenges?

The BookEngine team has found the unpredictability of publishers and their catalogues hard to fit into a single, user-friendly piece of software. "The biggest challenge building BookEngine is that metadata manipulation seems like a straightforward task, but the publishing industry has unique vibrancy, creativity and quirkiness," Bell admits. "This throws up all manner of surprising edge cases. It’s been a lot of work over to build a system that is coherent, clean and flexible.. And that can handle whatever gets thrown at it.  

"Secondly, we were worried BookEngine would be hard to explain. Thankfully as soon as people trial it, they get it. Everyone feels the pain of inflexible metadata and is delighted to see a solution. 

"Finally, we are just getting started on the challenge of locating the right people to talk to in the industry. If you work at  publisher and handle metadata and title management, we’d love to talk!"

Ultimate ambition?

Bell and his team feel passionately about helping the publishing world to get a grip on the next generation of tech.

"Much book publishing software is staggeringly antiquated," he says. "Many the systems are based on paradigms from a couple of decades ago. Consumer software has progressed so much in the last 10 years and business software lags behind.  We want to help publishes by giving them modern, flexible tools to use. There are enough challenges in publishing today without having to battle with outdated systems. Our ambition is to create software that makes the world a little bit more joyful (or, at least, a little less irksome). If BookEngine achieves that, we’ll be happy."

The BookEngine team

Advice to other publishing entrepreneurs?

"Pick an area you know and get started! Don’t be afraid to ask for help. When I started out as an entrepreneur, I feared it would be a lonely furrow but so many people along the way have been amazingly generous with their time and expertise Also, find a technology angle! Books are data and so particularly amenable to software-driven process improvements. But the industry lags in terms of software adoption."