A manifesto on metadata

A manifesto on metadata

The only way to make publishing's great content discoverable, is "via rich metadata linked into smart search systems." Thad McIlroy tells us. He knows this, being the co-author, with Renée Register, of the seminal, Metadata Handbook, And those of us who are just back from the 2015 Novelists Inc. (#NINC15) conference in St. Pete Beach are listening. During the day-long First Word programme I assembled for that conference, McIlroy looked at translation demographics and the opportunities they hold for authors, and also at UK-US staggered book release dates. Here, he's focused on the topic we best know him for, metadata, and the spotty adoption of ONIX 3.0 so far among publishers. Why care about metadata? Ask McIlroy: "Metadata is not just about the book. It is the book."—Porter Anderson


'No excuses'

We’ve learned via the recent disclosures of government surveillance of our email and mobile phone calls that most people’s awareness of metadata isn’t grounded in books or publishing.

In the book publishing world there are two very separate kinds of metadata: metadata for bibliography and metadata for commerce.

  • The bibliographic usage of metadata is led by libraries. Their standards range from Dewey Decimals to MARC. This metadata is of little or no value to the commercial needs of book publishers.
  • ONIX is the standard for commerce, and it comes in two flavors, the extant 2.1, and the new and improved 3.0. ONIX is of little interest to libraries. And so, even within the tiny little world of book publishing, metadata is further fractured from the metadata of surveillance.

This manifesto considers only the commercial side of metadata for publishers, ONIX, in its two versions, 2.1 and 3.0.

Every player in the publishing food chain should be using ONIX 3.0 

No excuses.

ONIX 3.0 was first published as a standard more than six years ago. Yet in 2015 many publishers work only with ONIX 2.1 and have no plans to change.

Editeur, the keeper of the standard, lists 10 reasons why the publishing industry should be on 3.0. Read ’em and weep if you aren’t at least in the midst of migrating. Let’s be clear: you are doing your company, and, more significantly, your authors, a disservice by refusing to move.

Your books would gain more exposure and sales.

Metadata is not just about the book. It is the book.

Metadata is too often defined as “data about data,” which must be the most unuseful definition since making a stop or two was added to the definition of “direct flight.”

In book terms metadata mostly means “information about a particular book.” That’s all. Simple as that.

Advanced metadata mavens ponder this notion and eventually reach the (by then) obvious conclusion: what information could be more revealing about a book than all of the words in the book? Publishers need to find ways to expose a book’s content online so that it can be indexed by search engines (think Google Books APIs).

Metadata is moving out into the semantic web

Publishers need to understand structured data markup and schema.org's role in the future of book discoverability. Semantic enrichment of text creates another information layer on top of the existing text, creating “enriched” metadata that returns more accurate searches. Plugging semantics into Google and other leading search engines is done via the schema.org specification.

This all sounds complicated. It is.

While publishing will always be grounded in great content, the only way to make that content visible will be via rich metadata linked into smart search systems.


This is another entry in our series of "Five-Minute Manifestos" for The Future of the Book Business. In his article Those magnificent manifestos, The Bookseller editor Philip Jones revisited his call for the FutureBook community to reflect on five years of the digital dynamic, "to challenge the customs we have begun to adopt." The response has been robust, and we thank all our manifesto writers. See their articles here.

As we add more in this series, our most recently published #FutureBook15 manifestos are:

Main image - iStockphoto: Ann Mei