What is metadata?

As more books are bought and sold online, the book publishing industry has needed to work on its selling tactics in digital storefronts, especially as search engines have become the default place readers go to find books. Searches lead to purchases. Yet, when asked to come up with keywords for this article (a major component of metadata that got you here to read these words), I find myself scratching my head and drawing a blank on what words work best. This experience has lead me to rethink the relationship we have with metadata and consider a new system of information exchange between publishers and readers.

Metadata is a concept that has been around for a long time but has become much more complicated with the invention of computers. To put it simply and without circulating definitions, metadata is the language we use to describe products (books, in our case) when we are unable to have these products at hand. Prior to computers, book people would find books through publishers’ trade lists, library card catalogs, and bookstores’ inventories. All these items are the predecessors of metadata and many still exist as vehicles of metadata.

Some details of metadata focus on describing the content of the book, much like those you would find on a library card catalog: title, subtitle, author, subject, genre, and year of publication. Other types of metadata focus on describing the physical book itself, similar to what you would find in a publishers’ trade list: height, width, weight, and number of pages.

This data is collected and sent to specific consumers. Booksellers would be more interested in the metadata describing the content of the book, while warehouses and printers would be more interested in the descriptions of the physical book.

Who creates metadata and who consumes it?

In traditional understandings of metadata relationships, there is the creator of metadata and the consumer of metadata. The creator of metadata in the publishing industry would include everyone who exists within the publishing house and the consumer would be everyone outside the publisher. You can review the graphic below to see the way in which this relationship is visualized.

Creators are the authors, agents, editors, marketers, designers, and proofreaders. They either create metadata or ensure the data is accurate. Authors and editors would be more involved in creating metadata that describes the content of the book while designers would create metadata to describe the physical book. Marketers and proofreaders are more likely to be involved with both sides of metadata.

With the addition of eBooks and audiobooks into the book market, some metadata creators focus on creating metadata that links digital files and audio files. In this case, the metadata is both describing the book and is also apart of the book’s digital form.

Metadata Creators and Consumers

What do we learn from metadata?

Metadata is an important communication and marketing tool. It allows publishers to have a kind of language exchange with the market.

A huge way in which it affects the book market is based on sales data. For example, if a publisher is dipping into the young adult (YA) market and releases a YA book on teen witches, they will review the sales data to get insight into the consumer behavior of that particular market. If the teen witches book is a success they will likely try to replicate the success by shifting their acquisitions approach to supernatural-based YA novels. By being able to clearly describe the novel through metadata, the publisher can ask the market: do you like supernatural novels about witches? To which the sales of the book will tell the publisher “yes” or “no.”

I have made a graph (that you can review below) to show the current way in which metadata is collected and analyzed by publishers. It’s a simplified version of a graph in Renée Register’s The Essential Guide to Metadata for Books. This graph can help you to understand the relationship of metadata to publishers.

While I love systems of metadata management, I find myself longing for something a bit more enriched than these simple binary communications through market sales. In my research, I have found some interesting ways in which metadata producers can create more complex communication pathways to their consumers. So, now that you have an idea of what metadata is, let me change it.

Traditional Feedback Loop

What could we learn from metadata?

Dr. Getaneh Alemu, a cataloging and metadata librarian at Solent University, explores the idea of a collaborative platform for metadata creation where the user (or reader, in our case) is a cocreator rather than a passive consumer. Although Dr. Alemu is exploring this concept in archival theory and library management, I believe it is easily applicable to the publishing industry. I created a graph (that you can view below) to show how I think this relationship would work.

Additionally, I don’t think it would take a great deal of effort from publishers to adopt this user-as-cocreator tactic for metadata creation. Many publishers have shifted their attention to social media platforms to promote reader engagement and market upcoming releases. I think this would be the next step or work currently in progress. I believe that publisher can benefit from creating a metadata system that allows for users to be cocreators; it will enrich the current metadata produced by the publisher and can give more accurate insight into readers’ needs.

Consumer as Cocreator Feedback Loop

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