By David Kudler
Admit it: when you read the word metadata, your eyes glaze over.
But to an indie author/publisher, metadata is probably the most important part of your book — aside from the book itself, of course.
Let’s talk about what metadata actually is, and how you can use it.
What is Metadata?
As a publisher, when you think of an online store, you’re probably thinking of the goods on sale there: the books, in all their various formats. You’re thinking of warehouses (virtual and physical), shipments (ditto), and (yay!) payments.
But actually, that’s not what an online store is — not primarily.
What a site like Amazon or BarnesandNoble.com or Apple’s iBooks Store actually is… is a search engine. Just like Google or (for the few of you who use it) Bing, an online store is a way for customers to search for and buy something. Certainly, it should be good at helping them find what they want. But what makes them even more powerful is the sites’ ability to help customers find products they didn’t even know they wanted.
What’s the most valuable real estate on the internet?
• The People who bought this also bought… line. Where people who came across a particular title may stumble across yours
• Search results. Where your book’s ideal reader may stumble across the book of their dreams.
Neither of these locations will cost you a penny, eurocent, or fraction of a bitcoin. But in order for your title to show up there, you need to put information into your book’s listing that will allow your title to show up! The search engine can’t guess that your book suits the reader’s taste; you have to give it enough to go on.
What you give it is metadata.
Metadata is all of the information that you add to a listing when you’re uploading a book to a store or distributor — the fields that the search engine searches that help it provide the customer with the goods they’re most likely to want to buy.
Go to any online store. Search for a book — yours, a bestselling author’s, whoever’s. Click on that title and look at the book. Everything you see (and a bunch of things you don’t)? That’s metadata.
The more fully you’ve filled in that metadata, the more ways there will be for potential readers to find your book. The better chosen the metadata, the more likely those potential readers are to buy your book.
Different stores make different chunks of metadata visible to the buyer. But here are the most important pieces of metadata that every store uses:
- Cover art
- Author name(s)
- Other collaborator name(s)/roll(s)
- Identifier (eg, ISBN)
There are more, but those are the ones we’ll start with.
Digging in — How to Use Metadata
Metadata gives us the opportunity to craft the way potential readers find and experience our books. Just as your eyes glazed over the moment I used the word metadata at the top of this post, I’d be willing to bet that you’ve rushed through the process of assembling this all-important information as you were preparing your book for release.
No! Don’t do it!
Just as you’d do your best to present yourself if you were headed out on a job interview (or date), you need to make sure that you’ve polished your book’s appearance to potential readers.
Remember: unlike browsers in brick-and-mortar bookstores, customers in online stores can’t riffle through your book’s pages — or if they can (through a “Read Inside” feature), it will be only after they’ve already found and clicked on your book! You have to grab their interest fast.
When a reader spots your book in a line or a list of other books, you’ve got very few elements with which to hook them. The first four are the most important:
Okay. So it may surprise you that the first and most important piece of metadata isn’t words or numbers, but rather a picture: your cover.
It may be that you can’t tell a book by its cover — but people do it every day. Having a strong cover that clearly communicates your book’s genre, tone, themes, etc., is probably the single most powerful thing you can do to connect to your readers.
Don’t shortchange the cover design process! 
Make sure that you’ve looked at the cover at a variety of sizes — from full-screen to thumbnail — to make sure that it does its job. There’s nothing more disappointing than having a gorgeous 6”x9” cover… that turns to mud at 1”x1.5”.
This is one of the only pieces of metadata that can’t actually be searched on — but it will make your book stand out in a list of search results. So look at your cover next to those of others from the same genre. Make sure that it stands out — but that it also fits in, if that makes sense. Using bright, primary colors on your edgy dystopian thriller might not be the best design choice.
This is probably the most important piece of metadata — and the one you’ve probably thought the most about. The perfect title (like Aristotle’s perfect ending) should be inevitable but unexpected. Make sure that your title communicates genre and tone, just as your cover does.
Believe it or not, this is the first field Amazon looks in when you do a search. So do think about your title.
But don’t try to cram too much into the title. That’s what the subtitle’s for.
The subtitle is the perfect place for search terms (aka keywords — see below). If your book’s non-fiction, be sure that you’ve thought through just what problem you’re solving for your reader — and make that explicit in the subtitle.
If you’ve written fiction, this is the perfect place to make your (sub)genre very clear. If your novel is called The Secret Bride, giving it the subtitle A Sweet Regency Romance will connect it to a very different set of readers than Alpha Male Bondage Erotica. You don’t want to confuse your readers — make the genre clear. Call your murder mystery Blood on the Tracks: A Jenny James Murder Mystery. A book I published recently was Timepiece: A Steampunk Time-Travel Adventure. Not only is each of those words searchable, but their presence in the subtitle lets the reader know exactly what they’re going to get in your book.
Many stores (including Amazon) have a separate field for the series title and number. If there isn’t, include the series as part of the subtitle — as I did for the murder mystery above. Include those if you have any plans to turn your title into a series — even if you’re only on book #1. That lets the reader know there’s more to come. It’s a promise, but it’s also a way of keeping them from getting annoyed with you if there’s a cliffhanger at the end of the book!
Don’t over-cram your subtitle however – it’s ugly. And some retailers require that the subtitle in your listing is identical to the subtitle on the title page.
Still, consider this an opportunity to wave your flag!
This is an obvious one. If you’re considering using a penname, make sure that you’re doing so for a reason. Remember that this is the second most important search field — and so each title under a particular author name is giving potential reader one more way to find not only a single title, but all of your titles. Unless there’s a strong reason not to use the same author name across all of your work, I suggest you do.
Mind, if you’re a teacher who writes erotica or a lawyer who writes mysteries, you may want to separate those out. 
Other collaborator name(s)/roll(s)
This may not be so obvious. Is there a good reason to include your editor, your cover designer, your illustrator, your foreword author, etc?
Yes, there is.
Remember, every piece of metadata represents one more way for a potential reader to find your work. So including the name of everyone who helped create your book is not only a polite way to acknowledge their contributions, but also another pathway to your book. You never know when someone’s going to click on the author link of one of these people; wouldn’t you rather your book showed up when they did?
This is the biggy — literally. Amazon allows up to 4000 characters in the description field. It’s where you get a chance to tell your reader why they have to read your book. Don’t waste the space!
Too many publishers — and not just small ones — do nothing more than put two or three sentences describing the book in general terms — back-jacket copy, basically. But this is one of the most important search fields — and the one that allows the most flexibility.
First of all, if the retailer allows any formatting (HTML or WYSIWYG), use it! Adding a header (using <h1> or boldface) with a strong hook at the top of your description is a great way to grab your potential reader’s attention.
Consider using snippets from great reviews (yes, these can appear elsewhere — but why not have them appear in your book’s description). If your book has won awards, mention it! If it’s part of a series, feel free to list all of the titles. Perhaps, if you’ve got the room, you can include a short, enticing extract. (After all, not everyone bothers with the “Look Inside” feature — and it’s not searchable.)
And I often drop my categories and keywords in at the bottom, set off by parentheses.
Here’s the thing: don’t let all of that potential searchable space go to waste! There are enough exciting things about your book to drop in here — fill’er up.
Identifier (eg, ISBN)
This is very important for the store: it’s what identifies a particular edition/format of a book from any other. For print books, this is the ISBN. Most online retailers no longer require an ISBN for ebooks — but they’re not bad to have. Having a single ISBN makes it clear to someone searching across multiple retailer sites (using, say, Google or Bing) that the ebook version of your title on Kobo is the same book as the one on Apple. 
And you should always have your own — not someone else’s.
Generally this is a fairly straightforward issue; either ebook, paperback, or hardcover. The particular retailer/distributor may ask you to be more specific. Be as specific as you can — it gives the buyer one more way to distinguish your book.
Again, this is fairly straightforward. You may have to enter the book’s physical dimension, its page number, or its size — or the store may take care of that for you.
If it’s an ebook and you’re being asked for a page count, put the number of print pages, if you know it. Otherwise, leave blank or estimate. Just don’t bother padding. Saying your 27-page short story is a 300-page novel won’t win you any fans.
Now we’re getting into what most of us think of when we think of as metadata.
Every other piece of information we’ve been discussing has other purposes than aiding customers to find your book. Categories and keywords serve no other purpose.
Categories are (more or less) industry-standard groupings. Think of them as like the Dewey Decimal or Library of Congress shelving system that libraries use. You know how, when you walk into a bookstore, there are different sections — fiction, non-fiction, children’s books, teen books? And within each of those sections there are subsections, and specific shelves, down to the very specific (“teen paranormal historical romance”)? Those are categories.
An industry group called BISG meets every couple of years to come up with a system for cataloging books — the BISAC codes. These codes are used by booksellers, distributors, and publishers to make it easy for bookstore staff to place newly a arrived book in the right place: the book’s category. This makes it easy for customers to browse.
You know the string of words often printed on the top of the back cover of a print book? That’s usually its category.
An online store like Amazon uses categories as well to make it easy for its customers to browse. On many stores, the categories show up as accordioned lists down the left-hand side of the screen or dropdown lists from the top. Often, the link will show the number of titles that fall under the category.
The idea when choosing your category or categories for your book is to find the classification that best suits your book that has the least competition.
If you go to Amazon’s Book section and click on the Fiction>Romance category, you’ll see that there are millions of titles in the category. So while that large category may fit your title, you should probably get more specific.
Fiction>Romance>Historical>Regency, for example?
Now, Amazon’s categories don’t correspond with the BISAC codes exactly. Heck, they don’t even correspond precisely with the categories that you list in the category fields on KDP and CreateSpace. Still, those codes give Amazon a nudge in the right direction.
One other thing to consider: you may have more than one format for your book. Don’t unthinkingly apply the same category to all of them! Remember, each category is a different way for a reader to stumble across your book. Having multiple roads makes more sense.
Now, that doesn’t mean to pick your categories at random! But since you may have several categories that fit, remember that it’s okay to choose more than one.
Remember the book I mentioned above — Timepiece: A Steampunk Time-Travel Adventure? I have different formats categorized as:
Fiction>Science Fiction>Time Travel
If I wanted to, I could probably come up with a few more.
Remember that metadata is not permanent. Try categories. See which fit best, and which produce the best sales.
Now we come to the most important and most confusing piece of metadata — keywords.
If categories are industry-standard subjects, keywords are the opposite: the ephemeral search terms you think customers who want your book are most likely to use.
The name keyword is a bit of a misnomer. A keyword is a search term — made up of one word or many. KDP, Createspace, and a number of other retailers allow you to enter between four and seven keywords. The idea is to enter phrases that you think that someone who wants your book is likely to use.
Using one-word keywords is probably a terrible idea. If I enter the word “murder” into the search bar on Amazon’s Book section, I get over 160,000 hits. What’s the likelihood that my murder mystery is going to appear on the first screen (since no one ever goes to the second)? Not high.
Getting too specific probably isn’t a good idea either. “Murder mystery featuring cat detectives” comes up with just two titles, so you’re guaranteed to be on the first page — but how likely is someone going to enter that search term? Not very.
We’re looking for the sweet spot.
When in doubt, use Amazon’s search auto-entry to guide you. Start typing in something — “cat detective” say — and you’ll see that the keywords cat detectives and cat detective books both show up.
What you’re looking for is keywords that are popular but don’t have too much competition. How do you find those? I experiment. A lot.
I generally look for a two- to five-word search phrase that shows up in auto-entry (meaning that people have actually used it to search). I try to find a phrase that yields between 100 and 1000 hits. Too few, and no one will search for it. Too many, and I’ll never get on the first page. I then look through the titles on the first page to see how highly ranked most of the titles are and how many reviews they have. If all of the titles are ranked under 10,000 (meaning they’re selling lots of books every day), I know I’ll have a hard time breaking in. If they’re all ranked over, say, 200,000 (meaning they’re selling a copy every few days or less), I’m worried that the keyword doesn’t lead to sales.
Also, if all of the titles on that first page have hundreds of reviews and you don’t, you may be putting yourself into a position where you can’t compete. Reviews are like diners in a restaurant — no one wants to eat in a restaurant that’s empty. 
Just Keep Swimming
Metadata is changeable. Don’t ever feel as if you can set it and forget it. Keep playing with the description, the subtitle, the categories, and the keywords. See what pulls the most interest and drives the most sales. And know that sometimes, these things change. Keywords, in particular, can be volatile. One of my best-performing keywords for one series of books stopped working. Why? Because it had become popular, and so a lot of other publishers were using the same keyword, diluting its impact!
In the Bay Area this Saturday, August 12? David Kudler will be holding an ebook workshop at Bay Area Independent Publishers Association!
 Also distributors, cataloging services, libraries, and ISBN providers like Bowker.
 And, if you’re not happy with your cover, you can always come up with a new one! Come up with multiple designs and have a poll to give your readers a chance to participate in the process!
 I’ve worked with folks for whom that was true.
 And no, you don’t need a different ISBN for the Kindle version — even though it’s a different “format.” They don’t use the ISBN as a primary identification number anyway, so the ISBN serves simply to make it clear that it’s the same title available in a different store.
 This is called social proof.
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