Metadata for Self-Publishers, Part 1

by | Jun 21, 2011

Metadata—even the word sounds hard to understand. meta comes from the Greek, and means “above” or “enclosing” Metadata is simply data about data.

In other words, metadata is information about your data. You can think of data as being an electronic document, file, music file, book or any other form content presented in electronic format. Metadata is meant to summarize the key characteristics of the underlying work—in our case, our books—for the purpose of making the work itself discoverable to electronic searches.

An Example

Think about it for a moment. Suppose you want to know how to train your dog. You’d like a book that describes the step by step actions you can take to teach your dog to stop barking every time he hears a little sound in the bushes. You punch up Google and look for a moment at the search bar. What are you going to type in?

This is the moment you need to understand when it comes to the book you’re trying to market online. There’s simply nothing as important as understanding what’s going through the mind of your potential book buyer when they are thinking of how to search for the information they need.

Let’s say there’s a really good dog training book that would answer this searcher’s question. Suppose the author has titled the book “Getting Along With Man’s Best Friend.” Notice that the words “dog” and “training” don’t appear in the title. How would Google or any other search engine know that this book could possibly be a great find for the searcher?

The answer is: Metadata.

Filling In All the Blanks

When this book was published the author (or publisher) had an opportunity to enter metadata about the book. The principle place this is done is in the Bowker information file about the book. Usually self-publishers fill this out when they buy their ISBNs and then forget about it.

That’s a mistake. This seemingly inoccuous-looking form that appears to be just a nuisance to get through as fast as possible is actually a key to how well your book will sell. Why?


If you fail to fill in all the fields, or use the many types of metadata available, your book will be harder to find. The information you’re providing is the same information that will come up in Google’s search. If the description of this book, for instance, says:

An easy to use, step by step guide to training your dog for behavior problems including barking, biting and sitting.

It’s quite likely that the book will be included somewhere in Google’s results. Without this information, how would the search engine know that this book is a perfect fit for the searcher? It’s your responsibility as publisher to make sure the metadata for your book is as accurate and complete as possible.

Back to the blank line

Try to put yourself in the place of the guy sitting there listening to the dog barking out back, and looking for a solution. What are some ways we could construct a query that might be similar to what the searcher will come up with?

You’ll quickly find that the most important part of figuring this out is keywords. One reason this is so is because we can’t actually guess how the searcher will frame his question. But we can have a pretty good idea of some of the words she will use in that question:

  • dog
  • bark
  • training

Just with this much we can start to do some research on keyword phrases or long-tail keywords (3 or more words used together as a keyword). Knowing the keywords that are associated with your book is essential to marketing your book online.

In the next part of this series, I’ll look at the way this metadata is stored and exactly where you can go to make sure you’ve got the strongest, brawniest, most focused metadata you can for your book.

Photo by Gideon Burton

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. karen

    Joel, first – I must thank you for this treasure of info on metadata, keywords & discoverability. After searching this topic over several weeks I say there is NOTHING that matches what is on your blog in scope or clarity. Thank you. Either here or on one of your other posts on this topic the short & long descriptions are mentioned – I think for the Bowker forms(?). I’m about to publish several children’s books and would love to see examples of those longer descriptions. The short ones – at Amazon – titled “Book Description” are easy to find – but where could I see examples of the longer descriptions? Again, many thanks!

  2. Jessica Adams

    This is the first time I have understood what Metadata is and how to use it. Thankyou so much.

  3. Gordon Burgett

    Great idea. Looking forward to the series.

    You’re right. I’ve considered the ISBN fill-in chart a huge (ignored) pain. Duh. Eager to see what else I’m ignoring!

  4. Aggie Villanueva

    Joel, I’ve learned much already. I didn’t know how important it is to add those keywords in my Bowker ISBNs. I’ve noticed in my account at they also have a place for you to upload the actual ebook. Is that important? I’ve never done that.

    They also have a place to: “Upload Data-mining File in Onix or CSV format”

    That’s Greek to me. Is this what you’re talking about in adding the keywords and longtailed keywords?

    Thankx again for this vital info. I’ve posted this link to all my followers.
    Aggie Villanueva

  5. Sarah

    Joel, I’m learning about creating eBooks. I know how to program in HTML so I’m going with that route in creating the files for a Kindle version, and I’m wondering if the initial HTML file for the eBook should also have metadata tags in it? I can see the benefit, but I don’t yet know enough about how Kindle libraries and sales work to know if they would use metadata.


  6. Judy Croome

    Joel, I’ll be following this series closely as I know next to nothing about making the best use of metadata.
    Judy, South Africa

    • Joel Friedlander

      Stay tuned, there are specific recommendations coming in Part 2, and thanks for reading.

      • adan lerma

        joel, can you send me the link for part 2?

        i searched your site for metadata and couldn’t find it

        thanks so much, i appreciate it




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