Self-Publishing Basics: Introduction to Metadata

by | May 2, 2012

Do you remember the last time you went looking for a book at the local bookstore? Maybe it was recently, but for a lot of people it might have been some time ago. Now more than ever, book sales are moving online. Let’s face it: when you want to find information on a particular topic, or if you want to see what other novels your favorite writer has published, where do you go?

Like most everyone else, you probably do your searching online, whether you buy your books there or not. It’s much easier to open a search page and type a query into it than to get in the car and drive to the nearest bookstore or library.

This simple fact of modern life has tremendous implications for all authors and publishers, and as a self-published author you’ll need to learn the inner workings of book searches if you hope to attract the readers you’re looking for.

What’s the key to this new era of book discovery online? Metadata.

What Is Metadata?

In its simplest form, metadata is information about something else. In this case, it’s information about your book. Most of this information is pretty ordinary, but it can be extraordinarily important. The most common pieces of metadata about your book are:

  • title
  • subtitle
  • author

For instance, for my recently published book, this metadata will look like this:

  • title: A Self-Publishers Companion
  • subtitle: Practical Advice for Authors Who Want to Publish
  • author: Joel Friedlander

Okay, that’s pretty simple. What other data do we have about the book that will become part of the metadata?

  • ISBN
  • format
  • pub date

For my book, I would fill these metadata fields this way:

  • ISBN: 9780936385112
  • format: trade paper
  • pub date: March 2011

Nothing very surprising there, either. Overall, there are about 15-25 separate items of information that will eventually create a complete metadata record for your book. Let’s take a look at why metadata is worth creating and why you need to spend some time making sure your metadata is in good shape.

Metadata and Search

You’ll notice that when you upload your files to CreateSpace, to the Kindle Direct Publishing site, or to any other retailers, distributors, or wholesalers, you’ll be asked to fill out a form about your book. You’ll also be presented with these forms if you enter your book in a contest or submit it to a catalog or any number of other places.

What’s requested on all these forms? Your book’s metadata.

This is crucial, because these forms are used to create databases of information on lots of books, including yours. When web searchers start looking for a book, it’s the metadata in these databases that will be examined for books that might match the search. Can you see where this is heading?

If your metadata record is incorrect, incomplete, or inaccurate, your book will not show up in the results searchers get.

For instance, if you haven’t filled the [Author] metadata field and readers are looking for all your books, they may not find them. That doesn’t happen often because most forms require that you fill the [Author] field. But what about these fields?

  • category
  • description
  • target audience

These fields can be critical to your book’s discoverability, whether or not it shows up in searches. To make sure your book is as discoverable as possible, and that it’s found by the readers you most want to reach, you’ll need to do a little research.

Keywords and Metadata

Okay, so we know that we need complete and accurate metadata to be found by search. But how do we make sure the right people find our books?

The best way to do this is through learning to use keywords, the search terms that people typically use when hunting for books like yours.

For now, think about what people might type into a search bar to find information about you, your book or your general subject. It might be one word, but it’s more likely to be 2-, 3- or 4-word phrases. Those will be your keywords.

In my example book, people interested in self-publishing might use keywords like “how to self-publish,” “self-publishing a book,” and other similar phrases.

Putting Together Keywords and Metadata

This is the “secret sauce” that’s going to help your books rise in the search results rankings when people start to search.

Discovering your best keywords is the first step. The second is using them in your metadata. The best places to use these keywords include these metadata fields:

  • title
  • subtitle
  • category
  • description
  • target audience

Most other metadata fields won’t work for your keywords, as they are there to describe the properties of the book, like how many pages it has, what size it is, and similar information. But the above 5 fields have the capacity to make your book more visible than it might otherwise be.

Here’s my 5-step plan for getting your metadata into shape and using it to your best advantage:

  1. Figure out the keywords you most want to target.
  2. Create a metadata master file in your word processor or spreadsheet program to hold your metadata.
  3. Fill out all the fields, paying special attention to the 5 I’ve identified above. Watch out for the [description] field. It’s the most important, because you have complete control over what you enter there, and you can put all your keywords in as long as your description still reads like a human being wrote it. Sometimes this field might be called “annotation” or “what this book is about” or something else. In some cases you might be asked for a short description as well as a long one, so include both in your metadata master file.
  4. Use the metadata master file you’ve created every time you’re asked to fill out a form about your book. You want to be consistent across all of your placements with regards to your book’s metadata.
  5. Keep refining your metadata as you learn more about your market.

It might seem like a boring chore to go back and update your metadata, but I promise you it’s one of the most powerful things you can do to help your book rise above the tens of thousands of books being published every month.

Make sure your metadata is complete, accurate and informative, and you’ll give your books a better chance of being noticed by the people you most want to read them.

More on Metadata

Discoverability: Key to the e-Bookstore
Metadata for Self-Publishers, Part 1
Saturday Q & A With the Book Designer: Bowker, Books in Print and Metadata

Originally published at CreateSpace on Mar 7, 2012 as “Metadata: Why You Should Care” | Photo by john-norris

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Mike C Smith

    No matter how much you learn it’s never enough, plus things have a habit of changing over time, but one thing that hasn’t changed is Amazon using all the above mention metadata tags. After reading your article I suddenly realized that I’ve been remiss in not studying those Amazon tags for the benefit of my own members on So I got to say thank you for drawing my attention to these metadata tags.
    All the very best

    • Joel Friedlander

      Happy to help, Mike. Good luck with the site.

  2. Kathleen B. Jones

    Excellent article, Joel and I found it “in the nick of time” as I am creating the metadata for my new book now. You most certainly are the “go-to” person for any new independent author trying to understand the vagaries of the ever-changing landscape of publishing. I am going to include a reference to this and the additional articles offered by Christina in the comments in the next posting on my blog on my website. Very much appreciated!

  3. Thom Reece

    Very helpful, Joel. Thank you for posting this. Metadata is a subject of much confusion for new authors and this article simplifies things. I am re-posting this on my Facebook site and in my Book Marketing Journal online newspaper.

  4. Rinelle Grey

    Thanks Joel, another great post!

    I’m good with the author/title/subtitle bit, but the categories get more confusing. Especially since the ones you can select when you upload your book are different to the ones you can search on Amazon. I’m in a bit of a niche, writing sci-fi romance, so getting it into the right category is important!

  5. Christina

    Joel, thanks for combining the how-to information with a clear explanation of why metadata matters. It’s definitely the key to discovering content in an increasingly digitized world.

    I’ll admit that metadata can be a somewhat dry topic, and it’s certainly not critical to understand the underlying mechanisms of the metadata beast. However, I think it’s in the interest of independent publishers to stay informed on this topic. We are positioned to respond much more nimbly than traditional houses to these sorts of changes than traditional houses, and I think it’s an advantage worth exploiting.

    I can recommend two pieces on the state of metadata:
    “Pivoting on Metadata”: O’Leary describes a book metadata project out of Canada that’s mapping metadata along the book supply chain. He includes a good quote about metadata’s possibilities beyond discovery (readers finding your book). It can also be powerful for relationships (readers finding other readers based on having read your book) and organization (booksellers knowing where to “place” your book on a webpage or in a bookstore).

    “What We Talk About When We Talk About Metadata”: Dawson’s chapter in Book: A Futurist Manifesto is a fascinating history of how publishers and libraries handled metadata in the print age and how they are (and aren’t) adjusting to a new era.

    • Thom Reece

      Thank you, Christina. The additional links to Joel’s fine article are very helpful and illuminating.

  6. Denise

    Thank you, Pam, that does look handy.
    The only way I’ve thought of for deciding on categories is to manually search through every set of sub-categories in the Kindle store (I’m planning to publish the ebook edition first), but that sure is a lot of bother. I was hoping someone might have already done that and posted the hierarchy online somewhere so I could just print it off.

  7. Denise

    Is there a list online of book categories? Or a list of the categories that Amazon recognizes, or something like that? There are so many ways that I could categorize my book — and so many possible variations of each word or phrase — but if I just invent what seems to me like logical category names, and those don’t happen to be the same as what the bookseller recognizes, then those wouldn’t really help readers find my book, would they?

  8. Michael

    I’ll just go with the firm handshake – thanks for this.

    Metadata master file is one of those “of course-that makes sense” things that I don’t have (yet). Oops.

    Your stress of ongoing research/updating your metadata as you learn more is key. I think too many self-published authors think “everyone” would love to read their book – if they only knew about it. And they see focusing and targeting as excluding: “What if a person who fell out of my target range was the “Connector” (to use Malcolm Gladwell’s term in “The Tipping Point”) who was going to get me a million word-of-mouth sales??”

    That seems to me to be a “win the lottery” approach to building success.

    • Joel Friedlander


      I’ve run across the same attitude over and over again with new self-publishers. You cannot market to “everyone” and it would bankrupt you to try. But if you identify a target audience and market good content effectively, it will spread much farther, eliminating the “exluding” problem.

      BTW I’ve really enjoyed your covers, thanks for submitting them to our ebook awards, they are quite good.

      • Michael

        Thanks. I have been passing along the kudos to the artist. The cover contest is a great feature. Yet another way to see what’s out there and all the work people are doing.

  9. @SylviaHubbard1

    I wanna kiss you for this on! awesome article! and simplified!

  10. Christopher Wills

    Great stuff Joel; a good explanation of metadata.
    Metadata is how books in Amazon can be found in so many different ways when one is searching for a book (one can search by author, title, part of title, genre, published date, bestseller lists, and many other ways). I think it is one of the reasons Amazon became so powerful so quickly.
    You didn’t mention ‘tags’ which are used on Amazon book pages and also used by bloggers at the end of posts; these are both examples of metadata.
    Book tagging became slightly disreputable and I think Amazon removed tags for a while but they seem to have returned. I’d be interested if you knew any more about tagging for books and for blog posts.

    • Joel Friedlander


      I find it difficult to keep up with how often Amazon changes things since tagging was hot, then it was not, now it’s coming back . . . maybe.

      Tags in WordPress are quite different but still a form of metadata. Since I tend to think of things in terms of the way books are organized, I consider the categories on the blog to be like chapters, while the tags would perform the function of a book’s index.

      I’m not sure how much they influence SEO but they have big advantages for organizing content internally and I sometimes use the tags myself when trying to find something in the archives.



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