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

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