By Andrew Wilkins
“I hate the word metadata: whenever I mention it, people’s eyes glaze over immediately,” said Fran Toolan of Firebrand Technologies at Thursday’s Metadata Perspectives 2011 conference at the Frankfurt Book Fair. (For metadata, read: the information about a book, such as its title, author, price, availability and so on.) While this might seem like a trivial thing to say, Toolan argued that this failure to engage with the topic was indicative of the continued ‘print mentality’ in publishing that was seriously hindering the switch to digital.
He asked delegates to consider the effort made to ensure the quality of a sales catalog or a book before it was allowed to leave a publishing house compared to the amount of time spent checking ONIX files. Printed materials are checked many times by many people while data rarely gets a once over.
“Managing data needs to be a strategic priority,” he asserted. “Our readers have changed overnight, so why can’t we?”
Good data isn’t just nice to have—these days, there can be serious commercial consequences if your book information isn’t correct. Peter Mathews, Publishing & Editorial Manager at book data provider Nielsen Book, for instance, noted that those titles in Nielsen’s top-selling 85,000 with complete data records sold 70% more copies on average than those with incomplete metadata.
“Missing or bad records provide an unreliable basis for trading,” he said, pointing out they led to slow or incomplete proliferation of information across the supply chain, poor buying decisions and consequently more returns and refunds.
Poor book information could also drastically reduce a publisher website’s ranking on Google’s search engine, according to Michael Bhaskar, Digital Publishing Director at the UK’s Profile Books. Following the radical changes made to Google’s page ranking algorithm earlier this year, Search Engine Optimization (SEO), the dark science of making your website rank highly on Google, was now more about rewarding useful and appealing websites with good data:
“We should all get a bit more comfortable about SEO—it’s all about metadata. Go for descriptions and metadata that accurately reflect the book, not what will boost its sales. Good copy is the best metadata,” he told delegates.
Poor data was effectively the sign that a company was disfunctional, contended Fran Toolan. He asked delegates to consider how many different places information such as a book’s publication date or ISBN was stored in their company’s various systems. A single title management system would ensure there was a “single source of truth” for all of a company’s data.
He challenged the audience to try producing a catalog or promotional brochure directly from a title management system within two months of the meeting, and document current workflows.
“It’s all about workflow. Understanding who does what and when is probably the most important thing you can do.”
While metadata as a term may be a bit of a turn-off (can’t we just choose another more sexy term?), higher ranking websites, stronger sales and lower returns are the ultimate rewards for the publisher who gets their data right.
And then there are all the opportunities and efficiencies that flow from being able to supply reliable data to highly automated systems. To paraphrase consultant Ingrid Goldstein of Knowledge Architectures, the limits to your data are the limits to your future business opportunities.