Publishing execs need to give metadata more attention than lip service
By Thad McIlroy | Oct 05, 2018 | Publishers Weekly
Let’s make metadata great again. Okay, perhaps that’s not the best slogan for my new campaign, but you get my drift. I want some enthusiasm, folks. Metadata for e-commerce has been sitting in the doldrums for too long now, confined to some kind of bibliographic hell, saddled with the ever-vague concept of discoverability. “Keywords” has been the cry: find the right keywords and you can rule the online universe. Is that all there is? Seven keywords and you’re off to the races?
Metadata has been vastly undervalued. I’m here to tell you that metadata is the most important part of selling books today. Bar none. Its power should change the way you market books. It can measurably increase your sales; this has been proven. Publishers have to start approaching metadata as a strategic weapon, not as the digital equivalent of an old library card catalogue.
Publishers Weekly started covering metadata 16 years ago (the first article I can find is dated 2002). “Accurate Metadata Sells Books” is the title of a PW article from 2010. Why, in late 2018, am I still trying to convince publishers that metadata sells books?
Editorial is at the heart of book publishing: if all other factors are equal, the better book will sell more copies. Of course, few of the factors are ever equal, and, in publishing, sales and marketing is mostly concerned with trying to tip the precariously balanced scales ever-so-slightly in your direction.
In a bricks-and-mortar world, the marketing process is well defined and easy to understand: take a good book, seek to influence the conversation via book reviews and the author’s presence, and, anticipating some interest, buy your way to prominent retail display, so the book is visible when the educated customer comes calling.
In the online world, publishers and authors still seek influence but, for the most part, can’t buy prominent display space. It’s a Gordian knot. A book appears most prominently on Amazon because it’s selling well despite not appearing prominently on Amazon.
We saw a vivid example of the problem earlier this year, when bad metadata appropriated the buzz of Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House and turned a 2009 book, Fire and Fury: The Allied Bombing of Germany, 1942–1945, into an overnight bestseller.
And so achieving prominence becomes a far more complex challenge than it was in an exclusively bricks-and-mortar world. Relationships are established digitally; metadata is the grease on the wheel of online connections.
Metadata is left-brained, dry, and analytical, and publishing executives are mostly right-brained, creative, and sensitive. They don’t understand how metadata really works, and they’ll settle for the 30,000-foot view. And, truth be told, from 30,000 feet, metadata does look like a library card catalogue. Up close, it looks complicated. Metadata is standards based, and right-brained people don’t like technical standards. Going deep on metadata takes you into the realm of ePub, HTML, SEO, and Onix. What publishing executive wants to go there?
The other damning thing about metadata is that the #1 reason publishers need great metadata is to compete on Amazon. And if there’s one thing that makes a publishing executive cringe more than complex technology, it’s thinking about ways to more effectively compete on Amazon. The game is brutal and complex, the rules change all the time, and self-published authors and Amazon imprints keep winning.
The unpleasant truth is that, though online book pages may appear reminiscent of the bookshop on Main Street, they are in fact located at the bookshop in the city of Amazon. The cover still matters a lot, as do the jacket copy and blurbs.
But there’s so much more that happens on Amazon. There are reader reviews—good ones and bad ones—that signal a book’s quality from a customer’s perspective, rather than from the perspective of a doting friend of the author. There’s a dynamic sales ranking. There are multiple formats on sale side-by-side. Complementary titles are found below the fold. There’s dynamic pricing. On the author’s page are videos and links to community pages on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
The big hurdle for publishers is understanding that all of this online information is based in metadata. Metadata has depth and breadth. Metadata should be verbose but accurate. Metadata should emanate outward, linking, constantly linking, to every online way station that a book buyer might visit.
Preparing this article in mid-September, I dived into the Publishers Weekly Job Zone, searching for jobs that I was certain would demand a familiarity with metadata. To my surprise, I found several ads seeking marketing managers, publicity coordinators, and the like that did not list any metadata-related skills or knowledge in their applicant requirements. If it’s true that metadata sells books, then why do none of these marketing positions require metadata knowledge?
Until management prioritizes its managers’ knowing how to compete with metadata, metadata will be a good housekeeping afterthought. Metadata is great, and the publishers who embrace its strategic value will thrive.
Thad McIlroy is an electronic publishing analyst and author, based on the West Coast and at his website, The Future of Publishing. He is a founding partner of Publishing Technology Partners.
In an open letter this month addressed to members of the Authors Guild, the organization’s vice president, the American author Richard Russo, has warned that tech companies’ operations in the content space may increasingly threaten writers’ livelihoods and recognition.
“Traditional publishers may have underpaid us,” Russo writes, “but at least to them we were poets and painters and songwriters, terms that implied both respect and ownership of what we made, at least until we’ve sold it to them.
“The tech ethos is different. To them, we’re often seen as mere hirelings. And since those who hire us are in the business of business, they have a fiduciary responsibility to their stockholders to pay us as little as they can get away with and to make certain we understand that we’re mere workers, not partners in the enterprise.”
The commentary is a follow-up to Russo’s 2013 letter to the membership. In this message, he touches on favorite points of criticism, including “the scorched-earth capitalism of companies like Google and Amazon, by spineless publishers who won’t stand up to them, by the ‘information wants to be free’ crowd who believe that art should be cheap or free and treated as a commodity, by Internet search engines who are all too happy to direct people to online sites that sell pirated (read ‘stolen’) books.”
Clearly, there are many with whom to take umbrage.
Five years later, Russo writes to an author-advocacy trade organization that has grown past the 10,000-member mark and has become the lead response group in many issues authors are encountering, from inappropriate trademark efforts to contractual conflicts with publishers.
Most recently, for example, the guild has written letters in support of the writers of Slate and Thrillist, arguing that they should be allow to unionize. There’s probably a clue to the direction the guild itself is going in representing authors in its posting about the new letters: “Few individual writers have any true bargaining power, but collective bargaining gives writers greater leverage to negotiate the terms of their employment.
“The Authors Guild supports collective bargaining for all staff writers and hopes to one day attain similar benefits for freelance journalists and authors.”
Authors Are ‘Often Seen as Mere Hirelings’
Indeed, collective bargaining—one of modern labor’s oldest strategies—may hold value for authors in the future that Russo is predicting for writers.
“The tech ethos is different. To them, we’re often seen as mere hirelings. And since those who hire us are in the business of business, they have a fiduciary responsibility to their stockholders to pay us as little as they can get away with.”Richard Russo Russo concedes that in some areas, the arrival of tech platforms as consumers of content holds opportunity or writers: “Tech Giants like Google and Facebook and Apple are all moving into the content business, which means (and what a bitter pill this must be for them to swallow!) they need us ‘content providers.’ That means more book options and, for those of us who want to make the pivot into TV and film writing, more opportunities there.” The sword, however, he writes, has two edges. “The conflict, of course, is as old as art and commerce,” he writes, “but today it’s playing out algorithmically and those algorithms have not been designed for our benefit.”
As part of his message to the membership–designed to encourage members to bring in more authors—Russo joins many in talking about a decline in recent years in author incomes, “here in the US, but also in Canada and much of Europe. … A tiny percentage can make a living through writing alone; the rest have to supplement their income by teaching or taking on other work or marrying people with more lucrative careers, strategies that have been known to lead in the end to exhaustion, writing less, and self-loathing (which many of us suffer from already).”
A Penguin Random House author, Russo doesn’t spare the trade in his criticisms: “Traditional publishing continues to consolidate and contract, and many of the largest houses are part of conglomerates that demand books yield the same profit margins as flat-screen TVs, in effect squeezing out important midlist books that were never designed to be bestsellers.
“Writers are often told that the success of their published books depends on their ability to promote themselves on social media. … Despite Guild efforts to spotlight the problem, some publishers continue to offer writers unfair contracts.”
As a summation of the current reality for authors, Russo writes, “Like our friends in the newspaper and music businesses, we’re still getting our asses kicked.”
His most pointed warning of vulnerability lies in his vision of tech content platforms absorbing huge volumes of writerly work without regard for proper protection of the author or journalist and without regard for the value of the human contribution involved.
“If we creators don’t fight, the massive transfer of wealth from the creative sector to the tech sector that we’ve been witnessing since 2013 will most certainly continue.”
Learn more about the Authors Guild here:https://www.authorsguild.org/member-services/
By Porter Anderson, for Publishing Perspective on July 3, 2018
Built on the site of Madrid’s former industrial slaughterhouse complex, today’s Casa del Lector is filled with the joyous yelps of children meeting storytellers and the reading public encountering exhibitions on reading’s past and future.
Original Idea: Reading Research
During last month’s Readmagine conference in Madrid, produced by José Manuel Anta of the International Publishing Distribution Association, participants had a chance to walk through the Casa del Lector (House of Reading) facility on a late afternoon when the facility was buzzing with family activities.
Commentary was provided by Luis González, director general with the Fundación Germán Sánchez Ruipérez, which has created Casa del Lector as a nonprofit place of experimentation and habit-building in reading. The physical complex, which adjoins the foundation’s home offices, was created as a cultural center in 1981 and designed by the architectural Ensemble Studio led by Antón Garcia-Abril in Madrid’s Matadero district—once a 48-building complex of livestock markets and slaughterhouses, which closed in 1996.
The Casa del Lector, González told Publishing Perspectives and other visitors, is a hub of activity and community programs particularly for the parents of young children interested in exposing them as early as possible to reading with a goal of building the reading habit into young minds.
“We want to see,” González said, “if these kids are going to be different from others in eight years’ time” because they were exposed to reading at an early age.
He pointed to a large room in which a storytelling program for children was underway. A section of the space had been turned into what looked like a parking lot for strollers, parents lining up the buggies as they brought their children in for the event.
At another point, a kid went sailing down a stairway bannister as the group led by González moved upstairs to look at several exhibition spaces. Making the center fun for kids as well as instructive, clearly is an element of its success.
The building has many flexible spaces that can provide larger or more constrained areas for activities.
“We designed this place for a different purpose,” González said, as he showed the group a beautiful, airy elevated crossover with study desks. “We wanted to have researchers here. We have 40,000 books on readership from our research center. But there aren’t so many researchers” into reading,” he said they discovered.
“So we transformed this place into a self-use, self-service place for the neighborhood.”
Exhibitions and Events in Reading
In addition to its emphasis on reading for children and families, there’s also a strong program in Web design and user experience going on at the Casa del Lector, with workshops and courses on readability and other elements of best practices in online presentation.
And there are exhibitions. Many parts of the colorful, rambling space are given to explorations of digital book formats, historical timelines about the development of literature, and steeply raked seating areas for programming and presentations, in warm, natural wood. A number of the displays are interactive, meant to capture visitors’ imaginations and lead them through inquiries into reading and the place of words in our lives today.
Given special recognition by Spain’s ministry of culture, the installation includes a restaurant and bar area—in what once was a leather tannery—and outdoor spaces for performances in warm weather. And everything, from the emphasis on reading to the foundation’s barrel-ceiling conference center, is connected by long, cobble-stoned walkways and promenades, creating the idea of spaciousness and cohesion.
The total area of Madrid’s Casa del Lector comprises some 8,000 square meters. Technically known as the International Center for Research, Development, and Innovation in Reading, the center was opened in late 2012 and took some seven years to create on the foundation’s plan, as Luis González explained.
He pointed at one point to Gutenberg on a glowing timeline display, and somehow, the Casa del Lector seemed not so far from our most personal understandings of what reading means to us, on that afternoon, slightly overcast, in Madrid.
And in its programmatic materials, the center’s information reads:
“In this space the meeting of the general public and the professional world is favored.
“The adult, the young person, and the child. The word, the image, the art.
“There is no cultural manifestation that, for your knowledge and enjoyment, does not require a full exercise of reading.”
Built in intriguing patterns of red brick and heavy stone, the complex is at once both welcoming and compelling: you can enjoy a stroll down its wide, main avenue, but not without being constantly aware that reading is expected of you—and of all of us.
Maybe the research mission wasn’t such a loss, after all. Some day, Madrid’s Casa del Lector may be the inspiration for deeply programmed and facilitated literary programming in “houses of reading” in other parts of the world.