Metadata for Books: What Every Publisher Should Know to Increase the Discoverability of their Catalogue


With roughly 2,200,000 new books published in 2017 alone, it’s easy for your catalogue to get lost in the shuffle and not rank high in online searches. This is why it’s important that publishers enter your metadata according to universal standards. In this article we break down the 10 best practices every publisher should know to compile the perfect book metadata to increase discoverability and sell more books.


In a recently published article we discussed why descriptive metadata is an essential companion to every book, and why it is important that publishers take the time to compile this data as accurately as possible in order to increase their sales.

As we previously explained, publishers standardize book metadata by using the ONIX publishing language. It’s a standard format developed by EDItEUR, and looks something like this. Publishers compile their metadata, which is then utilized and managed by worldwide wholesalers and retailers.

By following the below 10 best practices when filling the form out, you will be giving your book its best chance at turning up in search engines and retailer catalogues. The better your book is referenced on the web, the higher the chances that it will appear when people are looking for it or for similar books.

We've also put together a handy checklist to help publishers to compile the perfect book metadata. Download your copy here.

1. Fill in the correct field with the correct data

As intuitive as it might sound, this is an important rule. Fail to put the information in its right field and your data becomes irrelevant. Lumping data into the same field for the sake of time or any other reason is counterproductive as it will mix up that specific field and leave your other fields empty.

For example, some publishers might copy both the book title and author name into the title field. The resulting form will reference a book that does not exist : The Great Gatsby F. Scott Fizgerald, and that has no author.

2. Fill out every single field and fill it well

Your book data should not only be complete, but also accurate.

Even if every single field in your metadata is filled out correctly, your book still competes with editions of publishers who have similar or better metadata. Neglected fields affect your discoverability and as a result your sales. The real effort should be spent into making sure the data is specific and accurate.

For example, the title field should include the complete name of a book as it appears on the title page. The book title is typically made up of three parts in the metadata: the prefix, the title, and the subtitle. Unless there’s a separate field for the subtitle, include it in your title field. In this case, “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens should actually have the subtitle: “A Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story of Christmas”. If a separate field exists, “A Christmas Carol” goes in the title and “A Ghost Story for Christmas” goes in the subtitle.

Don’t neglect your subtitle: it helps differentiate your book from similar publications and adaptations.

If your book is part of a larger series, set, or collection, like ‘A Game of Thrones’, it would also be useful to include the series’ name in the field as well. In this case the title field should be: A Song of Ice and Fire, A Game of Thrones.

3. Use a unique ISBN for every edition of a book

A book’s ISBN or International Standard Book Number, is the unique identification number assigned to a book. The keyword here is ‘unique’. ISBNs are issued by country specific registration agencies (for example the USA has and refers to a book’s language group, publisher, title and edition. This means that same book printed by two different publishers will have two different ISBNs

For this reason, you should never reuse an ISBN for another printed edition of a book (i.e. paperback or hardcover). In a series, every book has its own ISBN, and if they’re being sold together, the series pack will have a different ISBN. If you’re inputting the metadata for the Lord of the Rings trilogy, you will need 4 ISBNS: one for each book, and one for the series pack.

4. Give information about the author

The first thing you should remember is to respect the author’s wishes about how they want to be addressed. If the author uses initials or a pseudonym, write down their names the way they wrote it. For example, The Catcher in The Rye's author is “J. D. Salinger,” and not “Jerome David Salinger”.

The author’s nom de plume as it appears on the book takes precedence over the author’s actual name, because it will probably be linked to other titles and other relevant content. So use J. K. Rowling’s chosen pseudonym Robert Galbraith for the metadata of The Cuckoo’s Calling.

The name alone is not always enough, but you should not include other information in that field. If a separate field exists for “Author Info”, that's where you can include your author’s real name. It’s recommended that you also include important dates pertaining to the author's life: their birthday, death day, and other highlights. You can also include elements of their biography, like important places, their personal website, awards they've won, prior works, and important affiliations to schools and associations. Include keywords that people would think about when searching for the author. Alan Ginsberg was a "beat poet", and Joan Didion won “the National Medal of Arts”. These are details that readers are likely to mention in their search queries.

If a book has co-authors or is a collaboration, make sure to add the names of all contributors. Illustrators are mentioned in their own separate field, because in certain books, such as children’s books or comic books, the illustrator is as important as the author. The same goes for translators and editors.

5. Identify the book by its cover: Always include an image

The book’s cover image is still one of the most determining factors in choosing a book. Overused proverb or not, readers still very much judge books by their covers, especially in search engines. A good cover image makes all the difference. It should not have borders nor a frame. It should not have drop shadows, and it should not be a 3D image of the book. Make sure it is a 2D front view image, and that it is shortest side is at least 1600 pixels. Try not to have an image that’s scanned or photographed: the best quality image is obtained by export from the design file.

The name you give to your png or jpeg file should be the ISBN of the book. Make sure the photo is sharp and not pixelated. The text on the picture should be legible and clear, no matter how small the size of the image.

The cover image is one of the most important pieces of data that you can give your retailer, and perfecting can go a long way in increasing your book sales.

6. Be Specific with your genre categories

A story can belong to different genres that are not mutually exclusive. Dostoevsky’s Crime And Punishment is in the period genre of ‘victorian literature’, but also belongs to the thematic genres of ‘crime novel’ and ‘philosophical fiction’. It is also a ‘novel’, not a ‘short story’.

Your best option is to choose the most specific genre for your book. ‘Novel’ might not be the best idea, because it’s too general and therefore makes it more difficult for the book to find its audience. Drill down to more specific categories.

Book genres are classified according to different categorization conventions. The most traditional is the famous Dewey Decimal System that libraries have been following since 1876. More recently, THEMA compiles another standard of categorization that distributors and retailers use to classify their books, and it has quickly risen in popularity to compete with its historical alternative.
Other localized classification schemes include the United States’s BISAC, the United Kingdom’s BIC, France’s CLIL.

In every classification convention, each genre category is assigned a universal code that you include in your metadata. 'Adventure fiction', for example, is ‘FJ’ in THEMA. You can find the full THEMA list on the EDiTEUR website. Make sure to include the codes in your metadata instead of the full genre name.

In your metadata form, you might have a field for more than one classification scheme: One for the Dewey Decimal System, one for THEMA, one for BISAC, and so on. Choose only one code per scheme. If the form allows it, it is recommended that you document up to 5 different classification scheme codes in order to give your book a more universal reach.

7. Make your book description short and attractive

Begin your description with an elevator pitch of your book: short, sharp and to the point.
It’s a great way to get your reader interested.

You should describe the book in the most straightforward way possible, using no more than 350 characters. This is your book’s meta-description and will show up under your book title when it appears in search engines. The book description not only helps your potential readers find your book, but also understand what it’s about. Include information about the book’s topic, it’s themes, and the different issues it raises. Give your readers a taste, get them interested.

A good description with the right keywords will add a lot of value to your book, and rank it up on search engine results.

Some forms have fields for excerpts and reviews. It’s always a good idea to include a short excerpt that showcases the style and tone of the book. A review quote from a renowned critic also goes a long way in sealing the deal. Don’t forget to credit the source!

8. Help people find you: use the right keywords that readers will search for

In all the fields listed above, make sure to mention certain specific keywords that help users find you in their searches. Put yourself in your reader’s shoes: your reader is a young college student who’s looking for the book Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn. However, maybe your student doesn’t know she’s looking for Gone Girl. Rather than typing the book title into her search engine, she might type in: 'Crime novel involving women', 'wife who disappears', 'books that became acclaimed movies' or 'book by feminist author'. Since your book matches all of these queries, it should turn up when our crime-fiction enthusiast looks for them online. The way to do this is to pepper your metadata whenever possible (description, category, author) with the keywords: 'crime', 'novel, 'women', 'wife disappears', 'movies', and 'feminist'.

Using the right keywords will make sure your customer finds your content, and your solid book description will seal the deal.

And here’s a good tip to find keywords: pretend you are searching for your book online. Type in potential search terms into google’s search bar and let the auto-complete suggestions show you what people are thinking about when they think of your book. Make sure you target the primary audience for your book. If it’s a chemistry college textbook, mention the keywords 'chemistry' 'college' and “textbook'. This will limit room for confusion, especially when it comes to defining your target age group.

9. Include practical information for retailers

Most of the previous points touched upon presenting the book’s content and making it attractive. However, a book is also a product that needs to get sold, shipped, delivered, and in some cases, returned. As a publisher, you’d be making retailers' job easier, and therefore presenting them a much more favorable offer. This includes filling out accurate and practical information about your book: rights, physical specifications, supply details and prices. Each of these items has its own field that you need to fill out separately.

  • Mention your book’s territorial rights. Specify the location in which you have the rights to sell the book, and whether those rights are exclusive or non-exclusive. Just because you have the rights to sell a book in one territory, does not mean you have the same right in another. In this case, the metadata allows you to protect yourself.
  • Physical specifications are also important to mention. Specs include the cover type (paperback or hardcover), the book’s dimensions, its weight and page count. This information obviously helps retailers sell and ship the book, and also informs them how much space the book will take up on their shelves. Even when you’re selling directly to the customer online, it’s useful to help them visualize the size of the book before buying it.
  • Finally, always mention pricing information: price, return policy and availability, as well as information about the publisher are default fields in metadata forms. Mention your name, imprint, and the person to get in touch with to order more copies of the book. This is also a powerful way to claim ownership over the book, and showcase your professionalism to the rest of the industry.

10. Proofread, proofread, proofread

Proofreading: The golden rule of all great work. Look at all of your book's information carefully before you send it out. It’s twice as important in compiling metadata, because the smallest error can miscategorize your book.

However, proofreading doesn’t stop once the metadata is sent out. A good publisher should constantly monitor, verify and update their books’ info. It’s not a big investment in terms of time, and has great benefits in ensuring the accuracy of the data you’ve provided, maintaining your publishing house’s reputation, and increasing your sales.

As a publisher you are the only one in control of your book’s referencing. By following these best practices, you take control over your metadata and make sure you’re up to par with the standards and quality that the market demands.

Some of these practices differ from country to country. For example, in France, all publishers upload their metadata to Dilicom which acts as a professional intermediary between suppliers, distributors and publishers. Dilicom indicates the value of a book in real time, and its availability. It’s useful in this case to research the metadata conventions of your country before getting to work on filling the form.

Regardless of location, however, remember these two solids tips which are consistent pillar of all good metadata: be specific and be accurate. Target specific audiences, with specific genres, using tight descriptions and the right keywords. Be accurate with your data by inputting your book’s full title, the complete author name and information, along with all the corresponding pricing and ownership information. Put them in the right field, and respect the above guidelines.

Whether it’s a retailer or a customer, the person relying on your metadata has access to millions of other options. By perfecting your metadata you help them find what they’re looking for faster, and you increase your chances of selling more books.

Meta data books checklist copy
Your Free Book Metadata Checklist
A Checklist to Help You Compile your Book Metadata Perfectly and Sell More Books
February 2018
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Franck Mandon

Franck is Head of Publishing and Original Content at Bookwitty. His responsibilities include the creation of original content strategies, as well as developing services for independent publishers. Over the course of his career, he has had 20 years of experience in the digital industry.