Employing metadata as part of a publishing process feels like a completely different world from traditional print publishing. On first glance, categories and descriptors have little connection to flowing prose.
However, that’s an ill-advised perspective. As digital publishing grows exponentially — and discovery gets harder — metadata’s role becomes even more important.
In the following interview, Laura Dawson (@ljndawson), content chief at Firebrand Technologies and a speaker at TOC 2011, explains how a focus on metadata will help publishers stay viable both now and down the road.
How can metadata help publishers future-proof their content?
It pays to go back and revisit old metadata as well. Search engines are always updating their algorithms, and consumers are constantly finding new ways to search. If you can update an older title with newer keywords, that will ensure continued relevance.
How does metadata fit into digital workflows?
Laura Dawson: Pretty much the same way it does for print workflow — you’re describing a book. You initially describe the title one way at acquisition, and you continue updating that description as you move through the publishing process. By the time the book gets to marketing, you’ll have richer descriptions, such as categories, keywords, a synopsis, and a book jacket image, that are very consumer-friendly. The only difference with digital is that you’re describing a file rather than a physical object.
Doesn’t this require an entirely different skill set? Do publishers need a completely separate digital workflow?
Laura Dawson: Ideally, publishers should not need a separate workflow for publishing ebooks. We preached about that in the “Start with XML” project. But of course, that’s not truly the case. Up until the book is ready to be published — in whatever format — the process is basically the same: acquisition, editorial, crafting the marketing messages, and figuring out special sales, if there are any. The different skill sets come into the picture when it’s time to actually publish the book, when a file goes out to the printer, and another file goes out to a conversion house.
At that point, a publisher has to run quality assurance (QA) on the conversion. And this is where things get a bit hairy. Do you do a line-by-line QA? What happens when you find a formatting error — do you go in and fix it yourself, or do you outsource fixes to the conversion house? Publishers have to weigh the cost/benefit of having certain skills in-house versus outsourcing those tasks. This is going to vary from publisher to publisher, depending on what sorts of books they’re publishing, what sort of volume they’ve got, and what their readers’ expectations are.
What is the marketing impact of metadata now, and how might that role expand in the future?
Laura Dawson: Consumers are much savvier about metadata than they used to be. They have certain expectations about what they want to see online. If a book’s metadata is obviously error-ridden or incomplete, consumers are not going to trust the description of the book, and they’ll steer away from it until they can somehow find out more — if they get around to trying to find out more. They very well may not.
Metadata is the first line of defense in the signal-to-noise ratio. Given that this ratio is only going to increase over time, there’s a huge role for metadata to play. I see a lot happening with keywords, expanded taxonomies, and identifiers over the next few years. It’s the only way we’ll be able to sort things out as publishing gets easier and, in turn, more content gets published.
Why is ongoing metadata maintenance important?
Laura Dawson: Rather than groaning about how maintaining good metadata is a chore, publishers should instead look at metadata as a series of tools. You sharpen your knives so you can cut a tomato without squashing it; you put gas, oil and wiper fluid in your car so you can get where you need to go; you protect your computer with anti-virus software so you can work without interruption. Taking care of your metadata means you can publish and sell your books with greater ease than you could with poorly-maintained metadata.
How does metadata relate to search engine optimization (SEO)? How do you see this relationship evolving?
Laura Dawson: SEO utterly relies on metadata. Publishers that describe their books explicitly and well can guide consumers to those titles.
As for the future, we need distinctive taxonomies that sort books — and chunks of books — into precise groups. Right now, all we have to work with are the BISAC categories, which have the subtlety of a sledgehammer. I know BISG wants to work on this. I’m also really interested to see how metadata evolves in response to Google Books. That will be fun to watch.