Metadata used to be a wallflower, hiding out at the library with the Dewey Decimal system. Now it’s at every party, flitting about gathering and sorting books on mobile devices, e-readers, and websites. Metadata is a core component of digital information and news; so good book metadata is good book marketing. It’s an essential tool for all self-publishers.

For those unaware, metadata is data about data, words about words. In the semantically driven matrix of search, all words have a value, and “key” words have more value still. These keywords must be strategically selected and then placed where they can do the most good. Creating metadata tags for your work is a marketing challenge that requires both editing skill and narrative common sense.

“As our digital landscape explodes — as web search becomes not just one way but THE way readers find what’s next on their reading lists — metadata only becomes more important,” wrote Laura Dawson of Authorweb.

It might sound daunting, but if you know who your audience is, and you can fill out a form, you can create metadata for your book. Here’s what you need to know about providing metadata for your book record on the Bowker system and for all your web activities.

Identify Your Keywords

First, we must spill into search engine optimization (SEO) territory. The typical self-published author doesn’t need to hire an SEO expert. But I spoke with expert Mark Petrakis who helped me create these steps to identifying a solid keyword list:

  1. Imagine the words and short phrases your readers might enter into a search engine to find you and your book. Begin to eliminate the less important and more generic words and phrases from your list. Try to keep the number of repeated keywords to a maximum of three. The final list should be no more than 10 to 20 words with a 900 character maximum. This constitutes your “keywords” metadata and can be used for your book metadata, for creating tags on blog posts, and in your social media activities. Most major search engines (like Google) no longer factor in the keyword metatags at all in search results, so this just makes having effective TITLE and DESCRIPTION tags all the more important. (Similarly, your file names should be descriptive.)
  2. Once you have your keyword list, edit the TITLE metatag of your web pages, to describe each page in a nutshell. Make it informative to users first and search engines second. Set a maximum of 60 characters, including spaces, and be sure to feature your top keywords.
  3. Finally, considering both your keywords and your TITLE, draft a succinct but keyword-rich DESCRIPTION of your book. Make this one informative to search engines first and users second. Keep it to a maximum of 150 characters.

Many website creation software and blog services provide you with simple forms where you can enter these various metatags, which it then inserts for you into the page’s HTML “source” code, which looks something like this:

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Metadata also includes the rather important “ALT” tags that offer short text descriptions for images. For example, the image of my book cover is tagged with: ALT=“American Borders: Read about a solo woman traveler exploring the USA on a Russian sidecar motorcycle.”

Also of great importance are the actual words on each web page and, more specifically, the words used in the opening paragraphs on the page, which need to indicate exactly what that page is about. So be sure to use “keyword-rich” sentences in those opening sections. Also, it is wise to begin each page of your website with words and not images.

Those are the basics, but people make entire careers of SEO. For a better understanding of metatagging check out Wikipedia’s entry.

Provide Metadata for Your Book on Bowker

Whomever buys your ISBN from Bowker controls the metadata for that book — so if you’re a self-published author, it should be you. Once you’ve bought it, simply go to Bowker’s identifier services page, log-in, click on your ISBN number, and fill out the data in the full title detail form as shown in the example below.

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You will have the opportunity to insert gobs of data here — title, author, description, number of pages, size, language, currency, copyright year, date of publication, contributors, category, title status (out of print, active, etc.) price, currency, and a photo of your book cover. All this information is then disseminated to distributors, wholesalers, libraries, and retailers (online as well as brick and mortar) so they can convey it to readers on mobile devices, e-readers, and on the web. Use the BISAC standard subject headings to describe your book category on your print book and also in the metadata for your book and on the web.

The ability to control and edit the metadata for your book whenever necessary is a key reason you need to buy your own ISBN direct from Bowker and to not let an author services company buy it for you.

Metadata in Documents and Other Media

Believe it or not, search engines look inside your documents and applications for clues about its content. But almost all let you edit that data. Metadata resides in every Microsoft Word document you create, so that readers can find the author and company name (yours, or the owner of your bootlegged copy). To edit the data in a Word document simply open the document and click File > Properties.

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If you’re publishing audio, video, or any other media, make sure you edit the metadata inside that application, too. For example, Audacity, a free program handy for recording music, podcasts and audiobooks, lets you insert ID3 tags that help identify it to search engines and services like iTunes and Windows Media Player.

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Metadata on Reseller Sites

E-book sites like Scribd and Smashwords, and e-tailers like Amazon and B&N want to distribute your book and allow their customers to discover and buy as many books as possible, which is why they make it easy for publishers to insert metadata. For example, if you’ve uploaded your book in Kindle format to Amazon, you will be prompted to insert the same kind of metadata as for the Bowker identifier services site.

Metadata on Social Media Sites

Use all available information spaces on social media sites like Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and YouTube to get found and create incoming links to your book’s web presence. Any keyword-rich author bio you can place anywhere on the web (including at the end of guest blogs and articles) is also valuable. An official Facebook page (formerly a fan page, now a “like” page), gives you an opportunity to create more metadata that points to your book and also works nicely to create incoming links.

The Future of Metadata

As “new connections are formed and new data is added its value increases exponentially,” wrote pundit Mike Cane in his post, Dumb Ebooks Must Die Smart Ebooks Must Live.

With technical advances that allow us to sort through metadata inside books, readers may be able to search for “all fiction books set on Mars in any fictional year, published between 1940 and 1960,” or even order up pieces of books, asking their device to “Show me all first paragraphs from fiction books published in May 2009.”

“When you think about it, it seems remarkable that so much content does not have this sort of metadata already,” wrote Martin Moore in an article for MediaShift, How Metadata Can Eliminate the Need for Pay Walls. “It is like houses not having house numbers or zip codes. Or like movies not having opening or closing credits.”

Metadata automates a formerly labor-intensive task by connecting readers to books more efficiently than ever before. The self-publisher who understands metadata levels the playing field to compete alongside big publishing — but only if you use it.

Additional Reading

Carla King is an author, a publishing and social media strategist, and co-founder of the Self-Publishing Boot Camp program providing books, lectures and workshops for prospective self-publishers. She has self-published non-fiction travel and how-to books since 1994 and has worked in multimedia since 1996. Her series of dispatches from motorcycle misadventures around the world are available as print books, e-books and as diaries on her website.