A holistic approach to metadata


Keely Kundell is the editorial assistant for HQN and Graydon House. She works as a liaison between the editorial and digital assets management team. She hails from Toronto, and she began her career working at Kobo in publisher operations, later moving to Harlequin in early 2015. Keely holds a B.A. in Book and Media Studies and English from the University of Toronto, and completed the Publishing program at Ryerson University.

Brendan Flattery is a digital book lover, award-winning dungeon master, generalist nerd, and spreadsheet enthusiast. He started in digital publishing as an intern nine years ago and never looked back. After working in ebook production and development, he now manages relationships with online vendors, consults on metadata adoption and use, and manages search advertising on a large book display ad service. In his spare time (i.e., train rides to work), he helps friends make tabletop roleplaying books.

Keely and Brendan are going to be at Tech Forum to talk about Metadata, Agility, and Consensus: How to Build Excitement, Make Agile Changes, and Consolidate

Almost everyone now agrees that good metadata is important for discoverability and for selling books online, but what does “good” metadata even mean?

The needs of various stakeholders across the supply chain — whether data providers or recipients, standards bodies, authors, publishers, marketers, operations experts, retailers, consumers, libraries, or their patrons, etc. — may be vastly different, and quality of individual metadata elements begs the question: good for whom?

Does good mean following industry best practices, or serving the needs of consumers? Should we only be describing our content or should we be trying to sell at every opportunity? Do we race to capture a short-term trend or be comprehensive about a book’s categories for any future trends that may arise?

We believe the answer is all of the above. The only way to have good metadata is to think broadly and holistically about each data element, considering both industry standards and market needs, and involving as many people in the supply chain as possible.


Keywords are potentially the most important data element because they can and should touch every other component we list below. The time and energy spent choosing keywords can help inform titles, subtitles (sparingly), and descriptive copy. BISACs are effectively keywords and can be a good starting point.

The main jobs performed by keywords are:

  • describing a book’s content;

  • helping people find products; or

  • converting a sale or a borrow.

Regarding search, customers want to know:

  • What is the book about?

  • Does it match what I’m trying to find? (Is it relevant?)

  • Can I trust that the information is accurate?

Anything that doesn’t match the above criteria will lead to low click-through rates and conversions, and thus a lower ranking in search results. Industry standards argue that relevant terms should align with customer needs. A principle of search marketing states that if customers see the search terms they used on an ad on the page, they will be more inclined to convert.

Keywords can be further divided into the following types:

  • ONIX keywords

    • These are what feed through via ONIX in the “keyword” section of the feed and are not customer-facing.

    • They describe the content or theme of your book but are NOT already found in the title, series name, cover copy, BISAC subject codes, or other consumer-facing data.

  • Consumer-facing keywords (or search terms)

    • These are visible to consumers and should be used in other relevant fields (title, description) to describe your book.

    • For instance, if “psychological thriller” is a keyword that’s relevant to your product, consider using that in the description or title field.

Back cover copy

It’s important to maximize your online copy. Often the copy going on the back of a print book and the copy on an e-retailer’s website serve different functions.

Online back cover copy (BCC) can be improved when you:

  • use keywords in copy;

  • include a strong and catchy header;

  • make it visually appealing with short quotes and paragraphs; or

  • include a compelling hook at the TOP of the copy.

In one case study Harlequin performed, improving the BCC in this way contributed to a 3% increase in orders and revenue, a 1% increase in conversion rate, and unique visitors went down by 4% (73% trend improvement). 


Don’t just add them and never change them — add new relevant BISACs and use them to reflect market trends, as you might with keywords.

Some suggestions:

  • The first two BISACs should reflect the most accurate category for your content.

  • The last two BISACs should also reflect the editorial but should rank less in relevance than the first two.

  • If you don’t see a BISAC that matches your category, you can always suggest it to the BISG BISAC Committee.

  • Look on Amazon to find the charts with the fewest and lowest-ranked titles and, if applicable, add these as third and fourth BISACs.

For example, we have a series of canine detective books, and we added FIC067000 FICTION / Animals to six of the books. Those books had a 27% increase in revenue and a 90% increase in units, an 8% increase in visitors, and a 73% increase in conversion rate.

The overall takeaway

Don’t be afraid to overlap different metadata fields. Your authors can be excellent resources for metadata, as they know their books and readers best. Also be sure to consult various departments. Ideally editorial, marketing, and sales should be working together to recommend the best metadata for each title, or at the very least for priority titles. The biggest key to maximizing metadata is through departmental consensus.

If you’d like to hear more from Brendan Flattery and Keely Kundell about keywords, register for Tech Forum on March 20, 2019 in Toronto. You can find more details about the conference here, or sign up for the mailing list to get all of the conference updates.