Using Metadata to Go Beyond the Ebook
When we talk about ebooks, we tend to describe them similarly to physical books. Although many ebooks are indeed digital editions of printed counterparts, a lot of the time that’s not inappropriate at all.
But one problem with thinking in the old-fashioned way is that it prevents many publishers from taking parts of a book’s content and selling them independently. If that’s to change, one place to start will be the way publishers approach metadata.
Metadata is a term publishers love or hate but can’t avoid. As metadata expert Renée Register has explained in a recent series of Digital Book World webcasts and blog posts, metadata refers quite simply to what you want the world to know about your books and provides a structure for helping them come to know it.
When you want to sell your book online, the metadata will not only give potential buyers technical information such as the specifications, publication date, ISBN and list price, it will also be the magic that enables your book to be discovered online by customers who search for it. And this is all the more important for digital editions that can’t be hand-sold in bookstores.
So when publishers ask themselves what technical metadata essentials they need to know in order to give their titles the best chances of success, the question they’re really asking is how they want to sell them. After all, metadata isn’t just a formula to be rigorously followed; it’s a tool publishers can—and should—adapt more creatively in order to experiment with different approaches to online bookselling.
What if the product we are talking about, as publishers, is no longer books at all, but ‘chunks’ of content?
Industry expert Bill Kasdorf calls this approach the “chunking imperative” in the second edition of The Metadata Handbook, recently published by Digital Book World and available here. The term “chunks” might mislead you into thinking you can just take any text or image out of an existing context and distribute it on its own, but it’s more a question of how digital content is developed and authored from the very outset.
How do you write and edit content so that parts can exist independently? How do you store and distribute content so that discreet units can be easily identified, extracted and sold individually?
New forms of rights management and royalty payment systems would need to be developed to take into account a business more reliant on these ‘chunks’ or modules than on book products. And the metadata required to help consumers discover and purchase this sort of content would also need to change accordingly.
There are a number of practical issues current metadata systems and practices aren’t set up to resolve. For instance, how might an ISBN relate to new content entities such as a selection of recipes from different publications? Or how would publishers store endnotes and index entries relating to ‘chunks’ of content, rather than as back matter relating to an entire book?
But the beauty of metadata is its potential for ever more specificity and flexibility. Were publishers to require metadata to perform these functions, there is nothing theoretically to prevent it from doing so.
Both physical and digital book products will probably stay around forever. But it’s likely they will become just one kind of “content-product” in a market brimming with more diverse forms and formats than we’re presently used to. It could be that ONIX 3.0 is only solving the beginning of a much larger set of challenges and opportunities in digital content retailing.
In future blog posts I will write more about possible solutions to increasingly urgent questions about how you can make the most out of your content, whether this appears in books, in ‘chunks’ or, of course, in both.

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