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Publishing execs need to give metadata more attention than lip service

By Thad McIlroy | Oct 05, 2018 | Publishers Weekly

Let’s make metadata great again. Okay, perhaps that’s not the best slogan for my new campaign, but you get my drift. I want some enthusiasm, folks. Metadata for e-commerce has been sitting in the doldrums for too long now, confined to some kind of bibliographic hell, saddled with the ever-vague concept of discoverability. “Keywords” has been the cry: find the right keywords and you can rule the online universe. Is that all there is? Seven keywords and you’re off to the races?

Metadata has been vastly undervalued. I’m here to tell you that metadata is the most important part of selling books today. Bar none. Its power should change the way you market books. It can measurably increase your sales; this has been proven. Publishers have to start approaching metadata as a strategic weapon, not as the digital equivalent of an old library card catalogue.

Publishers Weekly started covering metadata 16 years ago (the first article I can find is dated 2002). “Accurate Metadata Sells Books” is the title of a PW article from 2010. Why, in late 2018, am I still trying to convince publishers that metadata sells books?

Editorial is at the heart of book publishing: if all other factors are equal, the better book will sell more copies. Of course, few of the factors are ever equal, and, in publishing, sales and marketing is mostly concerned with trying to tip the precariously balanced scales ever-so-slightly in your direction.

In a bricks-and-mortar world, the marketing process is well defined and easy to understand: take a good book, seek to influence the conversation via book reviews and the author’s presence, and, anticipating some interest, buy your way to prominent retail display, so the book is visible when the educated customer comes calling.

In the online world, publishers and authors still seek influence but, for the most part, can’t buy prominent display space. It’s a Gordian knot. A book appears most prominently on Amazon because it’s selling well despite not appearing prominently on Amazon.

We saw a vivid example of the problem earlier this year, when bad metadata appropriated the buzz of Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House and turned a 2009 book, Fire and Fury: The Allied Bombing of Germany, 1942–1945, into an overnight bestseller.

And so achieving prominence becomes a far more complex challenge than it was in an exclusively bricks-and-mortar world. Relationships are established digitally; metadata is the grease on the wheel of online connections.

Metadata is left-brained, dry, and analytical, and publishing executives are mostly right-brained, creative, and sensitive. They don’t understand how metadata really works, and they’ll settle for the 30,000-foot view. And, truth be told, from 30,000 feet, metadata does look like a library card catalogue. Up close, it looks complicated. Metadata is standards based, and right-brained people don’t like technical standards. Going deep on metadata takes you into the realm of ePub, HTML, SEO, and Onix. What publishing executive wants to go there?

The other damning thing about metadata is that the #1 reason publishers need great metadata is to compete on Amazon. And if there’s one thing that makes a publishing executive cringe more than complex technology, it’s thinking about ways to more effectively compete on Amazon. The game is brutal and complex, the rules change all the time, and self-published authors and Amazon imprints keep winning.

The unpleasant truth is that, though online book pages may appear reminiscent of the bookshop on Main Street, they are in fact located at the bookshop in the city of Amazon. The cover still matters a lot, as do the jacket copy and blurbs.

But there’s so much more that happens on Amazon. There are reader reviews—good ones and bad ones—that signal a book’s quality from a customer’s perspective, rather than from the perspective of a doting friend of the author. There’s a dynamic sales ranking. There are multiple formats on sale side-by-side. Complementary titles are found below the fold. There’s dynamic pricing. On the author’s page are videos and links to community pages on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

The big hurdle for publishers is understanding that all of this online information is based in metadata. Metadata has depth and breadth. Metadata should be verbose but accurate. Metadata should emanate outward, linking, constantly linking, to every online way station that a book buyer might visit.

Preparing this article in mid-September, I dived into the Publishers Weekly Job Zone, searching for jobs that I was certain would demand a familiarity with metadata. To my surprise, I found several ads seeking marketing managers, publicity coordinators, and the like that did not list any metadata-related skills or knowledge in their applicant requirements. If it’s true that metadata sells books, then why do none of these marketing positions require metadata knowledge?

Until management prioritizes its managers’ knowing how to compete with metadata, metadata will be a good housekeeping afterthought. Metadata is great, and the publishers who embrace its strategic value will thrive.

Thad McIlroy is an electronic publishing analyst and author, based on the West Coast and at his website, The Future of Publishing. He is a founding partner of Publishing Technology Partners.

Survey by National Endowment for the Arts records sharp fall in the number of adults who read novels and short stories

Alison Flood in The Guardian Mon 17 Sep 2018 12.41 EDT

The number of adults in the US reading novels and short stories has hit a new low, with the decline of almost 8% in the last five years seen mainly among women, African Americans and younger adults, according to a major new survey.

Run in conjunction with the US Census Bureau at regular intervals since 1982, the National Endowment for the Arts surveyed almost 30,000 adults. It found good news for poetry, with 11.7% of adults saying they had read poetry last year, an increase of 76% – equivalent to 28 million people – on 2012.

But novels and short-story reading rates have declined, from 47% of the US population in 2008, and 45.2% in 2012 to just 41.8% in 2017. According to the NEA, the drops were “mainly among women, African Americans, and 18- to 24-year-olds”. The percentage of women reading novels fell from 54.6% in 2012 to 50% five years later. African Americans reading novels were down almost 7%, to just over 30%, and 18- to 24-year-old fiction readers declined 7.2%, to 38.7%. White readers of novels were also down, by almost 3%, to 48%.

The continuing pattern of decline identified in the survey is echoed by book sales, according to Publishers Weekly, which cited figures from the Association of American Publishers that showed that fiction buyers had fallen by 17% between 2013 and 2018.

Overall, said the NEA, book reading remained “on par” with previous surveys in 2012 and 2008: almost 53% of American adults read a book in any genre in 2017 – not a statistically significant decline from 2012’s 54.6%. The survey did, however, call the 3% decline in female readers “significant”.

The boom in poetry reading – the first in the history of the NEA survey – was driven by younger readers: sales are thriving for “Instapoets” such as Rupi Kaur, whose collection Milk and Honey has sold more than 1m copies around the world. The share of 18- to 24-year-olds who read poetry more than doubled over the last five years, making this group the most likely to read poetry.

Women also flocked to poetry, increasing from 8% in 2012 to 14.5% in 2017, as did Hispanic poetry readers, up from 4.9% five years ago to 9.7% in 2017, African Americans (up 8.4%) and Asian Americans (up 7.8%). At 15.3%, the ethnic group most likely to read poetry in the US is now African Americans, the survey found.

“For the first time in the survey’s history, reading rates for poetry and plays have increased from the prior survey period,” wrote the NEA’s director of research and analysis, Sunil Iyengar, introducing the survey. “The surge in poetry reading was experienced by diverse demographic groups.”

Iyengar said that the NEA would explore the decline in novel and short story reading in future reports.

As a published author, what are YOU going to do about this? This is your income decreasing!

I created four characters that are meant to be for a comic book known as the "Super Readers". They were created with certain 'super hero' aspects, but ALL of them have something in common; reading, writing and books.

They illustrate to children that by starting to read at a young age and continually reading through adult hood they can become their own Super Hero's because of what they read.

I hope you will check them out and support getting them made into a comic book that we can share with Texas Students. http://deartexas.info/index.php/superreaders


Note: The publishing world in NYC continues to believe that they are the center point of the universe when it comes to publishing. Because of this concept, I sadly see too many businesses and organizations cater to the top five publishing companies in a way that hurts Indie Authors.

My trip to NYC last week will result in a wide range of benefits for Texas Authors and Indie Authors collectively. One of my meetings was with the Authors Guild, which is an organization that supports authors of all types. They handle mostly the legal aspect of writing; contracts, infringement on rights, etc., they are a great organization to belong too. It so happened that while in NYC, one of the board members released an open letter to their membership that also applies to our membership and is something that I have been speaking on for a few years now. My new book due out in 2020 "Authors Revolution" is about this and other aspects of publishing. I hope you will take the time to read the full letter that is posted on our blog and check out this organization for membership.

Alan Bourgeois


‘We’re Still Getting Our Asses Kicked’

In an open letter this month addressed to members of the Authors Guild, the organization’s vice president, the American author Richard Russo, has warned that tech companies’ operations in the content space may increasingly threaten writers’ livelihoods and recognition.

“Traditional publishers may have underpaid us,” Russo writes, “but at least to them we were poets and painters and songwriters, terms that implied both respect and ownership of what we made, at least until we’ve sold it to them.

“The tech ethos is different. To them, we’re often seen as mere hirelings. And since those who hire us are in the business of business, they have a fiduciary responsibility to their stockholders to pay us as little as they can get away with and to make certain we understand that we’re mere workers, not partners in the enterprise.”

The commentary is a follow-up to Russo’s 2013 letter to the membership. In this message, he touches on favorite points of criticism, including “the scorched-earth capitalism of companies like Google and Amazon, by spineless publishers who won’t stand up to them, by the ‘information wants to be free’ crowd who believe that art should be cheap or free and treated as a commodity, by Internet search engines who are all too happy to direct people to online sites that sell pirated (read ‘stolen’) books.”

Clearly, there are many with whom to take umbrage.

Five years later, Russo writes to an author-advocacy trade organization that has grown past the 10,000-member mark and has become the lead response group in many issues authors are encountering, from inappropriate trademark efforts to contractual conflicts with publishers.

Most recently, for example, the guild has written letters in support of the writers of Slate and Thrillist, arguing that they should be allow to unionize. There’s probably a clue to the direction the guild itself is going in representing authors in its posting about the new letters: “Few individual writers have any true bargaining power, but collective bargaining gives writers greater leverage to negotiate the terms of their employment. “The Authors Guild supports collective bargaining for all staff writers and hopes to one day attain similar benefits for freelance journalists and authors.”

Read the full letter on our blog

A note from a TxAuthor Member:

I've been a member of the Authors Guild since 2000, wish I would have known of them earlier, been a member, for they could helped review a book contract I had no idea what I was signing. I lost/unknowingly complete control of the manuscript, received nothing for the purchase of it, didn't even recognize my manuscript after they published the book they "bought", which they (the Publisher) actually stole because they did not pay me one dollar for the manuscript.

The book was published in the US and other countries; I never received one cent in royalties, never did a book signing, nothing, and that happened in 1997.

This type of "crime" still happens today to other writers without knowledge and without legal help to review a contract; which the Authors Guild does for its members.

Since that horrible experience I have used the Authors Guild for legal advice. They are the best there is.

I urge every writer/author of ANYTHING, song writer, script writer, poet, speech writer, etc. to join the Authors Guild.

Carol Cook


Texas Authors, Inc. is an organization designed to help Texas Authors learn how to better market and sell their books.

We work closely with our partners DEAR Texas, Inc., and Texas Authors Institute of History, Inc., both nonprofits that have created additional programs and events for Authors.

Texas Authors is a subsidiary of Bourgeois Media & Consulting