‘Metadata’ is a term publishers will hear a lot about when they begin selling ebooks. In this section, we’ll cover some of the main items of metadata that are needed for distribution. In the later section on marketing, we’ll revisit metadata and look at its role in enticing readers to buy.

What is metadata

Metadata is a fancy name for information about the ebook (meta means ‘about’). Book people are probably more familiar with the term ‘bibliographic data’ but ebook metadata goes further than this. It’s aimed at telling computers as well as people two things:

  • Terms under which an ebook can be sold and used
  • What an ebook is about

The quality and extent of this metadata is becoming a key element in the success of ebooks.

Core metadata

ISBNCore metadata is the essential operational data that distributors and ebooksellers need in order to list and sell an ebook. It includes data that identifies the ebook, and details the terms under which it can be sold. It’s crucial to make sure it’s complete and accurate. Core metadata includes:

  • ISBN
  • Title and sub-title
  • Cover image
  • Publisher
  • Author and contributors
  • Price
  • Category
  • Territories
  • Digital Rights Management
  • Language

Enhanced metadata

The second type is marketing-related metadata, often referred to as enhanced metadata. This is typically optional — an ebook will often be listed for sale with some or all of this missing. But this is poor practice because it’s likely to be very important to the ebook’s success. Included in enhanced metadata is:

  • Description
  • Author bios
  • Images
  • Reviews, awards and endorsements, author Q&As
  • Excerpts
  • Multimedia: audio, video

The items further down the list are less widely-used but growing in importance as retailers and publishers look for better ways to sell books online. We’ll look at the marketing functions of metadata in the Marketing section.

There are other metadata items you will want to submit, or will have to submit for some ebooksellers, but the list above covers the common items.

What the metadata items mean

Here’s an explanation of some of the most important core metadata items and issues you might encounter when setting them.

Click here to see the key metadata items and issues

Delivering metadata to ebooksellers and distributors

Ebooksellers handle tens or hundreds of thousands of ebooks. To do this efficiently and accurately – including meeting all of the special terms publishers require, such as territorial restrictions – they need tightly defined systems with automated processes. A key to making all this work is accurate and complete metadata.

The two most common ways for small publishers to deliver metadata are online form-filling or by filling in an Excel spreadsheet template supplied by the ebookseller.

Larger publishers are expected to use a language called XML, usually in conjunction with a book industry metadata standard called ONIX but most self-publishers and small presses are spared this.


Find out more about this topic on our Digital Publishing 101 useful resources site.


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