‘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


The International Standard Book Number is a 13-digit product code that every printed book must have in order to be sold through retail stores. Some ebooksellers also insist that ebooks have ISBN numbers. It provides a way to track sales and manage different editions. The industry organisation that oversees the ISBN standard agrees. Its official policy is that:

  • Ebooks should not use the ISBN from any printed edition
  • Each ebook format should have its own ISBN (often referred to as an eISBN)

This means that if you produce an ebook in EPUB, Kindle and PDF formats, you should use three different eISBNs. Some ebooksellers like Amazon don’t require ISBNs. Others like Apple and Google insist on an ISBN for every ebook.

Each country has its own issuing agent. Cost can be a deterrent in some markets like the US where the issuing agent, Bowker, charges up to US$125 for an ISBN. In other countries, such as New Zealand, you can obtain ISBNs free. Some distributors supply ISBNs as part of their conversion and distribution service. This is fine for self-publishers but larger publishers will want to use ISBNs linked to their own number range and publisher identifier.


You’ll be required to specify a retail selling price, often referred to as a Digital List Price. This is the price from which your share of income is calculated. In some cases, you might be asked to provide list prices in several currencies.

While you might be free to make up any number you like, you need to be aware of hooks in many distribution agreements that restrict what price you can set. Here are examples of restrictions you’ll find in some vendors’ terms:

  • Price bands. You must fit into specific price points and price bands. For instance, you can’t have a price of $6.80, it must be $6.99.
  • Maximum prices. Prices must be a maximum of X% (eg 80%) of the cheapest print edition.
  • Price matching. The ebookseller has the right to drop your listed retail price, and its payment to you, to match the lowest price for which any other site sells your ebook.
  • Fixed pricing. No site can sell your ebook below the list price. This is used in so-called agency pricing agreements.


This determines which classification your ebook will appear under, for instance crime fiction. Some booksellers have their own categories but there is an industry standard, familiar to the print world, called BISAC codes which are commonly used. For instance, crime fiction has a BISAC code of FIC050000. You’ll find the complete set of codes at

While this is essential operational data, it’s also one of the most important pieces of marketing-related metadata: Category choices can have a big impact on sales, positively or negatively. We’ll look at this in more detail when we cover marketing.


You must specify which countries your ebook can be sold into and you’ll be required to confirm that you hold rights to sell into these territories.

Even if you hold worldwide rights, there might be reasons you want to withhold some territories from an ebookseller, for instance to help an important local outlet or to conform to a local rights agreement. However, this can annoy readers who often have their favorite sites (usually tied to their e-reading devices) so it should be used carefully.

Digital Rights Management

The publisher can usually specify whether they want the ebookseller to apply DRM to limit copying and other uses of your ebook. In some cases, you might also be able to limit other uses, such as how often an ebook can be loaned to friends or printed.

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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