what is metadata

Writing a book is all about adding value to the world.

When we write, we share our expertise, our creativity, our insights, and our opinions with the world—we’re helping other people find answers to a problem we’ve struggled with, or sharing our unique creative vision with them.

But there are many ways to add value, and that’s especially true in the Internet Era—anyone can search for anything at any time online and find answers to questions they didn’t even know they had!

So how’s a potential reader to find your book?

Through metadata!

What Is Metadata?

It sounds scary, but metadata is actually a really simple thing: it’s information about a thing…in this case, a book.

Metadata describes a thing in a way that can be searched for behind the scenes. So a search engine will use metadata about books and websites to return results to a person looking for “best hiking trails in Vermont” so that they see the most relevant possible answers, even if they didn’t know at first a book might be one of those answers.

Metadata also makes it possible to search for books in book-only databases and systems—book wholesalers and distributors add metadata to all their catalogs so that librarians and booksellers have an easier time finding the exact book they’re looking for.

In essence, metadata is a bunch of bullet points about a piece of information—a book, a website, etc.—that describes precisely what the information is about and what makes it unique from other information.

How Is Metadata Used?

So we know that metadata allows people to search for relevant information online. How does this help an author?

When a book has metadata attached, it’s now searchable online by any search engine, database, or other system where people go looking for information or resources.

If your book doesn’t have metadata, it’s harder to find—people have to look for exactly your book with exactly your title in order to find it.

With good metadata describing your book behind the scenes, someone can Google for “best hiking trails in Vermont” and your book will come up, right alongside websites or other results—or maybe even above them!

So having great metadata means that your book pops up in front of people searching for related issues online, even if they don’t know that you’ve written that book or that it’s exactly what they’re looking for.

And that means they’re more likely to check it out and buy it.

What Metadata Does a Book Need?

At its most basic, a book only needs a few fields of metadata:

  • Title
  • Subtitle
  • Author
  • ISBN
  • Format
  • Publication Date

You already know all of these when you go to publish your book!

Plus, if you’ve made a sell sheet to send to possible reviewers or bookstore buyers, you’ll need to include all this information there, too—it’s really just the essentials that make your book uniquely yours.

But metadata can be so much more!

Computers can handle a lot of information—which means we can give these systems a whole lot of rich background descriptions to make it even more likely that someone searching online will get your book as a result of a relevant question.

While there are 6 essential metadata fields, listed above—the Core Metadata—there are 15 to 20 more optional fields that you can fill out to help make your metadata even more powerful, working to find your readers for you.

The most important fields in the Enhanced Metadata group include:

You can also add information on page count, price, availability, author bio, reviews, excerpts, copyright year, and more.

The more information you add, the more ways people have to find your book. So always include as much metadata as possible when you’re publishing!

metadata for books

How Do I Add Metadata to My Book?

Great, so we know we need to include lots of metadata—but how?!

Don’t worry, the modern publishing era makes it easy!

For a long time, publishers just maintained internal databases about their books—massive spreadsheets with key metadata fields that they’d pass along to wholesalers as needed.

When online bookstores first cropped up and libraries started moving to digital catalogs, there needed to be an easier way for everyone to share background details on books—something standardized and sensible.

In the late 1990s, a global industry organization with representatives from all different parts of the book and publishing world stepped up and created ONIX, the ONline Information eXchange. This XML computer code system quickly became the industry standard—big publishers all send ONIX files to wholesalers and distributors, who use them to create listings in their catalogs, and on Amazon and other online retailers. Even libraries have a way to convert ONIX metadata listings to their own internal data systems for ease of use.

But indie authors don’t have big logistics departments or armies of data specialists creating huge ONIX files for hundreds of books a year.

We have, well, ourselves.

So the companies that facilitate self-publishing and small press publishing created user-friendly interfaces that can attach all the right metadata to your book, whether physical or digital, during the publishing process!

When you go into your KDP Dashboard, publish through CreateSpace, or create a book with Ingram Spark or Lulu, you’re always asked to add certain background information about your book.

Funny, all those fields look very similar to the metadata fields we discussed earlier!

There’s title, subtitle, author, series, year, category or BISAC code, description, keywords…look, it’s metadata!

So really, all an indie author has to do is fill out every single field requested by a publishing service and boom! Your metadata is ready and attached to your book.

If you’re creating your own file, say by making an ePub that you’ll sell on your own website in addition to putting on Barnes & Noble or Kobo, then converting to Kindle format, you can add your metadata yourself. Most ePub creation programs include a way to add descriptions, tags, keywords, and other information—and if they don’t, you can create a metadata HTML file that gets zipped up with your ePub for final production.

Really, though, you only need to worry about doing metadata manually if you’re planning to hand-code your ePub and sell it on your own website directly.

If you plan to sell your ebook through a standard online retailer like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple, or Kobo, they’ll walk you through adding the metadata needed and take care of it for you!

You’ll include both the Core Metadata of title, subtitle, author, ISBN (if applicable), and year, as well as most of the Enhanced Metadata like description, category, keywords, target audience, and so on. When you upload it, your cover will be added to the Enhanced Metadata by the publishing service, too!

how to add metadata

Tips for Getting the Most from Metadata

There’s a few things you can do to help your metadata work for you, driving readers straight to your book and showing them how useful it will be to them.

1. Be Consistent

When you’re adding metadata to your book, make sure it’s consistent. Start a spreadsheet where you list out all the different fields you’ve seen on KDP, Kobo, or CreateSpace, like Title or Target Audience, and insert your answers.

This means that everywhere your book appears online, all the underlying data describing it will be the same. The more consistent you are with this, the higher your book will rank in searches.

2. Use Targeted Keywords Frequently

When you’re putting together your metadata, particularly for your title, subtitle, description, and keywords fields, take the time to research the most relevant keywords for your topic.

You can do this with old-fashioned background research, like checking what Amazon or Google auto-fill when you start a search on your topic, or you can use a handy tool like K Optimizer 2.0 or Google Keyword Planner to see what people are searching for on Amazon.

Use those keywords to craft a smart title for your book that will rank high for search.

Then load your book description with those keywords, use them to help choose which categories to put your book in, and drop them into the “keywords” field to be extra-sure that readers looking for those terms will find your book.

3. Keep It Relevant

Metadata does no one any good if it’s not relevant!

Even though books on entrepreneurship and startups might be super-popular, with lots of people searching for related keywords, they won’t likely be buyers of your book on places to hike in Vermont.

So keep your keywords tightly related to that topic and don’t try to get too general—you’ll make more sales to a highly targeted audience that really wants the exact information you’re providing than to a huge audience that’s looking for something totally different.

4. Always Be Refining

As you learn more about your readers, see how people come to your website, and get reviews and other feedback, you’ll learn more about what people are really looking for in your book.

This may mean updating your metadata!

If it turns out that people aren’t really searching much for “best hiking trails in Vermont” but they are constantly looking for “creative outdoor vacations in New England,” you might want to retarget your keywords in your Description and Keywords sections to line up with that better.

It’s okay to change your metadata from time to time, so long as you change it consistently in every place where your book is listed. This is where that big metadata master spreadsheet comes in handy!

In Brief

So we’ve learned that metadata is all the information describing what makes your book unique—the title, author, ISBN, description, category, keywords, etc. that identify it.

You should always add as much metadata as you can to your book listings to ensure that readers have tons of ways to find your book, no matter how or where they’re searching.

You can add all that metadata straight through the upload interface on your publishing tool of choice, like KDP or CreateSpace. The “description” pages there are really a way to attach important metadata to your book.

Do some careful keyword research and planning when you start the publishing process and document everything in a master metadata spreadsheet.

Include as many targeted keywords as you can throughout all your metadata fields to ensure that your book comes up as a highly relevant result when people are searching online.

With a little forward planning and a touch of data entry, you can make your book far more discoverable online, using metadata to drive interested readers right to your work.

Metadata describes what makes a book unique and can be used to help readers find and buy your book online.


For more on choosing great categories and keywords to help sell more books, read on!