“Metadata” is a term that sounds technical, which may be why it confuses a lot of authors. Back in 2020, Jane Friedman asked her Twitter followers, “When people talk about “metadata” in book publishing, do you know what they’re referring to?“. Half of the respondents definitely knew, or were reasonably sure that they knew. Half of them did not know what the word meant.

You may have heard the definition that metadata is information about data, which is still too technical to be useful. So here is a simpler definition, focused on books: the metadata of a book is everything about the book that is not the content of the book itself.

The following are examples of a book’s metadata:

  • Title
  • Subtitle
  • Author
  • Series name
  • Number in series
  • Genre
  • ISBN
  • Publisher
  • Trim size
  • Page count
  • Description
  • Format

Note that the book’s content is not in the list. Some items (genre and description, for instance) give some indication of the content, but the content itself is not metadata.

Metadata describes your book. It is the information a potential reader needs in order to decide whether to buy the book. If you want to sell books, it’s very important. The good news is, it’s not a complex topic, and if you have published a book, you’ve dealt with metadata, even if you didn’t realise it.

When you are uploading a new book, or updating an existing one, there will be fields for the items listed above, and more. Make sure that you fill in as much information as possible, and do so accurately.

Why metadata matters

When a user searches Amazon for “Romance books”, Amazon’s search algorithm uses the metadata of all the books in its database to work out which ones are romance books, and should therefore be shown in the search results. The title or subtitle may include words that indicate the book is a romance. Or there may be words and phrases like “happy ever after” in the keyword fields.

Accurate metadata is important, because the user searching for “Romance books” doesn’t want a book that isn’t a romance. If a military history book has a title, subtitle, and keywords that suggest it’s a romance book, it will show up in that user’s search. But the user will either ignore it, or buy it and leave a scathing review. Worse still, readers that would enjoy the book will never find it because it won’t show up in their searches.

It’s not only important for computer algorithms. If your book is stocked by a library or book shop, they’ll use the metadata to decide which shelf to put it on. You don’t want your contemporary romance book on the thriller shelf, because the romance readers won’t look there, and so they won’t find it. Any thriller readers that find it and read it will be disappointed. They might tell their friends that it’s rubbish, or leave a bad review on Goodreads.

Put simply, good metadata gets your book in front of people that will enjoy it. Bad metadata gets your book in front of people that will hate it.