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"Dr Digital, is metadata for me?"
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In the second in our ‘Dr Digital’ series, Jonathan Waywell of Propagator has some prescriptions for publishers afflicted by metadata trauma
This is a big topic. Before we begin, let’s check we are all on the same page.
Metacarpals? That's a word for my cousin, Dr Physical. Metamorphosis? That’s a word for when your teenager stops chewing holes in your budget and flies gracefully away. Metadata? That’s a word for you. You want to grasp it, not send it packing.
Here are some of the questions you might be asking yourself about metadata.
Q1 Met a who?
Believe it or not, you have progressed your understanding of this topic in the past decade. The proof? It is years since your brain processed XML as egg-smell, and XSD is no longer a psychedelic street drug.
But these acronyms do still translate to fear in many otherwise self-confident publishers, though most put on a game face. As for metadata—well, it’s all pretty hazy, let’s face it. Your grasp of the concept ends up tainted by the XML and addled with XSDs.
Think of it like this: metadata has its origins in metaphysics, itself a branch of philosophy. It describes the digital world as it matters to you and your audience. What things exist and how they relate to each other. Like metaphysics, it answers two fundamental questions: what is there, and what is it like?
Metadata is just semantics. Its purpose in publishing is to enable microchips to do a meaningful job of linking related things together and pulling unrelated things apart – automatically, so that you, your team and your readers don’t have to.
Q2 How does it differ from data?
Data in digital publishing becomes what your readers see. It’s the stuff your content is made of.
But metadata is invisible to them. It works beyond what the reader sees, helping the computer or mobile device to present the material and facilitate discovery and interaction.
Imagine a play. The audience sees movements, costumes and stage sets and hears lines and music. That is what they come to consume—the data that forms their experience. What the audience does not see are the lighting directions, scene-change timing plans and orchestral score. That is all metadata for the operation of the play.
Q3 What types of metadata are there?
Essentially, you have two buckets: Product and Content.
The Product bucket is filled by the need to get your books out there and make money. Product metadata describes the thing you are selling: who wrote it, who owns it, which physical and digital shelves and categories it belongs on and in, ISBN, DOI etc.
Content metadata describes and defines the material in your product, so that it can survive and thrive in the digital world. But the Content bucket rarely contains enough metadata to cover the bottom. Indeed, it is often bone dry. This is the bucket we are going to talk a bit more about. It is the future. You are going to fill it.
Q4 Can I tackle this myself?
Yes. You think abstract, you understand audience and you get language. You see structure in everything you read and publish. You can do this! Remember: good metadata definition starts with a deep understanding of your market (readers) and your product (books). If you can plan a successful launch event or pick holes in the setting of a novel, you can define your metadata requirements.
Q5 What do I need to learn?
Not XML—there are plenty of people who can manage that for you. Although being able to skim an XML document and see the <woods> for the <treestructures> is a very handy skill these days.
But yes, learn some language and concepts, many of which you will have heard before. (An aside on lingo: sometimes we have to hear things five times before they sink in, as with French vocab and German grammar. Digital talk is just another language.)
Q6 Where do I learn it?
If you are reading this promptly, you can attend the Masters of Metadata session at the IPG Annual Spring Conference and sign up for training. If not, speak to your digital adviser. If you don’t have one, find one! There are publisher-friendly consultants who can help you define your metadata; suppliers who have systems to help you organise it; and others with products, platforms and ideas to help you do something useful with it in the digital world. Search for metadata in the IPG Digital Directory. Meanwhile, of course, there’s still you! So keep reading.
Q7 Where do I start?
Work backwards. Imagine your books in digital form. What material do you want in people’s hands? How do you want them to use it?
Think in terms of the information, the concepts, the ideas, the objects that are significant. What relates to what? In what way? At what levels of detail or importance to the aims of the material?
Q8 Is metadata any use for fiction?
Great question. Let’s start with fiction as an example, because many dismiss it out of hand.
In this binge-happy era, people struggle with things they have to put down and pick up again – our brains are tweet-ified between chapters. We are increasingly control-freaky and reluctant to wait for answers. And with so much choice in our faces so much of the time, more of us find ourselves consuming material that takes us out of our safety zones and wandering into new niches, whether by accident or intent. So help your struggling readers appreciate your authors’ wit and wisdom. Help the newbies and the oldies, the innocent and the unaware.

What kinds of metadata could help prepare a work of fiction for the fabulous finger-tap-happy future? Here are a few ideas.
A Summaries — the Part 2 equivalent of ‘Previously, on The Mentalist…’
B Characters — who’s who and what’s what
C Settings — where’s where
D Sequence — reveal plot information section by section; hide spoilers
E Importance — what is the fundamental stuff to hold in your head; the knowledge expected of ‘normal’ readers
F Meaning — codify the unusual senses of critical expressions
Does that sound like hard work? Remember that you are preparing your content for people who interact with what they read. You are making it easier to link into, as well as out of, your books. That makes them easier to find and talk about online. You are opening up your great work to greater audiences.
Q9 So how does content metadata help non-fiction?
It depends on what you want to do, in and around your books, now and in the future. Here are fifteen oft-overlooked examples of metadata and how they can help the ‘user experience’.
1 Keywords — show relevant things on the first page in search results; display ‘tags’ and labels
2 Taxonomy facets — layer the keywords; find ‘soil’ under ‘gardens’
3 Terms — define the keywords; build an automatic glossary; help non-specialists grasp a specialist domain
4 Sequence numbers — list things in the right order; let me restore sanity after I’ve pressed ‘Sort Ascending’
5 Dates of relevance — see items on timelines; find them in calendars
6 People — find the references to the right John Smith
7 Places — find the location of the right Springfield
8 Periods — find everything that happened in the right millennium
9 Profiles — find the stuff appropriate to particular demographic and psychographic characteristics—age, ability, personality and so on
10 Purpose — find the material designed for my scenario (very valuable, this one)
11 Organisations — find the website of the right IPG, first time [ducks]
12 Source — show origins (people, organisations, places, periods)
13 Relations — Lewisham is part of London; trees are types of plant; you are a member of this organization
14 Structure — go straight to the right room / level / chapter
15 Goals — what target does this help me attain? Plot my progress.
The abstract concepts listed above are generic, and almost always applicable in some manner. In the digital world, they are often the gateways between one domain and another; and they help anchor the digital world to the real world.
But the most exciting concepts are the ones special to your domain. You know your stuff. You define our world. Metadata is for you.
Jonathan Waywell is head of technical consulting at Propagator, which has worked with many IPG members and other publishers. For more about its work, visit the Propagator website and follow it on Twitter.
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