For the past two years, the Book Industry Study Group metadata committee focused on what it calls the “operational aspects of metadata.” In basic terms, this meant trying to get the industry to agree on one single item that could have a major impact on the publishing industry’s success in using metadata to sell books.

On the face of it, the change is no big deal: move the metadata standard (ONIX) from the 2.1 version to the 3.0 version. Non-techies are to be forgiven for asking, “Well, what does that entail?” As they say, it’s complicated. But for our purpose, let me try these inexact comparisons: For Windows users it’s like going from Windows 7 to Windows 10. For e-book formats, going from 2.01 to 3.01. In other words, moving to a more recent version of software (or a data format), incurring some pain in order to make an almost certain gain.

Like many others, I am, to say the least, disappointed that the hardworking metadata committee could not get consensus on switching from a standard introduced in 2003 (version 2.1) to a more recent one. It’s not like the new one is even new anymore. ONIX 3 was launched in 2009.

The good news is that instead of just taking its toys and refusing to play anymore, the BISG board directed the staff last October to develop a new charter for the metadata committee—one that would “better engage marketing departments in metadata planning, development, and deployment.”

At its January 24 meeting, the BISG board approved a new charter, changing the focus toward exploring the value of metadata in book discovery and marketing: identifying ways to better manage metadata across the supply chain; helping the industry provide timely, high-quality metadata; and marketing applications for book metadata.

As BISG executive director Brian O’Leary writes on the BISG website, “The new charter moves the focus of the metadata committee from ‘how’ metadata works to ‘why’ it is important: discovery, marketing, and sales.” He goes on to note that the committee will spend time on the following objectives:

● “Strengthen documentation of the metadata supply chain, and identifying weaknesses in the current approach.”

● “Identify ways to adapt BISG best-practices recommendations to meet metadata producers and recipients ‘where they are,’ improving access to current information and identifying areas of need.”

● “Gather feedback on the marketing applications of greatest immediate need, addressing the leading concerns with a plan that delivers benefits in 2019.”

By coincidence, on February 5, BISG sponsored a morning program that allowed the assembled group of publishing technicians to ponder some of the issues that will invariably inform the committee’s discussions in the months ahead. The topic, “Technology Confidential,” was intriguing. The pitch was, “Ever wonder what technology partners talk about after you leave the room? We’ve assembled a panel of industry veterans whose companies have gone behind the scenes with literally hundreds of publishers worldwide. These partners have witnessed the good, the bad, and the ugly. They may not name names, but they are more than prepared to tell us what works.”

The panel featured a stellar group of veterans, representing most of the industry’s business systems vendors, including Rod Elder from Virtusales, David Hetherington from KNK Software, George Logan from Klopotek, and Rob Stevens from Firebrand Technologies. It was moderated by my Publishing Technology Partners colleague Bill Trippe.

From the audience, I asked the panel whether they are seeing a change in book publishing management attitudes toward metadata—from mostly a clerical function to more of a strategic role—and if so, how that was impacting their product development. There was a consensus that metadata has become fundamental to the business, and that if publishers want any chance of getting discoverability, they’ve got to get the metadata right. All panelists concurred that this was impacting their product development, with a goal of making it easier and more accurate to create and maintain data. Logan quipped, “It’s like changing the kitty litter. No one wants to do it. But it’s got to be done.”

Elder observed that some publishers are large enough to have full-time dedicated metadata specialists, but for most publishers, the metadata staff person has multiple responsibilities. Business software vendors, he said, “need to support them with software that makes the task easier and more accurate.” He added, “If a publisher intends not only to thrive but merely to survive, they need to put increasing resources to metadata.”

Trippe, quoting Ingram’s Peter McCarthy, said that “publishers say that they really like metadata, but what they really like is sales.” With the support of BISG’s new metadata committee, I think they’ll soon realize that these aren’t just related but are inextricably linked.

Thad McIlroy is an electronic publishing analyst and author living on the West Coast. He is a founding partner of Publishing Technology Partners. His website is The Future of Publishing.