Standards are like plumbing: they are only noticed when they don’t work. And like plumbing, retrofitting a 200-year-old structure—legacy publishing—with new metadata standards to improve commerce in the digital age is, at best, a complex process. For example, the now-ubiquitous ISBN took years to become an industry standard. Moreover, senior publishing executives have rarely focused their attention on metadata, choosing to leave the discussion of such issues to people responsible for production or IT. Onix 3.0 may change this point of view. Ken Michaels, global COO at Macmillan Science and Education, observes that, with version 3.0, “Onix has the potential to be the critical communication format that helps bind a fragmented supply chain across the full spectrum of titles, information sheets, catalogue information, and promotional materials.” He further notes that “editorial and marketing departments’ specific ‘knowledge’ about the authors’ or the content objects’ intent can be retained and passed on to all channel partners to help streamline commerce [globally], reduce costs, and optimize revenue.”

Chris Sayor, metadata specialist at the metadata management company GiantChair ( and head of a newly formed BISG working group on Onix 3.0, says that the new standard is the “Esperanto of global publishing.” He adds, “It is multilingual, making possible communication of the same messages both across the industry and across the globe, whether in China, the U.S., or Latin America, in Mandarin, English, or Spanish.”

Begun in 1990, Onix (the Online Information Exchange) is a standard for the electronic transfer of rich product metadata about books across the entire supply chain. Pat Payton, senior manager of publisher relations and content development at Bowker, notes that until the millennium—and in some cases, to this day—publishers, printers, distributors, retailers, and librarians exchanged information about products through a variety of means, including spreadsheets, texts, and even non-Onix XML. Prior to 2001, Payton says, processes for getting data about each book from publishers to customers were inefficient because all of the major players—such as Ingram, Bowker, B&N, and Amazon—used different formats for gathering the critical metadata. Today, with the advent of digital products and global sales opportunities, sharing correct metadata is critical.

Despite difficulties in establishing Onix, everyone in the publishing industry is now at least aware of the standard. The first full version, Onix 1.0, was released in 2000, and different versions of the standard are currently widely in use throughout the book and e-book supply chains in North America, Europe, Australasia, and, increasingly, the Asia-Pacific region. Onix greatly reduces costs, as publishers no longer need to provide data in unique formats. In some cases, a single data feed is suitable for all of a publisher’s supply chain partners. And, by providing a template for the content and structure of a product record, Onix has helped to stimulate the industry-wide creation of better internal information systems, which bring together metadata needed for the promotion of both new and backlist titles.

As Firebrand Technologies’ website reminds its visitors, however, Onix is a format for transmitting data—it’s not the data transmitted using this format. More specifically, Onix is a standard XML format (a sort of digital bento box) that provides a consistent way to communicate among supply chain partners, allowing data to be exchanged between any number of databases. It is not limited to a single language, nor to the particulars of a specific national book trade. In fact, Onix gives publishers a standard format for the title, author, publisher, page count, pub date, even digitized cover art not only of books, but also serials (online subscription products, including e-books) and publication licenses. When used correctly, information is exchanged instantly once the Onix information has been entered, which diminishes the need for manual intervention and reduces human error.

Although its birth was somewhat chaotic organizationally (not unusual for a global standard), Onix is now governed by an international steering committee representing 15 countries, with oversight provided by the collaboration of Editeur, BIC, Bowker, and BISG. To some degree, each of these organizations still uses its own “flavor” of Onix, making it a useful standard... but not as useful as it could be. BISG has actively promoted an Onix certification program, and Payton estimates that Bowker receives “clean” data, using the current Onix 2.1 standard about 80% of the time.

The underlying problem facing the industry is that, with the onrush of new technologies (smart phones, tablets, sensors, social media, the cloud), Onix 2.1 structures have become too limited to handle new formats or marketing and promotional requirements. Thus, Onix 3.0—which began development in 2009 based on global user input—is a watershed for a number of reasons. It supports a wider range of data, including delivery format, DRM protection, pricing in different markets, rights and royalties information, as well as links to information outside typical book metadata (author videos on YouTube, etc.). Moreover, it levels the playing field for small- and medium-sized companies, which can now use the significantly expanded and disciplined Onix 3.0 to reach a truly worldwide marketplace and take advantage of a much broader spectrum of online retailers.

Curiously, larger publishers may be at a disadvantage when it comes to implementing Onix 3.0. As the number of people entering information into Onix in given company rises, inconsistencies occur more often, according to Payton. In addition, the sheer size of major publishers creates an even larger gap between those tasked with implementing Onix and those responsible for the strategy and direction of the company. This gap represents a vulnerability, especially as an understanding of technology becomes more critical to the formulations of strategic responses to changes in the marketplace. Sayor of GiantChair recalls that during a webinar organized by BIC and the Bookseller last year, one of the publishers involved commented, “What we need is a metadata expert on the board of directors!”

In one sense, however, experience with Onix gives all of publishing an advantage. One of the most disruptive technologies in the coming decade will be the so-called Internet of Everything (IOE). Cisco, the tech systems giant, estimates that there will be some 50 billion “smart” things that can communicate with digital devices and each other by 2020. The IOE will make it possible for machines, processes, and disparate systems to be interconnected across any value chain, linking end users and creators through an integrated network. In a sense, Onix is a forerunner of this, allowing the publishing industry across the globe to maximize its many networks to create new service opportunities, product differentiation, and revenue. As Michaels at Macmillan warns, however, the “metadata being right, and communicated correctly,” remains the critical factor. “Onix enables [all these benefits],” he advises, “only if everyone in the supply chain does this.”