In a brisk and surprisingly entertaining exchange—especially considering the topic—Brian O’Leary, principal at Megallen Media Consulting, and Laura Dawson, product manager at R.R. Bowker Identifiers, managed to make metadata, the descriptive information underlying and identifying digital content, not only a bit more comprehensible, but downright interesting. No surprise there, since these two have been enlightening the industry on this topic on Twitter and at various digital conferences for a number of years.

Interviewed by Mark Dressler on Thursday at the Frankfurt Book Fair on the Sparks Stage in Hall 8, in a conversation called, “When Will We Stop Talking About Metadata?”, O’Leary addressed the topic of the conversation right off the bat: “well, probably never.” In 1990, O’Leary said, there were about 900,000 ISBNs, but in today’s publishing world, Dawson added, “there are more products than ever before so there’s more metadata. Today there are 32 million ISBNs and an unknown number of unidentified books.”

Indeed this is the thrust of their exchange—the ever-increasing numbers of books and the faulty metadata being circulated about them—over the next half hour. The transition from print to digital has made metadata—which can mean anything from an ISBN to customer ranking on Amazon—not just simply useful, both Dawson and O’Leary emphasized, it is now critical to the ability to find and sell a book. The rise of digital publishing, and the lowering of barriers to entry for just about anyone—from professional publisher to newest self-publisher—has resulted in an explosion of metadata of all kinds. And apparently a sizeable chunk of it is either inaccurate or missing outright, compounding the problem of book discoverability.

“When it was only the print bookstore, BISAC was a luxury,” O’Leary said, “but with all the digital products, we need accurate and granular metadata. It’s what we need to make book discovery possible.” The explosion in the amount of digital book content, “puts pressure on the metadata,” said Dawson, who pointed out that once inaccurate metadata is published online, “it’s there forever. If you’ve ever tried to correct a mistake in the metadata you know it’s a game of Whack-A-Mole.”

In fact in the olden days of print, O’Leary said, “It used to be that once you shipped the book, that was the end, the metadata was done. But with digital it never stops, there are constant updates and changes.” And as more consumers around the world go online they encounter information on all kinds of books, many of which they will want—but will be unable to buy. “Today, every book you publish is visible everywhere, even if you can’t buy it [because of territorial rights],” O’Leary said, “This encourages piracy, because if people do try to buy it, they find out they can’t.”

And on that somewhat disconcerting note, the two drew the exchange to an end, emphasizing that everyone needs to “cast a wider net for metadata” and to stop thinking about metadata as a job that somebody else should be doing. “Consumers play a role now with customer reviews and ratings,” Dawson said.

“Metadata is not just for the trade [professional], but also meant for consumers,” O’Leary said. “Metadata is seen as something that everyone else has to do, but it happens in production, marketing and everywhere. If you acquire books you need to know how to describe that book and to price it because this is how we sell books in today’s world.”