Among the challenges technology poses for publishing is the issue of how to handle globalization. With the potential to reach a truly global marketplace, there is a need for automated M2M (machine to machine—really, computer to computer) data exchange, with which the books and serial products, as well as the information about each product—the metadata—can be easily exchanged. And as demand surges for e-books, new digital product, subscriptions, nuanced pricing, etc., there is a pressing need for standards, not only within the metadata itself, but with the structure in which it is presented.

Thankfully, in Europe and the U.S., the publishing supply chain has an advantage. For the past 15 years, the industry has adopted, albeit incompletely, Onix—an online information exchange standard for sharing data and metadata electronically. Over time, its sophistication in terms of syntax (the fields into which the information is placed) and semantics (the richness of information in each field) has grown steadily. And even as Onix 2.1 achieved scale in the U.S., U.K., and German markets, new digital products, markets, and business models have prompted the four-year build of Onix 3.0.

The new iteration offers several improvements over Onix 2.1, explains Jesus Paraita, technical director of DILVE, the Spanish equivalent of Onix, which is owned and managed by the Spanish Federation of Publisher’s Guilds (FGEE). Among the new features are the ability to handle different e-book characteristics, such as formats, DRM, etc.; information about varying market availability and distribution; collateral resources describing the product, such as author videos and links to other sites; and details on a variety of business models—subscription, rental, and discount pricing—that often vary from country to country.

And more generally, says Graham Bell, executive director of Editeur, the principle player in an international group governing Onix, “Onix 3.0 is simpler than Onix 2.1, so that data recipients have an easier job. There’s a lot more consistency in the way the various Onix data structures are used.”

Chris Saynor, head of a new Onix 3 BISG working group and metadata specialist at GiantChair (, characterizes the new standard as “the Esperanto of global publishing.” However, with the readiness of Onix 3.0, publishing has also reached a turning point: this new standard is not compatible with earlier versions, and a controversial “sunset” has been proposed to encourage the entire publishing supply chain to move to its adoption.

“In the U.S., and some European countries, Onix 2.1 is now so entrenched, there is a general lack of motivation to change,” says Phil Madans, executive director of digital publishing technology at Hachette Book Group USA. He points out that work-arounds have been developed that make it possible to include some Onix 3.0 functionality.

Christer Perslov, managing director at Bokrondellen in Stockholm, says his organization did “a hard switch” from Onix 2.1 to 3.0, “which is easier, because in a small country like ours, all five book chains could get together and agree.” But even so, he cautions, the way Onix 3.0 is used in one country is not quite the same as in another.

Adding to the inertia created by the sunk costs and infrastructure of Onix 2.1 is what both Paraita and Madans classify as a chicken-and-egg problem. Publishers may ask, “If few recipients are taking the Onix 3.0 feed, why should we take on the effort and cost of the change?” And recipients, such as wholesalers or retailers, may reply, “If publishers are still sending the metadata in 2.1, what’s the point of upgrading?”

Curiously, larger publishers may also be at a certain disadvantage, as many people in a large company enter information into Onix, which means inconsistencies arise more easily. And the sheer size of the major publishers creates an even larger gap between those tasked with implementing Onix, and those responsible for the strategy and direction of the company.

Exacerbating the problem is the fact that senior publishing executives have rarely focused much attention on metadata. This gap could become a vulnerability, however, especially as the strategic use of technology becomes a critical factor, accelerating need for quick-response marketplace shifts. Saynor recalls one publisher commenting during a webinar last year that “what we need is a metadata expert on the board of directors!”

That may not happen soon, but with Onix 3.0, other things may be changing. “Onix [3.0] 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 as well as geographies,” says Ken Michaels Global COO of Macmillan Science and Education. “Editorial and marketing knowledge can be passed on to all channel partners to help both streamline commerce [globally], reduce costs, and optimize revenue.”