Metadata: An Interview with AllRomanceeBooks CEO Lori James

Over the weekend of Amazon vs. Macmillan: the Grudge Match, AllRomanceeBooks gave out a limited-time 50% off coupon, prompting many of us to go shopping (myself included) and all of us collectively to crash their poor servers. (My servers, I hear, are starting a support group to help their servers recover from the onslaught). While discussing the coupon and the sales options within andAllRomanceeBooks, Lori James and I got into a discussion about metadata and why it’s important to readers and to booksellers. While much of this pertains to digital shopping, since so many of us shop online for both paper and digital books, I was very curious about how information about the book affects how the book can and is sold. So, ahoy, nosy questions from me (who knows little about bookselling) for Lori, who’s pretty knowledgable.

What is metadata? 

Lori: Metadata is basically data about data. What we’re really talking about is data about books, everything from the book’s summary and author name to the publication date and word count.

As a bookseller, why is publisher metadata crucial for you?

Lori: Metadata is important to all booksellers, but it’s especially vital for a digital bookseller. We rely on it to replicate the bookstore browsing experience. When the metadata is rich and accurate, we can even improve on the brick and mortar experience in some ways. Our goal is to get the books readers want into their hands. Good metadata can do that. Great metadata can do more. It can help readers find books they didn’t know they wanted or needed. 

What types of metadata on a book are absolutely essential? 

Lori: Title, category, author, cover, summary, publisher and price are essential. Readers additionally expect the word count (page count is meaningless in the digital word), excerpt, and reviews. Publishers that don’t provide that information are missing opportunity.

What are some of the most common things publishers miss?

#1 missed opportunity: Lack of appropriate categorization. 

The default is for a bookseller to “shelve” a book where the publisher tells us to shelve it. In the All Romance and Omnilit stores, we’ll shelve in up to three categories. Many publishers fail to maximize the potential use of shelf space or they make the mistake of categorizing too broadly. We do have the ability, thank goodness, to add categories and correct categories and we frequently do so.

#2 missed opportunity: Inconsistent reporting of the author name.

J.R. Ward, J. R. Ward, and JR Ward are unique. In the digital world, reference linking is key. When a user enters J.R. Ward in a search, they expect to have ALL of her books returned. We’re constantly cleaning up these issues.

#3 missed opportunity: No summary/excerpt

If a customer comes to our store to buy a particular book, this isn’t important. But it’s extremely important when it comes to secondary sales. Most of our customers purchase multiple titles at a time and we present them with additional browsing opportunities. The pattern we see over and over is that readers are pulled in by cover/title>summary>excerpt>add to cart. So each of those items pay a very important role in getting the customer to the point of purchase. 

Should there be a metadata standard? Who could enforce it?

Lori: ONIX (Online Information Exchange) is essentially the industry metadata standard. Onix 1.0 was launched in 2000. It was the result of collaboration between the AAP (American Association of Publishers), major wholesalers, online retailers, and book information services. The current standard, Onix 3.0, contains over 200, each with a standard definition. Major wholesalers (Ingram, Baker & Taylor, and R.R. Bowker) have adopted the Onix standard and most major on-line booksellers have moved or are moving toward it. 

One data point we capture that Onix doesn’t (and therefore the major wholesalers don’t), is the sensuality or heat rating for romance. We’ve found this to be a very important element. Onix captures the reading level (i.e. Adult), but that really isn’t the same thing. A romance reader’s taste is very nuanced and they want to know what to expect when they pick up a book.

One way in which I’ve used metadata is to categorize books for sorting using the Sony Reader software. Alas, the categories feature is not available for Amazon or, to my knowledge, Nook. On-device organization is one thing I adore about the Sony platform. You “tag” a set of book with different words like “historical,” “December 2010,” or “Regency Era” and those categories show up on the device with those books inside. It’s deliriously awesome. I miss it.

Another way I use metadata is when I’m shopping. One of my favorite things is related books, based on my prior purchases or what I have in my shopping cart. I’ve ended up with a few more paperbacks than I’ve intended based on the “customers also bought,” and “you might like” and have tried new authors based on those linked recommendations. Sure, I take them with a grain of salt but every now and again I discover writers that are entirely glommable.

Do you notice how books are described when you shop online? Is heat rating super important to you as a reader?


Comments are Closed

  1. Alyse says:

    One of the things I didn’t see on the list but is fairly common, is “warnings”. This is also a category where some standardization and clarity and guidelines might make for happier readers. Also making them searchable might help potential readers find books that fit their kinks.

    i took advantage of the 50% discount over at Omnilit and ended up with a few winners, some serious dreck, and one book that had so much non-consensual sexual assault in the first 20 pages that I couldn’t even keep reading the book.

    I know non-con is awesome for some folks, but if it had been in the warnings, i might have saved myself the few bucks and a fair amount of upset. OTOH the upside would be that the folks who are into that would be able to find it and enjoy it.

  2. LVLM says:

    I really love ARe/ OmniLit’s site now. For the longest time there were no separations between gay/lesbian and if you wanted lesbian you had to slog through pages and pages of gay. They’ve really cleaned that all up and most of it’s nicely separated. Unlike Fictionwise.

    I also love that you can search by heat rating, word count, best sellers, top rated, and recently added. It gets me to what I want a lot quicker.

    Usually when I go to places like ARe I’m browsing; I don’t have a title or author I want, just looking in a certain genre or subject. So metadata is very important to me. And I love that with this system, I can get more specific than if I would browse in a book store.

    What’s especially important to me is the word count. There are lots of epubs out there that sell 5k books for $3. That’s a lot of freaking money for a 5k book. So w/c is one of the most important pieces of information for me.

    Oh and just a PS. I went shopping during that 50% off sale and downloaded one or two books in a format my e-reader couldn’t read, but I thought could. Lori gave me excellent and pretty much immediate service (I was shocked to get a response to my issue within an hour or two on a Sat and Sun), trying to help me out and re-instated those books so I could download them in another format I could read.

  3. Carin says:

    I think metadata is important.  I like the “heat rating”.  To me it’s the online equivalent of paging through a book and seeing how it’s written. 

    I agree with Alyse about the “warnings” too.  Generally the blurb makes it clear what kind of romance you’re reading.  I really like the funny descriptions that one publisher (I think it’s Ellora’s Cave) does where the last line of the blurb is something like “This book contains hot cowboy loving, use of bull ropes, underwater sex, and sweaty cowboy/cowboy action in hayloft.”  I love that it’s given in a funny way, but whether it’s done in a line like that or in the blurb, it’s very important to me.

    I also really enjoy the recommendations given when you put a book in your cart.  Word count is very important, too!

  4. SB Sarah says:

    if you wanted lesbian you had to slog through pages and pages of gay

    For some reason, that cracked me up. Pages and pages… of GAY! I want a movie promo announcer to read that out loud.

    Usually when I go to places like ARe I’m browsing; I don’t have a title or author I want, just looking in a certain genre or subject. So metadata is very important to me.

    YES. I think one reason metadata is SO important is that it is one of the best methods for an online bookstore to encourage browsing instead of shopping for specific titles. I’ve bemoaned the fact that I find it hard to browse digital bookstores because there’s not enough information or related products to do casual browsing for ideas like I do in a physical bookstore. The more data there is to link the books together, the more I can look at things I wouldn’t otherwise see. Love that.

  5. Dana L says:

    I purchased books during their 50% off sell.  That was the first time that I had heard of All Romance Books and I liked the way their site was set up.  I liked their heat ratings because some days you might want a lot of heat and some days only a little.  I thought I hated romance books, but have found that I enjoy paranormal and sci- fi romance books.  I only thought there were Harlequin Romances out there.

    By the way, how do you use the Sony Reader software to categorize your books?

  6. Kristin says:

    Fascinating article Sarah! 

    Metadata is invaluable.  I love all the categorizations that ARe uses.  It has made it much easier to find what I want.  And, the heat rating rocks.

  7. Natasha R says:

    Interesting interview. While I was reading the response I kept going “aah….that is so true!”

    To answer the other question…I definitely take note of the heat rating when it’s in the erotica section. But romance…not so much.

  8. joykenn says:

    Ah, ha!  Now folks will truely know the wonder that is metadata.  Toiling in obscurity the gnomes of the Meta have longed to be recognized for the wonders that they create—behind the walls, hidden from view by passersby on the information highway.  Smart Bitches has now ripped away the veil of secrecy that shrouded their work to reveal its true awesomeness.  Hurrah for SB!

  9. This is fascinating stuff.  Thanks!

  10. Carin says:

    Correction – the desciptions I love… they come from Samhain.  And here’s a real one:

    Warning: This title contains explicit sexuality, bad dancing and man-on-door violence.

  11. Oh my, you’re talking librarianspeak…I’m in raptures. Thanks for a great post on the importance of cataloguing, cross-referencing and metadata.

    Francesca Hawley
    (librarian by day, erotic romance author by night)

  12. Becky says:

    @ Carin:  I just gotta know.  Which book is that warning from?  I might have to read it for the warning alone!

  13. Susan says:

    Thanks, SB Sarah, for this interview with a bookseller. I work for a university press and we spend hours on metadata—creating it, fixing it, sending it to our metadata vendor who sends it to everyone else, finding out that they couldn’t send it because of mistakes, then fixing and resending it….and on it goes. And once a title is out there with incorrect metadata…well, getting a mistake fixed takes forever and sometimes the original mistake comes back to haunt us. One very important reason to get it right the first time.

    Good metadata is vitally important, and as Lori says, it’s crucial to helping readers find and decide to buy books. It’s taken us more than 5 years to collect and clean up 80 years worth of book metadata. We’re not done; we’re just fortunate to be farther along than many publishers.

    Metadata, for better or worse, makes the book business go round.

  14. Alessia Brio says:

    Now that I’m the one entering the metadata for my books on sites like ARe, I try to take full advantage of every field. That said, it’s a painstaking process when you’re re-releasing a 20+ book backlist. Each bookseller does it differently, too.

    Some accept a CSV file containing the metadata & FTP uploads of the books & cover art. Others (like ARe) require hand-entering each title, which is a seriously tedious process. The advantage of the latter is instant availability on the site. The former is easier for me, but it relies on a human on the other side of the equation to release the title. Thus, time ‘til availability for sale varies.

    It’s easy to see how a busy publisher releasing several books each week via booksellers might allow attention to metadata detail to falter. As the accuracy of my metadata improves, though, I’ve seen a corresponding increase in my sales.

  15. Marisa says:

    I totally agree with metadata importance (and I love Sahmain’s description too 😀 ) They’re very, very important to find something you like. And a thing I like about Elloras’s is its warnings (you KNOW what you buy, but that isn’t very frequent). Anyway I miss a very important metadata: series. Sorry, perhaps it’s not important for librarians/publishers but I think it’s for the readers. And Sony’s categories (same than Stanza) are very nice too, it would be very interesting (and it would be very interesting if you could see this metadata in your reader).

  16. Dowsabel says:

    I’m so delighted to see a discussion of metadata here and to read all the positive comments. It’s what I do and, while it’s particularly vital for digital books, there’s very little chance of selling a book anywhere, in any format, without accurate, timely and comprehensive metadata. 

    I’m very familiar with ONIX and am intrigued by the comments about data elements that would be useful that aren’t currently included.  If you’re a provider of metadata it’s well worth mentioning this to the bodies that develop and maintain the standard; EDItEUR, Book Industry Communication or BISG, who will feed it into discussions about future versions.

  17. Estara says:

    For people wo don’t use Sony Software or Stanza – the Calibre freeware can also categorize, add tags, change metadata (even download missing metadata from the internet). Very nifty.

    Not only do I feel43, I will be 43 in two months ^^.

  18. Statch says:

    I was delighted to see this post! As a reader, I wish so much that the online booksellers had a richer set of metadata to work with. Heat level is important but it really doesn’t tell me much. I’ll buy a book with a very high heat level if the emotional content is there. I’ll stop reading a book after a few chapters—regardless of heat level—if the emotional content is missing. It would be wonderful if metadata had a way to characterize that. (I think that’s supposed to be the difference between hot romance and erotica, but the line is very blurry.)

    Imagine if metadata could identify tropes. Like ‘secret baby’ books? Here they all are…buy as many as you want.

    Richer metadata would also give more ways to relate books to each other. Anyone who can come up with a more accurate ‘if you liked this, you’ll like these’ feature is going to get my business (as long as they charge reasonable prices for ebooks :->).

    The metadata may be tedious to put in, but it has a huge effect on my buying, and could have an even bigger positive effect if it was done right.

  19. Lori James says:

    Next stop…nirvana.

    I’m in heaven. I feel like Sally Fields picking up the Oscar. You get it…you really, really get it! I have to admit when Sarah asked me if I’d answer some questions about metadata I was almost paralyzed by fear of putting everyone to sleep. But yippee! I’m right at home.

    @alyse – if you email me at lori.james @ I can make sure the book you purchased is reviewed and we can place an appropriate warning on it.

    @lvlm – I’m so with you on the word count. That’s something I personally pay close attention to.

    @Kristen and @Karin – Heat ratings…I personally like knowing what to expect in this regard. I can enjoy the full range, sweet to smokin’ hot, but I want to know what to expect.

    @Joykenn – You have Gnomes? I have Gnomes. Mine continue to steal my husbands socks.

    @Fransesca – you rock, sister.

    @Alessia et al – endeavoring to make it easier.


  20. Carin says:

    @Becky – I haven’t read the book, but it’s What She Deserves by Ellie Marvel.

    @Statch – has reviews tagged with their tropes

  21. Becky says:

    Sweet, thanks!

  22. BevQB says:

    BTW, back in the day, we called them INDEX fields. And I’ve got hundreds of older ebboks from Ellora’s Cave, Loose-Id, Changeling Press, etc. where you never knew how or if there was ever going to be anything useful in those fields. Any given book might or might not have its title in the field, and if there happened to be an author’s name, it might be first name-last name or last name-first name or first initial-last name or last name-first initial. Basically, trying to find a book in MSReader was not fun. I did rename all the file names to LastName-FirstName-series-title so I could at least find them all that way. But, that still often means clicking on the file name to read them rather than browsing through my MSReader library index.

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