There Is No Such Thing As “Metadata”
Brian O’Leary and BISG are about to release their study on metadata in the book supply chain. I’ve been lucky enough to get a sneak peek and it’s great. Brian’s traced the progress of metadata from publisher to consumer, and documented what happens to it along the way.
This will inevitably lead to cries for “better metadata”. In fact, it already has.
But here’s the thing – what’s good metadata for a publisher isn’t necessarily good metadata for a retailer. When we talk about metadata, as an industry, we are not all talking about the same thing. There IS no such thing as generic metadata. Metadata is communication. And, as with all communication, one must consider the source (and the source’s agenda).
What’s “good metadata” to a distributor is not to a publisher. What’s “good metadata” to a retailer is in some cases quite difficult for a publisher to swallow. And library metadata is “authoritative”, which means it is independent of the influence of one publisher or another, and in a non-commercial environment.
The final arbiter of “good metadata” is, ultimately, the consumer. The most direct route to the consumer these days is the retailer or the library. For better or worse, most publishers don’t have that final audience and are not in a position to dictate what the customer sees and doesn’t see. But the retailer is. The library is.
So any metadata feed from a publisher is going to get massaged and changed according to how the retailer and/or library sees its customers. Perhaps they don’t want their screens cluttered up with information – in those cases, the retailer/library is not going to provide all the fields a publisher sends. Perhaps the customers actually want a LOT of detail – and the publisher isn’t sending it, so the retailer/library has to fill it in on their own. In either case, that metadata’s going to look a lot different from what the publisher sends.
What it boils down to is: Who has the final right to describe that book – the publisher or the retailer…or anybody else? Much of this is reminiscent of when Amazon and BN began running customer reviews, and authors and publishers (and professional book reviewers) became incensed that consumers actually had the “right” to comment publicly on books.
Once a book is published, it’s out there and can be described any way anybody wants. This is unnerving to a lot of people – particularly publishers. With the internet, the publisher no longer controls the message about its books. There is no uniform metadata that everybody agrees to use. The first sale doctrine, in fact, specifies this:
…the owner of a particular copy or phonorecord lawfully made under this title, or any person authorized by such owner, is entitled, without the authority of the copyright owner, to sell or otherwise dispose of the possession of that copy or phonorecord.
The retailer or library is the owner of the book, having bought copies (ultimately from the publisher) to provide to its constituents. The owner can sell the book any way it wants. It does not have to sell the book specifically as the publisher wishes the book to be sold. (Google the term “agency pricing” for this model.)
When I say there is no such thing as “metadata”, what I mean is that these generic statements about “metadata” as a thing in and of itself are ignoring the most critical issue – that metadata is how we communicate information about books, and that communication is as nuanced, biased, self-interested, subject to moving priorities as any other communication among trading partners.
Unless publishers have a great relationship with their readers themselves – the individual readers – they are not going to control the sale. Unless retailers and libraries have a great relationship with publishers, they’re not going to have much to provide to readers. Just as great relationships usually mean great communication in everyday life, so it is in Bookland. Metadata is not about control. It’s about effectiveness – and effectiveness is negotiated. Effectiveness evolves. It is not a thing in itself.
Brian’s study is very nuanced and the result of a lot of very hard work. I hope it doesn’t get pigeonholed in a generic fashion.