The Work

Talking About Books: ONIX


In 1999, a group of publishers, online booksellers, distributors, and data/content aggregators gathered around a table at the New York office of the Association of American Publishers. (It would be the first time representatives from both Amazon and Barnes & Noble were in the same room together, and the largest gathering to date of all participants in the book supply chain.) In discussions that occasionally got heated, the group acknowledged the challenges in getting book data from publisher to retailer (through a variety of channels) so that consumers could view it.

At the time, EDItEUR and AAP were developing something that they called Online Information Exchange – that meeting was the US book industry’s first exposure to what would become ONIX. Within a few months, the Book Industry Study Group had put together a committee (with liaisons from EDItEUR and AAP) to examine ONIX and determine the viability of its implementation in the US. This became the BISG Metadata Committee, which is now chaired by Richard Stark at Barnes & Noble (an original Muzer). ONIX is a global standard and the BISG Metadata Committee is the venue for American publishers to review the standard, recommend improvements, and troubleshoot implementation.

So what is ONIX, exactly? It’s an XML schema for communication information about products in the book supply chain. There are several series of standardized tags, as well as codelists denoting controlled vocabularies. Much of the work of the BISG Metadata Committee centers around the codelists – defining formats, contributor roles, determining what the term Page Count actually means. Entire 3-hour meetings have been dedicated to defining what a Pub Date is. (This has never actually been resolved to anyone’s satisfaction.) Where there are standards, there are compromises, arguments, and rat holes. Thirteen years after the first meeting about ONIX, the discussions can still sometimes get quite heated.

In the process, the term ONIX has come to be nearly synonymous with “book metadata”. Many, many publishers never view the DTD or create XML files – the metadata gets entered in spreadsheets, or by hand in online data-entry forms. In 2005, BISG began developing a set of best practices for publishers who were sending metadata, regardless of format.

ONIX has undergone several revisions. Most of the US industry is still on Version 2.1 (European publishers are moving to Version 3.0, which handles ebook metadata and other issues with more flexibility).

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