News for Authors

Defining Metadata: Putting Your Books into the Hands of More Readers

by Andrea Bachofen and Laurie Stark|February, 2016

From writing descriptive copy to choosing the right keywords and BISAC subject codes, we take a look at a few of the nitty-gritty metadata decisions your publishing team makes to ensure that your book reaches the widest possible audience.

Describing Your Book: Flap Copy and Web Copy  

One important piece of metadata crafted by your publishing team is your book’s description, both for print (“flap copy”) and online (“web copy”). The flap copy of a physical book has long played a critical role in capturing the attention of casual browsers in bookstores. Along with the cover and any recommendations, it’s one of your book’s most important marketing tools.

Your book’s web copy is usually similar to its flap copy, but can also be changed depending on who it’s targeting. Often one or two sentences are added at the beginning to highlight movie or TV news, if applicable, or competitive titles, a major review, or a quick snapshot of the content.  This is relevant for online shoppers using search engines, such as Google, Yahoo!, or Bing, to find your title. To make sure the most effective description is found on the search engine’s results page, your team reviews the first sentence of web copy for impact. Google results pages, for example, display just 156 characters for each result; given this limited space, we make sure the key elements of your book are conveyed first. The web copy for A Game of Thrones, for example, may highlight the TV series in the first sentence, while the flap copy may not need to, because the physical book may have a burst or some other way of communicating it.

Each editor works with his or her team to make sure a book’s web and flap copy are honed for the right audiences, so this process varies greatly by publishing group.


Finding Your Book on Amazon: Keywords

A “keyword” is a word or phrase that’s associated with your book and is consistent with terms consumers generally use in search queries—which are not always the same terms used in your book description. Penguin Random House has experts who study the impact of keywords and their effectiveness over time and assign the most helpful ones to your title. When it comes to finding books on Amazon, keywords are even more important than the title’s web copy. For example, while a book’s web copy may include a blurb from Stephen King, Amazon knows that people searching for “Stephen King” aren’t looking for a book he recommended—they’re looking for books by him.

Keywords rarely include words found in the title or subtitle, and instead focus on relevant categories readers search for, such as setting (“New York City,” for instance), character type (“single mom”), character role (“strong female lead”), plot theme (“revenge”), and story tone (“somber”).  We also add keywords as events happen in the news. A specific event could bring a backlist title back to the fore with the help of new keywords.


Placing Your Book on Physical and Online Shelves: BISAC Codes

Where your book appears in a bookstore and on online “shelves” is incredibly important for getting it in front of readers; for this, your PRH team analyzes and chooses the right BISAC codes. At least one BISAC code must be assigned to every title published, in accordance with standards set by the Book Industry Study Group. There are thousands of codes to choose from, and they range from very broad—“Fiction/General,” for example—to more specific, such as “Fiction/Science Fiction/Space Opera.” Penguin Random House avoids the use of general categories, because rather than broadening the search results they actually lose results. The more specific example above will put you on three search result pages: fiction, science fiction, and space opera. Using only Fiction/General will get you onto only one (fiction). Try searching “Fiction” on Amazon or and see the thousands of results you get. Penguin Random House uses up to three BISAC codes for each title in order to promote across multiple shelves.

In physical bookstores, the BISAC assignment determines where your book is placed—within Fiction, Self-Help, Travel, Biography, or elsewhere. It’s one of the best automated tools we have for telling the bookstore what your book is about. Similarly, for online bookstores, the BISAC code helps determine the category under which your book is placed.  As with many digital tools, the BISAC list is a living entity, changing with the times. Penguin Random House constantly studies BISAC assignments and effectiveness, and occasionally adds to or changes the codes for better discoverability of your future titles.


Keeping It Together 

Sourcing these data points (and many others!) from your publishing team is one thing; storing, maintaining, and feeding data out to business partners is another, and for that we have various teams and systems in place. One key role is your imprint’s Managing Editorial department, which is responsible for ensuring that all title-related data is captured accurately. This data includes the ISBN, title, subtitle, page count, trim size, on-sale date, and much more. In a separate system, we keep track of the content associated with your book: the description, bio, quotes/reviews, excerpts, table of contents, and any other words we want to feed out for your title.

To get this information out to business partners, we combine the metadata and content into a weekly ONIX feed (the publishing industry standard for communicating to accounts; ONIX stands for Online Information Exchange). We pull together all the information we want retailers to have for your book into one file and send it out on Sundays along with your cover and basic content. If, afterward, a change needs to be sent to our business partners (if the on-sale date shifts, say, or the title changes), then our in-house Publishing Operations Support Team makes the change in the next file—which can take up to two weeks to reflect on retailer sites. In 2015 alone, our teams maintained metadata for more than 55,000 individual ISBNs.


Metadata is a living, breathing component of your book and can be changed over time to help with discoverability and sales. As such, setting up and maintaining it is a critical part of the publishing program. Various people, processes, and systems work together to ensure your books are best positioned to reach the widest possible audience.


Laurie Stark is Vice President, Publishing Operations Business Process and Support for Penguin Random House.

Andrea Bachofen is Associate Director, Publishing Development and Author Platforms for Penguin Random House.