Last Updated: January 2019
What Is Metadata?
Once you’ve mostly settled on where you want to sell your book, it’s time for one of my least favorite parts of the publishing process: metadata. This is the information about your book that tells publishers, retailers, and search engines how to categorize it and how to find it. Such information can include:
Title, Subtitle, Author Name
Genre (or Category), sometimes more than one
Book Description (the back-cover copy that describes your book’s content)
Blurbs (promotional quotes, typically from famous authors)
A lot of the emphasis placed on good metadata relates to how it affects SEO (Search Engine Optimization)—in other words, your book’s visibility to a reader looking for their next purchase. If someone searches the internet or a retailer’s site for “friendly aliens,” you want your book about Earth’s first contact with a race of benevolent extraterrestrials to appear as high in the search results as possible. Fine-tuning your book’s metadata will help it ascend the ranks.
How Do I Fine-Tune My Metadata?
First, let’s get the obvious out of the way: spell everything correctly when creating and sending out your book’s metadata. Don’t set one of your keywords for that friendly-alien story to “frist contarct.”
Second, be prepared to re-examine your book’s metadata from time to time after its release. Your sales may benefit from revising the description, swapping out one keyword for another, or any number of other adjustments. If you receive an award or a glowing editorial review, update the appropriate section of your product page.
Now let’s go down the list, starting with Title/Subtitle. (Unless you’re writing in a new and very different genre, your author name should remain the same.) For nonfiction authors, you can fuss a great deal with the perfect title that will boost your book’s visibility in search results, especially because subtitles are far more common in nonfiction. Fiction authors, on the other hand, can’t really get away with a title full of keywords—although I’m sure some have tried. But let’s say a romance author is putting out a series of books, each of which features a pair of protagonists that start as friends and end as lovers (a popular trope with many). That author would do well to use a “Series Title” that acts as a keyword gold mine, such as Wrong Number (Friends to Lovers Book 1).
Depending on your preferred distribution path and on the distributor or retailer that sells your book for you, you’ll select one or more Genres/Categories for your story, most commonly using BISAC Subject Codes. Amazon and Smashwords allow two categories, and iBooks allows only one. It shouldn’t need to be said, but don’t choose Regency Romance as the primary category for your contemporary mystery novel. Many indie authors recommend selecting as niche a subcategory as your story can justify. Doing that means your book competes against a smaller number of similar titles for a high sales rank in that subcategory, and it also means readers looking for a particular kind of book can find yours more easily.
One of the most powerful parts of your book’s metadata is its Description, also known as back copy or jacket copy. For nonfiction titles, it’s an engaging summary of the content and often a promise of what you’ll learn. For fiction titles, it’s an enticing hook that makes readers want to read your story and find out what happens. On the metadata side, your book description is a source for keywords that search engines and retailers use to direct readers to your product page.
Nonfiction book descriptions can be very salesy; they can use bullet points and slip in the occasional keyword without much difficulty. They can also be fairly long, especially online, maxing out at 5,000 characters at some retailers. (Keep in mind lengthy descriptions might be hidden partway down behind a “Read More” link.) A strong book description for a fiction title, however, probably shouldn’t be longer than 200-300 words, and it’s not easy to distill your entire plot into a couple paragraphs that will entice readers and contain the most optimal keywords. That would be as difficult as solving a Rubik’s cube one-handed while blindfolded and skydiving.
One way to fluff out that description in order to grab the attention of search engines is to include promotional copy below the story hook: an excerpt, snippets of positive editorial reviews (not reviews left by readers on your product page), blurbs from famous authors, a list of any awards your book has received, etc.
As for how to craft a strong book description? I’ll say right now that if you’re feeling a ton of pressure and writer’s block, you’re in the exact same boat as a lot of other authors. But keep your butt in the seat, feed your rage with chocolate, and you’ll be able to push through to something you like. Start off with the knowledge that you will write several different versions over several drafts, and you will not be able to put in every interesting detail you can think of. Look at a variety of descriptions online, especially those in your genre, and copy + paste the ones you like into a file for your dissection. Read through the articles I linked below, and then go back to those descriptions for another look. Write a few different versions of your description based on the conventions you like the most. Show them to beta readers, friends, and maybe even your editor if they’re willing. Use that feedback to revise, and make sure the story description itself isn’t too long.
Resources for Writing a Book Description:
“8 Tips for Writing that Killer Blurb” (Mar 2014) by Ruth Harris via Anne R. Allen
“6 Things to Consider When Writing Promotional Copy for Your Book” (Jun 2014) by Karl Bunker via The Book Designer
“Blurbs that Bore, Blurbs that Blare” (Aug 2014) by Michaelbrent Collings via Writers Helping Writers
“The Art of Writing Back Copy: Boiling Your Book to its Essence” (Aug 2014) by PJ Parrish via The Kill Zone
“How to Punch Up a Blurb or Query” (Mar 2015) by Julie Glover via Jami Gold
“Writing Your Book’s Back-Cover Copy” (Aug 2015) by Jessi Rita Hoffman via Jane Friedman
“Four Mistakes Indie Authors Make with Their Book Description” (Dec 2015) by BlueInk Review via BookBaby
“Writing the Perfect Blurb” (Nov 2016) by Rayne Hall via Adazing
The heavy hitter of your metadata with regards to SEO is the Keywords. How many you can allot depends on the distributor or retailer, but you’re generally allowed somewhere between five to ten keywords per book. (It’s seven at Amazon.) And when I say “keywords,” I don’t mean five to ten standalone words. I mean five to ten “key phrases” or “keyword strings.” The general advice when selecting keywords is to find out the most popular searches for books like yours. The idea is to further “refine” your genre/category. Maybe the lowest subcategory your friendly-alien story can get on Amazon is Science Fiction & Fantasy > Science Fiction > First Contact, so you can use your seven keywords to help readers find a lighthearted romp with an alien family just trying to have a fun vacation rather than a dark, violent story with hostile aliens that are intent on using planet Earth as a testing facility for biological weapons.
Refining Your Keywords:
“Selecting Browse Categories” (Amazon-specific)
“7 Tips for Amazon Keywords and Best Selling Books” (Oct 2013) by Jason Matthews
Older blog posts like this one about honing keywords will direct you to Google Keyword Planner, but I haven’t found this tool to be very helpful, and you’re forced to click through setting up an ad campaign in order to get to it, even if you don’t plan to pay for advertising at this time. Instead, play around with Amazon’s search bar while in Chrome’s “Incognito Mode.”
“How To (Ethically) Hack Amazon Categories” (Jul 2018) by David Gaughran
“How to Make the Bestseller Lists: Why Categories and Keywords Matter” (Apr 2014) by Ruth Harris via Anne R. Allen
When it comes to Blurbs, first I’ll point out that some people in the industry (myself included until the light bulb turned on) refer to Book Descriptions as Blurbs, which they’re not. Indeed, many of the links I collected for description-writing say “blurb.” The book description/back copy/jacket copy generally refers to the words that describe what the story’s about and ends with a hook to make readers want to buy and read your book. Blurbs refer to a testimonial or endorsement or "front-cover quote," mostly commonly from a famous author in the same or a similar genre, a big-name expert in a certain field (mostly for nonfiction titles), or a “recognized critical institution” like Publisher’s Weekly, NPR, or The New York Times. These quotes usually sound something like, “I couldn’t put this one down! —Famous Author” or “For mystery lovers, This Book is a must-buy! —Famous Literary Magazine.”
Of course, blurbs can be and are often placed both on the front cover of a book as well as the back, usually below the book description in the latter case. For eBooks, some retailer sites allow blurbs to be grouped with the description; others might force you to use a separate field. So, blurbs can be considered part of the book description, but they don’t generally describe the plot (there are exceptions). Instead, they usually describe how much the author/reviewer enjoyed the book, its tone, the author's writing style, or possibly a character. In the case of nonfiction titles, blurbs from experts tend to emphasize the high quality of the book’s content or how helpful it would be to potential readers.
Do you absolutely need a blurb from a famous author, a respected expert, or a big-name reviewer? Some people insist you do, and even go so far as to tell self-published authors that if they haven’t been critiqued and mentored by one or more traditionally published authors who are thus in the position to blurb you, “Are you sure that you’re ready to publish?” Some say blurbs are more about mutual ego-stroking than helping sales. (BookBub has evidence to the contrary.) Some authors admit they saw success without blurbs. Personally, I would say to at least try. But it doesn’t make much sense to me to hold off on releasing your story simply because you don’t have a one-sentence endorsement to tack onto your book description.
So, how do you work up the guts to ask a well-known author for a blurb, especially if you’re a fan? I can’t help with the guts part, but if you’re polite and humble, no one sane will set out to ruin your career simply for asking. At worst, they’ll be overly curt in their refusal or won’t respond at all, and you can really just let that roll right off your back. Two things, though: 1) do make sure the author doesn’t explicitly state they don’t do blurbs at all, and 2) some authors don’t accept blurb requests from anyone other than an editor, agent, or publisher, so self-publishers are unfortunately out of luck unless their freelance editor is a BFD.
Choosing and Politely Contacting Authors Who Might Blurb You:
“How to Ask for a Blurb (Even When You’re Intimidated)” (Oct 2012) by Sarah Pinneo via QueryTracker Blog
“Blurb Etiquette” (Feb 2014) by Mike Duran
“How to Get Blurbs for Your Book & Use Them in Your Marketing” (Aug 2015) by Diana Urban via BookBub
“Forget the Book, Have You Read This Irresistible Story on Blurbs?” (Sep 2015) by Colin Dwyer via NPR
Includes some interesting history, various viewpoints from authors/publishers, and a little data about what makes a helpful blurb.
People in the industry generally agree blurbs written by authors impact sales the most, but a professional critic telling everyone how your characters “leapt off the page” can be a helpful little boost. Even though Editorial Reviews can also be used as blurbs, let’s talk about them separately.
Editorial reviews are written by professional critics, typically for magazines, newspapers, or a similar institution. Examples include The New York Times, USA Today, and NPR, but they hardly ever review self-published books unless it’s the first self-published title of an already successful, traditionally published author. Some genre-specific magazines like RT Book Reviews for romance and erotica are more willing. These critics are paid by the magazine or newspaper, and not the author. Requesting a review from these sources usually doesn’t require anything more than a free copy of the book, but review requests may not be granted.
Then there are paid reviews, which an author does shell out money for in order to gain a 100% chance of a review. Jane Friedman breaks down these review sources into three categories:
Reviews for trade publications, which are read by booksellers, librarians, and other industry professionals. Many of these review sources used to be primarily for traditionally published books, but now offer paid review services for self-published authors.
Reviews for non-trade publications, which might be read by industry professionals, readers, or a mix of both.
Reader reviews. These are nonprofessional opinions by readers who don’t work for a review service. On Amazon, they are the reviews at the bottom of your product page that affect the star-rating of your book.
As Jane says, it’s unethical to pay for reader reviews. Doing so threatens the credibility of critiques about your work and will almost certainly get you into trouble with distributors and retailers. At most, retailers like Amazon currently only tolerate solicited reader reviews if the only thing of value given was a free copy of the book being reviewed. Even if a reader review is not paid, any perceived shenanigans can result in deleted reviews or a ding to your author account. Unfortunately, even being friends with a reviewer on Facebook or otherwise being linked to them on social media is currently enough for Amazon to dump their review into a black hole.
Additional Resources/Opinions on Book Reviews:
“The New Gatekeepers: How to Query a Book Review Blogger” (Nov 2011) by Anne R. Allen
“How to Make Book Reviews Work Harder to Promote Your Book” (Dec 2014) by Kiffer Brown via Where Writers Win (say that site name three times fast)
“Disappearing Amazon Reviews: The Facts Behind Amazon’s Review Purges” (Nov 2015) by Anne R. Allen
“Are Paid Book Reviews Worth It?” (Feb 2016) by Jane Friedman
“Ten Tips on How to Pitch Your Book to Review Bloggers and Not Get Ignored” (Mar 2016) by Riki Cleveland via Lit Reactor
General Metadata Resources:
“How to Sell More Books by Optimizing Your Metadata” (Jul 2013) by Joanna Penn via Jane Friedman
"How to Improve Your Amazon Book Description & Metadata” (Apr 2015) by Penny Sansevieri via Jane Friedman
"A Simple Author Metadata Audit in Less Than 30 Minutes” (Mar 2016) by David Wogahn via Author Imprints
“Mastering Metadata: The Key to Marketing Your Books” (Apr 2016) by Carla King via BookWorks
“How Amazon Search Really Works (And How This Helps You Sell More Books)” (Oct 2018) via Kadaxis