Just under a week ago the UK’s Book Industry Communication organization issued a widely reported cease and desist notice to publishers to stop abusing the metadata system.

Porter Anderson over at Publishing Perspectives carried the story

“Some publishers and other metadata providers,” writes Karina Luke, BIC’s executive director, “are using the subtitle, and sometimes the title fields, in metadata feeds to carry marketing and promotional text. By this we mean using phrases such as ‘Sunday Times Best Seller,’ ‘Gripping read from….’ ‘The Richard & Judy Book Club thriller 2017’, ‘ The best thriller writer alive,’  ‘Man Booker Prize winner,’ and so on.”

“It is important for discoverability, good customer experience, and an efficient data supply chain that these data fields reflect only the true title and subtitle text that appears on the title page.

“The valuable promotional text should be included in separate and dedicated promotional text fields, and all metadata recipients, including wholesalers and retailers, should be using these fields appropriately.”

The full text of the BIC statement can be found here.

However, I quote from Anderson’s post at Publishing Perspectives of March 12 to draw attention to some of the ill-considered reactions.

In a comment posted on March 13 in response to Anderson’s coverage, Thad McIlroy, whom I so often find myself in agreement with on publishing matters, laid into the indie author community with a claim that simply did not stand up to scrutiny.

Said McIlroy,

Self-published authors are to blame: they figured out that though the practice broke some rules it does have a positive impact on sales. HOWEVER, the good news is that Amazon now specifically prohibits the practices described. See https://kdp.amazon.com/en_US/help/topic/G201097560.

Examples of items that are prohibited in the title field include but are not limited to:

  • Unauthorized reference to other titles or authors
    • Unauthorized reference to a trademarked term
    • Reference to sales rank (e.g., “bestselling”)
    • Reference to advertisements or promotions (e.g., “free”)

Lots of books still slip by this rule, and there are many legacy titles online from before this prohibition was established. If a publisher sees a competing title on Amazon that breaks the rules they need to use the ‘Report incorrect product information’ tool on that title’s page — a lot of work and, sigh, that then leaves all the other online resellers.

Actually at 7am on the day McIlroy commented no less than nine of the top twenty titles on Amazon UK were abusing the metadata system, and very few of them were indies.

In fact, Thad McIlroy, I am inclined to ask, did you actually read the Publishing Perspectives report quoting the BIC chief? Karina Lake said.

“We mean using phrases such as ‘Sunday Times Best Seller,’ ‘Gripping read from….’ ‘The Richard & Judy Book Club thriller 2017’, ‘ The best thriller writer alive,’  ‘Man Booker Prize winner,’ and so on.”

Exactly how many self-published books are Sunday Times Best Sellers? Just how many times has an indie title been picked up by the Richard & Judy Book Club? Maybe, Thad, you can tell me more about the last self-published Man Booker prize winner?

Meanwhile, on the same day, Nate Hoffelder at The Digital Reader, while not singling out indies for blame, fell into the same trap of supposing that, just because Amazon has guidelines, it therefore enforces them.

Said Hoffelder,

Misusing a book’s metadata is a well-known blackhat marketing technique. Amazon knows this, which is why for a decade now they have enforced a strict list of rules on what publishers and authors can’t put in metadata.

It’s all well and good to condemn the practice, but a more effective approach would be to get retailers and distributors to adopt quality standards and then follow through and enforce those standard.

We know Amazon does this, and if everyone else in the industry followed suit then this would not be a story today because the cheaters would be stymied everywhere they went.

At which point it is useful to take a step back and actually look at the reality. And just to bring this bang up to date, I took the top twenty titles in the Amazon chart as of 9am today, March 15, where I found no less than 13 of the top 20 titles are abusing the metadata system.

·       #1 – The Child: The must-read Richard and Judy Book Club pick 2018

·       #2 – The Note: The book everyone’s talking about

·       #3 – Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine: Debut Sunday Times Bestseller and Costa First Novel Book Award winner 2017

·       #5 – Close to Home: The ‘impossible to put down’ Richard & Judy Book Club thriller pick 2018

·       #6 – The Leopard: Revised and with new material

·       #8 – The Tattooist of Auschwitz: the heart-breaking and unforgettable Sunday Times bestseller

·       #9 – MURDER IN THE GARDEN a gripping crime mystery full of twists

·       #11 – Love to Hate You: The laugh-out-loud romantic comedy of 2018

·       #12 – BEWARE THE PAST a gripping crime thriller with a huge twist

·       #13 – The Girl I Used to Know: A heart-wrenching and heartwarming story of two strangers and one house

·       #14 – THE GUILTY ONES a gripping crime thriller filled with stunning twists

·       #17 – Bring Me Back: The gripping new must read psychological thriller from bestselling author B A Paris

·       #19 – The Keeper of Lost Things: winner of the Richard & Judy Readers’ Award and Sunday Times bestseller

Are we really to suppose it’s beyond Amazon’s ability to flag these titles at the point of submission and send them back to the publisher with a stern warning to observe the guidelines?

But that would put Amazon in the embarrassing position of having to flag its own Amazon imprint titles for ignoring its own guidelines.

Take these examples I found from just a few minutes scanning the Thomas & Mercer catalogue:

  • Forget Her Name: A gripping thriller with a twist you won’t see coming
  • Girl Number One: A gripping page-turner with a twist
  • Crash: A compelling psychological thriller you won’t want to put down
  • Lock the Door: A psychological thriller full of suspense
  • Where the Memories Lie: A gripping psychological thriller
  • Witness: A gripping psychological thriller with a suprising twist

(And yes, the typo in the last one is down to Thomas & Mercer.)

So yes, self-publishers are partly to blame, but they are by no means alone. Publishers with far better funding and experience, that should know the rules inside out, are just as culpable.

And no, having guidelines means diddly squat if they are not enforced.

On occasion Amazon will flag, block the upload of, or even pull a live KDP title because of a metadata issue.

But it is hard to expect indie authors to take Amazon’s guidelines seriously when its own imprint, Thomas & Mercer, does not.