Modern Publishing and the Cult of Metadata

Odyssey Alternative American Title and Cover

“We are wrestling with your title” complained to me an editor after presenting the English edition of my book at his publishing company’s sales conference. The team of specialists reached an agreement that my title – Atlas of Prejudice, already a bestseller on the German market – didn’t make sense to Americans and they wouldn’t connect it with the theme of the book, which is… well, prejudice.

Another huge obstacle was the fact that it lacked a subtitle. “We need something for the metadata” lamented the editor.

If by chance you are interested in the evolution of religion, maybe you should take a look at the status of metadata in modern publishing. I am sure you’ll encounter a lot of interesting analogies. In both cases what used to be a practical process (stargazing and cataloging) morphed into mystical cult. Just like that. Because life is not complicated enough.

I went to the publisher’s site to check the titles from the catalog. It was a small subsidiary of a publishing mastodon, which for the purposes of discretion I shall call “Company X”.

There was barely a book title which wasn’t sacrificed on the altar of Metadata. I picked a random one and started counting. It contained 21 words and 87 characters (without spaces). To give you a visual idea of its sheer volume, here it is with all the letters replaced by an “x”:

Xxxx Xx Xxxxxxxx, X Xxxxxx: Xxx X Xxx Xxxxxxxx, Xxxx Xxxxxx, xxx Xxx Xx Xxxx Xxxx xx xxx Xxx Xxxxxx Xxxxxxx

Informative. It would certainly impress if you get asked “What’s the title of your book?” at a party. If you manage to memorize it, that is. Or if your new acquaintance doesn’t fall asleep in the middle of it.

But enough irony, imagine something truly disturbing. Let say Homer was a contemporary author and he just submitted the Odyssey to a big publisher.

Now picture a conference room full of people most of which have never created anything in their lives but who, for some obscure reason, feel very knowledgeable about art and literature.

“Odyssey?” asks salesperson Nr.1, “What kind of title is this? What does it say to people?”

“I fail to see the connection between title and content. It feels random!” agrees salesperson Nr.2.

“Naming a book after a character is the worst thing you can do, Mr. Homer!” says salesperson Nr.3. “The title is the packaging of your book, the place where you should announce its content to your potential readers. If you fail with the announcement, your book will not sell.”

Somehow this doesn’t sound convincing to Homer because he knows he’s not trying to sell chocolate bars but salesperson Nr.3 doesn’t really care. “There needs to be a clear connection to the content. Wait… How about The Homesick Man?”

“Much better!” cheerfully agrees salesperson Nr.4

Saleperson Nr.5 nods in quiet approval, looking at his wrist watch. (Yes, those people still wear them!)

“However,” continues Salesperson Nr.3 “it still lacks intrigue. How about the Homesick Pleasure Seeker?”

“Excuse me but he wasn’t exactly searching for pleasure, just for the way home.” objects Homer.

“Didn’t he have a romance with a nymph at some point? That’s sounds like one hell of a pleasure to me!” says Salesperson Nr.6.

Problem resolved, end of story. I have provided the cover for your visual amusement. The only thing left to do is tweak several titles by Arthur C. Clarke, so we can keep the cultural references intact. Does 2001: A Homesick Pleasure Seeker in Space sound good to you? Awesome, moving on… Oh wait, let’s re-title that Bowie album too. A Sick Pleasure in Space? Now we’re done.

Don’t get me wrong, metadata, just like money, is a wonderful thing.

Metadata helps you catalog existing products. It speeds up discovery and distribution of content. That means it’s something that should always come after and be explicitly separate from content creation. If you put it ahead of it and let it influence the content itself, it turns into a parasite, slowly killing its host and ensuring its own demise in the process because just like money, metadata cannot exist independently. If there are no goods to sell, money is just paper. If there are no books, metadata is just useless bureaucratic gibberish.

This simple truth is already evident as far as web sites and search engine optimization is concerned. This is why Google is strictly against putting an emphasis on metadata and may even punish webmasters who do it:

Our advice for publishers continues to be to focus on delivering the best possible user experience on your websites and not to focus too much on what they think are Google’s current ranking algorithms or signals.

What print publishers haven’t realized yet is that they are playing with fire. In a decade their obese titles will be as ridiculous as all those semi-double music albums from the dawn of the CD era. There is a reason why immediacy is essential to art. It’s because art is a form of communication, not of cataloging content. When I meet somebody, the last thing I want to see is his birth certificate. Same with books.

The only difference between the grotesque abuse of metadata and money is that while we can always recognize the emergence of an economic crisis by its immediate effects, a cultural crisis is harder to spot. It doesn’t have immediate, tangible signs which can help us ring an alarm. But the indirect evidence, like book titles stretched into oblivion, is overwhelming.

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