Last week I attended (by phone) a meeting of the BISAC Metadata committee on the subject of Data Certification.
As background, the Book Industry Study Group (BISG), parent organization to BISAC, has the strategic objective to put in place a centralized title metadata certification program, much like the ones in place in the UK and in Canada. Michael Healy, Executive Director of BISG was in attendance at this meeting, and it was chaired by Richard Stark of Barnes & Noble who is the chair of the Metadata committee.
Michael has laid out his notions about the program in a draft document, and the committee discussed this document at length as well as several other related issues.
Some of you may recall that when the idea of certification came up in the past, I was vehemently against it. This was because it looked like a private company was going to be doing the certification, which to me represented a strong conflict of interest. Now that it has come up again, this issue has been resolved, and all certification - in whatever form it turns out to be - will be the responsibility of the BISG office. Given that stipulation, I am in favor of such a process.
At present, we have a 'de facto' certification process in place and it is known as Barnes & Noble's Efficient Data Receipt Program (EDRP). EDRP has been a tremendous boon to our industry as it forced B&N's top 100+ customers to take a hard look at the quality of information that was being presented on upcoming titles. 'Forced' is not too strong a word, as the threat of financial penalties for sending poor title information hung over publishers heads like the sword of Damocles.
In the two or three years following the introduction of EDRP, the entire publishing industry saw the benefits. Not only were buyers at B&N better prepared, the information on BN.com, Amazon.com, and every other retail site visibly improved. Publishers found that fixing their process around presenting data to B&N, fixed it for the entire trade. B&N deserves a tremendous amount of credit for this.
In more recent times, however, B&N has looked to expand the program, and from all indications - they may have hit a point of diminishing returns. The newer EDRP system made publishers take 'educated guesses' at some data points like carton quantities, which seemed to undermine the process. Additionally, few if any publishers where actually ever charged back real $ for their misdeeds. Now there are indications that the EDRP system may be discontinued for an indefinite period of time.
So, back to certification. As I said before, I am in favor of this, as it keeps some kind of bar in place for publishers to reach in order to communicate good information about their titles to the trade. And, with the waning EDRP, we need this program in place sooner rather than later. Otherwise, data quality will start to slip again, and all of us who evangelize on the subject will soon lose our credibility. Many of us that evangelize on this issue know that improving data quality happens one publishing entity (Publisher, Division, Imprint, Distributed Press) at a time, and often one person (inside each entity) at a time.
I feel that a program like this may hold very little weight with publishers unless there are some strong motivations for publishers to pay attention. Michael feels strongly that we cannot discuss 'carrots' or 'sticks' in our meeting, because legally it could put BISG in a conflicted position. However, without that discussion - even if it is constrained to be outside the committee, I don't feel this program will last very long.
In the Canada and in the UK, successful certification programs are in place due to the fact that one company (in each market) with enough clout to get publishers attention, said that publishers must comply. In the UK, it is Neilson BookData who controls much of the distribution of bibliographic metadata in the UK and Europe. In Canada, it is Indigo, who refuses to work with publisher data that is not certified by BookNet Canada.
So, hopefully, a major entity with enough clout will emerge in our market and get behind the program and keep our hard-won improvements in data quality on a positive trajectory.