Thursday, April 14, 2011

Ebook Files and Metadata need to travel together

At the London Book Fair this week, I found myself talking to several publishers about the topic of ebook content distribution and metadata distribution. On at least four occasions I repeated: "I don't care who does it, but the same company that distributes your files, should distribute your ebook metadata".

Full disclosure: we at Firebrand Technologies distribute ebook content and metadata for publishers. So, of course, we would love for publishers to use us for both metadata distribution and file distribution. However, it's also true that it is a lose-lose-lose situation when a publisher uses one "vendor" to distribute files, and another to distribute metadata for those files. And we have decided to not to distribute ebook metadata only for any more clients. Here's why:

1. The ebook supply chain is fundamentally different than the print book supply chain.

With print books, retailers were happy to receive metadata from publishers even though the books were not yet available. They were happy to take files with incomplete records, until the publication date of the title. Retailers, wholesalers, and data aggregators have systems in place to deal with data files with thousands of records, and they are all run to automatically upload the files.

In the ebook world, none of the above is true - at least not universally. ebook retailers only want metadata records for which files are also coming at nearly the same time. Most only want the record once, and it better be complete. Most ebook retailers don't have the systems in place to upload the kind of volume that print books do. Ask anyone who has ever tried to upload thousands of titles to Apple's transporter. You can do it, but you better allocate hours of babysitting time after you manually log in and start the upload process.

2. When something goes wrong, problems are often very difficult to track down, and often go unresolved.

I related this story to a few people at the fair. Let's say that the person at the publisher who is responsible for data delivery (let's call her Jean) gets a phone call from her boss, asking why a book - that should be - is not in the iBookstore. This phone call spurs Jean to call her contact at the metadata partner AND her contact at the content file partner. Both of those contacts in turn start an internal investigation as to what when wrong and unreported. If each contact is at a loss, and then imply that the other vendor is to blame, then Jean is left sitting in the middle with a dilemma of who to believe. The bottom line is still an unresolved problem. Even if both vendors did their job, then the problem might lie with the retailer. Jean doesn't have that relationship, the vendors do, so Jean calls them both back again to find out if the retailer knows anything. Both vendors call different people in the retailer with the same question, causing two more investigations.

This is a nightmare of wasted time and resources. Everyone in this chain loses. And support is the highest cost element of the relationship for each of the vendors. And, Jean is left not knowing who she can trust if this ever happens again.

In conclusion, streamline your processes. Keep one point of contact who can track down problems. Managing your ebooks through one "vendor" or "partner" is far less expensive in the long run than managing multiple relationships.

Good luck out there.