I'm a self-published author or a new start-up publishing company looking to do ONIX metadata...

It's an unenviable position to be in – publisher metadata has been developing to support existing businesses and can (and should be) highly detailed. It involves a number of standards – product / work / subject as well as data conventions that an industry newcomer can't expect to know.   But very small companies still do it and here's a bit of a push towards what you need to know:

Computers talk to computers

If you file your income tax electronically, you've already done what we expect:  You've used some software to do a detailed report and submitted it as an XML file where it's written directly into a database.  That's what an ONIX file is, a file that is used by retailers and others to directly fill their databases with information.  If it's right and machine readable, and contains everything another business needs and a consumer needs to make a buying decision then potential sales are fully supported. You probably can't do taxes without some research – but you can rely on the tax software to help you.  For book metadata you'll need to understand what other business need from you, and ONIX software can help in some of that but mainly it will ensure the file is machine readable.

That's what our Webform for ONIX creation is supposed to do for you. There are other ONIX creation tools available.

Business to Business – it's a publishing Supply Chain tool

You may or may not have trading partners (other businesses willing to you work with you).  You may be selling digital books through a single retailer like Amazon or Kobo.  You may have a dozen independent bookstores willing to stock your title(s).  You may have a distributor or a DAM service helping you.  And you'll find that retailers or other stakeholders may or may not accept ONIX files from you (for instance, they may choose to only accept ONIX files from companies with 100 books or more, or small companies may not have the technical knowledge to accept the data in that format).  Whatever the reach or capacity of your business you should understand that ONIX files are intended to support business to business data exchange – and even if your trading partners do not accept your ONIX file you'll have your publishing information organized in a way that other businesses can understand.

"I track my products and can supply your database with accurate and complete information." Even if you have no trading partners that's still what an ONIX file represents: Your ability to do business with other companies.

And it's not impossible for small players:  You already know a lot about ONIX without ever looking at the manual – what you see on-line at retailers is traded in ONIX.  Look at The 49th Shelf or BNC CataList to see "good" ONIX results.  Look at retailer sites to see what they support and then look to support that in your file.   

But you can't ignore that you're creating an ongoing "feed" of information that includes time sensitive information about the products you sell that other businesses will want to rely on.


This is obvious but publisher metadata is about the product being sold to the consumer – and it has to be uniquely identified.  That is normally done by an ISBN.  Let's look at what that is not before what we look at what it is:

If you deal with a single trading partner – say you sell digital books through Amazon and they have assigned an Amazon identifier to your product, can or should you use that Amazon identifier with Indigo, Kobo, Booksamillion, BN, library wholesalers or distributors?  Of course not.  The publishing supply chain identifier is an ISBN – that's primary identifier used in B2B publishing data exchange. But that is one of your options: If you only sell through a single source like Kobo or Amazon you can choose to NOT participate in the wider the supply chain.  And if that's your choice then you don't need to do ONIX or work with anyone else – it's a legitimate business decision you can make.   You accept the terms and services of that single source and direct your marketing to supporting sales through them.  No ISBN is required (one may be required to support legal deposit requirements but you're not using it for business purposes).

If you want to be compatible with the publishing supply chain then you must support ISBNs and support them properly.

The International Standard Book Number is a standard, just like ONIX is a metadata standard. What's a standard?  More or less an agreement within an industry – in many cases set up across many markets – internationally.  So the ISBN really is an international number, assigned uniquely to a specific published product by a recognized national agency.  ONIX supports other standards within it and it's set up so that each ONIX record represents one product and each published product can have an assigned ISBN.   An internationally unique identifier – it's what business, and the world wide web, was built on. It's the reason why books were one of the first products sold on-line.

So a product is identified by an ISBN and you could look up the definition in the standard but here's the easy way to tell what a product is:   If a consumer is holding an object in his hands (even a digital one) and his friend want to buy the same thing, that's a product and it's ISBN is unique and his friend can use it to order the identical thing.  So a paperback is not a hardcover is not an epub is not a mobi and isn't an audiobook file.  All those "products" might share the exact same text – the same order of words (loosely this is what in the metadata we call a "work") – but they are clearly different and if you want to order them, different products.   

So publishers can't re-use or play with ISBNs even though an ISBN agency assigns or sells blocks of them to the publisher. Publishers don't "own" the identifier. Once a publisher assigns an ISBN to a product it's forevermore linked to that product and that is a underlying assumption in the publishing supply chain. It is as true for digital products as it is for physical ones. The ISBN is the order number that links the products and allows businesses to work with other businesses.

What's an GTIN-13 or EAN then?

It's a similar number assigned by a different organization called GS-1 who handles a much wider range of product types than books.   But because international convenience helps business the ISBN standard organization requested and was assigned a "block" within GS-1's GTIN-13 numbering system.  So all GTIN-13 starting with 978 or 979 can only properly be books – that block is reserved for the ISBN standard.   A book's ISBN-13 and that book's GTIN-13 are the same number. The barcode on the back cover of a physical book has a "Bookland EAN" which represents the number.    In short: ISBN-13 is a subset of GTIN-13.

Some stationary products sold in bookstores might have a GTIN-13 that does not start with 978 or 979.  That's fine: They have a GTIN-13 and no ISBN-13.   And that's why the ONIX standard supports both GTIN and ISBN as product identifiers – because business may need both even if they are the same number if they are a book.

Now What?

Submit data to BiblioShare.  You should consider providing data to other third party data providers like Bowker (US) or Neilson (UK). Use software to fill out a book record – it can be our Webform, but there are other software options.   BiblioShare (and other third party data suppliers) need to have your permission to distribute your data to our clients, so you'll need to have signed our Publisher Agreement (if you signed up for Webform, you've given permission for the data to be used in our services).  Then submit the book record(s) to BiblioShare's data aggregation service and use its File Quality report will try to identify problems. Maintain your data – reviews prizes description updates can all be accommodated – but even if nothing has changed, renewing the product record demonstrates that "timely" data points like the status and price remain current.

Most important: If you have, or when you have, trading partners make sure that your file covers all the information they need – ask questions.   Metadata needs are not static.

Here's more info:

ONIX Usage -- A guide to BNC Webform Data Entry and Code list references

Finding and Using the ONIX Manual and Code Lists