Kindle-Fire-Note-and-Highlight-optionsOn Book Business Magazine, sometime TeleRead contributor Joe Wikert muses on the possibility of reader annotation and curation becoming the next big thing driving the sale of e-books. (Nate Hoffelder informs me that it’s a reprint of a post from Wikert’s own blog.) Given the “flattening (or declining) ebook sales trends,” Wikert posits, something new is necessary to “drive investment in digital innovation” and take e-books beyond “the current print-under-glass model.”

He discusses a too-soon-quashed startup called that was intended to let readers share their Kindle annotations, and explains that he thinks they were onto something.

Consider the use-case of a student who’s mastered the art of note-taking and textbook highlighting. Back in my college days I loved it when I managed to buy a used textbook marked up by one of these students. It helped me hone in on the most important points in some pretty dull and dreary textbooks.

Now imagine that same use-case in a digital world where there are no barriers. Think of the textbook as one long web page the reader can manipulate and add to.  The original textbook content forms the foundation but the reader can add to it as they see fit.

He suggests that this system could be extended across apps—rather than bookmarking a useful new web resource, why not drag it into the textbook as an annotation instead? And then, once she’s finished the class, the student can sell her annotations for a small fee to other students looking for the same kind of useful material.

It’s an interesting idea, though I’m not so sure it’s strictly necessary. For starters, every single note-taking and study-skills class I took or book I read during my college years advised me to eschew textbooks that had been marked by someone else, because there was no guarantee that I would need to remember the same parts the previous owner thought were most important. (For that matter, highlighting a textbook isn’t necessarily as useful as lazy college students think it is—it’s better to take good notes instead.)

Of course, digital annotations would go well beyond the simple act of applying fluorescent yellow marker to paper, and it’s possible they could prove useful to other people—especially if they’re more in the way of collections of bookmarks to useful external material. That being said, I don’t see this as being the sort of thing that could “save” e-book sales.

For one thing, it’s worth noting (again!) that e-book sales aren’t necessarily “flattening (or declining).” Big Five e-book sales might be, but that’s not the same thing; there’s no indication that indie or self-pub titles are seeing the same decline, as they weren’t even measured by the study everyone’s citing like Chicken Little after the acorn hit him. And given that this change seems to be driven largely (or entirely) by the Big Five’s stupidity (or cupidity) in jacking up e-books’ prices, rather than anything endemic to the format such as people actually falling out of love with it, it seems unlikely that this kind of bold new change is necessary to keep people interested. They’ve been interested, and they’ll still be interested, as long as the price is right.

For another thing, who annotates and takes notes in mass-market fiction books? I certainly don’t, even if my Kindle (and Kindle apps) has that capability. I don’t doubt some people highlight passages, and some even do take notes, but it seems unlikely most people do unless they’re taking a class in something. Why go to all that extra effort? As such, it seems unlikely that this capability could “save” most e-book sales, even if they needed “saving” by a bold new gimmick. (They might help with flagging e-textbook sales, but that’s hardly a large segment of the market overall.)

Studies like the ones that touched off all the kerfuffle are really worse than useless, in my opinion. They turn people toward panicked speculation about how to prop up the falling sky, when in fact the sky is in no danger of collapsing. People hare off looking for this or that new gimmick that could “rescue” e-book sales, when in fact all that needs to be done to “rescue” them is for publishers to shave a few dollars off their prices—and there’s no sign publishers want to do that.

As nearly as anyone can tell, declining e-book sales are apparently just what publishers want, because that takes some of the pressure off dead-tree-book stores. (Never mind that the biggest dead-tree store beneficiary is Amazon itself, who gleefully prices new-release paper books below the cost of agency-priced e-books just because it can.) Might as well not waste any life-preservers on that drowning man; he evidently doesn’t want to be saved. Meanwhile, self-publishers and small presses are swimming circles around him.

So let’s not worry about “declining” e-book sales. Any decline seems to be what publishers want, so why should we fret about it if they aren’t? And I’m not saying that we shouldn’t keep trying to improve e-books beyond “print-under-glass” if we can, either, but we shouldn’t do it with the expectation that any particular gimmick will be some kind of magic bullet that Saves The World for us. At the least, if we do try to improve something, we should make sure it’s something we know people want to use, not something we’re building in the hope that someone comes.

Update: Nate Hoffelder has his own, similar take at The Digital Reader, with some points I missed.


  1. First and foremost, Findings was just one of several services at that time, and it was the only one to be cut off by Amazon. The others continued to operate (until they probably died off for other reasons).

    But more importantly, as I pointed out over on Wikert’s blog his wonderful new idea has been tried at least twice that I know of. Both failed due to lack of support.

    No one wanted to use the platforms, so what does that say about the potential market impact?

    I don’t know yet myself, so I decided I would throw the facts out there and see what everyone else thought.

  2. Unless that other notetaker is a world-class scholar on a book’s theme, I can’t see why anyone would want to see the notes and highlights of others. Check outlets for used print books. Not being marked in is considered a plus. Digital doesn’t change that.

    No, what’s needed are ebooks that look better and perform better than their print counterparts. Moveable type printing began with books that looked marvelous because they had to compete with beautifully illustrated manuscripts. Ebooks got started because Amazon wanted to sell cheap but make large profits. That mean ugly, with primitive formats (mobi) and books modeled on mass-market paperbacks. That’s what’s reducing the ebook market to those who like literary fast-food.

    Even worse, in addition to the baneful influence of Amazon, ebook development had been driven by some other harmful influences. One is a silly obsession with multi-media. I happened to have been doing some work for Microsoft in the late 1980s, when the fad was that CDs would bring on the age of multi-media books. That bombed for the same reason the idea fails today. Creating video to place alongside a book’s text is hideous expensive (think thousands of dollars a minute) and often less than impressive. What sense does it make, for a novel that covers several months, to have a video enactment of just a few minutes of that time. And to turn an entire novel into a movie, you’re looking at Hollywood feature films costing tens of millions. Few books have enough sales to justify that.

    Another is an inability to see that new technology requires new approaches. Early cars looked like horse-drawn carriages because those making them couldn’t visualize what ways cars should be different. Most carriages, for instance, had to be uncomfortable in bad weather because otherwise they’d be so heavy that the one or two horses that were all most people could afford could not move them up hills. With cars, far more power was available at little cost.

    Ebooks suffer from the same handicap. Other than the silly obsession with multi-media, there’s little effort from those who make standards like epub to visualize ways ebooks can be better than print versions.

    To give one illustration, for print books a map has to be on a particular page. Users who want to consult it must turn back to that page. Ebooks aren’t under that limitation. A map can appear on any page where it’s helpful. A book about a Civil War battle, for instance, could not only show a map of the battlefield along with the text for page after page, but alter the map to show, for instance, Picket’s charge moving forward at Gettysburg, followed by the Union response.

    Alas, you can’t do that because pitiful epub only has inline graphics. That’s particularly infuriating when web design is moving into what’s called “responsive design,” which means that designers can create web pages that intelligent adapt to fit a device’s screen.

    Ebooks need similar features and more. It should be possible to design an ebook that looks great on tablets and smartphones not just one that looks equally mediocre at all display sizes.

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