Today’s print-under-glass model works great for some e-books, but long-form digital content could potentially give us so much more. Can’t we do more than consume dumb content on smart devices?

While content enrichment is one way forward, authors and publishers dislike the effort of adding video and other Web elements to their books. But plenty of books and other publications—not all—would benefit from digital enrichment. We need to focus on those. If the manual process costs too much time or money, can the right technology take this content to the next digital level?

I propose an automated solution, where auto-tagging, text analysis and search results all play a role. Here’s how it would work:

  • The e-book contents are analyzed by an enrichment tool where key phrases, names, locations, etc., are identified and tagged.
  • Readers can then view those tagged elements by tapping the screen in a reading app created or modified to incorporate the service. The service remains completely invisible to people who don’t wish to use it. Don’t want the service? Just don’t tap to bring it up.
  • When a reader taps on one of the tagged elements, a pop-up menu provides the opportunity to dive deeper on that topic with links to video, audio, maps, web pages, etc. All of this is fed by an application’s preferred search engine, such as Google or Bing.
  • The reader then can take that deeper dive, pin links to the page for future reading and share their favorites with other readers of the e-book.

Because my vision integrates Web elements with the book, it needs an active Internet connection. Offline readers, however, can still enjoy the original print-under-glass version.

The video above this post is a quick walk-through showing how readers would use the proposed enrichment service. Watching it, remember that the intention here is to develop a front-end content analysis/parsing tool that tags and builds all the linkages, so no work is required by the author or editor. Also note the opportunity to create new income streams for the publisher and author via paid and sponsored link campaigns.

Publisher’s Note

Kudos to Joe Wikert for daring to dream, and I hope that publishers and technologists will consider his vision. The Book Industry Guild of New York (BIGNY) on March 8 will hold a discussion called “Publishing Trends Update: New Digital Directions” (more here, and, no, you don’t have to be a book industry insider to go). Ideally Joe’s ideas can inspire discussion there.

Multimedia e-books and the like have not taken off to the extent they could—in part due to the cost and in part due to people’s insufficient interest in them—and some readers might consider the added trimmings to be distractions even though others would love them. Joe addresses most of these concerns. Notice? Readers could ignore the added features unless they tapped on the screen (in a certain location?).

Of course publishers might need to hire moderators or rely on authors to keep out spam and link-savvy trolls. But the increased appeal of the auto-enriched books might compensate in most cases. Nonfiction books, compared to fiction, have not fared well in the e-book world. Reader-generated links could help. Who knows? Maybe fiction would also benefit in a big way.

Please note that others, including Gale Publishing, have ventured into this territory somewhat. In Markets for Electronic Book Products, Bill Cope and Dean Mason mention the term “reader-generated links.” But as you’ll see from the just-given citation, the kind of use is rather different from Joe’s. Cope and Mason tell of Gale Publishing allowing professors and others to search within Gale materials for certain facts, then embed the URL into the course Web sites for students. Other efforts are out there such as the Digital Agora, not to mention all the zillions of Web sites with links and other user-generated content. Worthwhile. But probably they are a long way from what Joe has in mind for books especially. How close have others come? Is he the first with the vision above?

I can also think of a variant of Joe’s vision. You can already annotate e-books from places such as Amazon. Now, what if the annotations could include Web links? I’d suspect that’s already happening. If need, someone needs to experiment with it.

That said, Joe’s approach is attractive because it is structured, through tagging and otherwise, but still allows readers to participate in a major way.

Let me add still another thought. I’ve long maintained that if publishers really care about external linking from books, then they need to consider how ephemeral can be resources on the Web. We need content to remain up there, for future linking to it. This is one argument for partnerships with libraries with long-term funding arrangements. In part this could happen through a national digital library endowment (more details in Education Week, Library Journal and The Chronicle of Philanthropy and on the LibraryCity site).

Perhaps disagreeing with Joe, I myself do not think that digital enrichments such as reader-generated links will be enough to boost in a major way the pathetic amount that the typical U.S. household spends on books and other texts. It’s $100 or so except for textbooks, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics—just a speck of the thousands lavished on entertainment in general. To raise this amount, we need not only valuable innovations like the one Joe has in mind, but also the endowment and well-stocked national digital library systems. Through means ranging from cell phone book clubs to truly massive media campaigns to promote reading in general and specific titles, they could expand the universe of library users and book buyers. The money is out there, with just 400 Americans together worth more than $2 trillion. Along with librarians, publishers and writers need to speak up; yes, the plan could happen with appropriate compensation for professional creators built in.

Finally, to return to the main topic here, if you hate the term “link wiki,” please don’t blame Joe—I put it in the headline myself. They would not be wikis in the usual sense, but you get the idea. In fact, you could enter text, as you could with regular wikis.

David Rothman

Update, 2:20 p.m.: I’m now recalling that none other than Amazon in the past has experimented with public notes, and I should also point to past discussions here on TeleRead and by Nate. But past notes, links, whatever, have not been as well integrated with books as what Joe has in mind. I emphatically agree with Chris and Nate that interactivity by itself is not the magic cure for the book industry’s ills. But it would help. For now, the industry’s big challenge is to expand the universe of readers. That means working closely with libraries in a major way, with the money available for the libraries to do their job. That’s where the national digital endowment concept would come in.

Update, 2:58: Also read about annotations work by Bob Stein, founder of the Institute for the Future of the Book and networked books pioneer (I should have mentioned Bob earlier!). Here again, however, we’re probably not talking about all the structure of the Wikert approach.

Joe Wikert’s post above appeared in similar form in Joe Wikert’s Digital Strategies. We have reproduced it with his permission and, as authorized beforehand for his contributions in general, have made editorial changes.


  1. I’d be concerned about commercial intrusion and trolling but this might be mitigated with extensions such as what we have now for the web. That is ad blockers, UTM strippers and anti-tracking.
    With the iBooks app, I already have much of what Wikert describes except for the advertisement and trolling “features.” With the OS X version of iBooks, I select a word and then Control-click to reveal a hierarchical menu that includes glossary, searching web and Wikipedia, social media, mail, notes and TTS as well as annotation, copying and highlighting in one of several colors.
    So maybe we are closer to this than we think and as close as we wish to get.

  2. I find the observation that, “multimedia e-books and the like have not taken off to the extent they could.” quite intriguing and under-considered. The simple explanations offered so far just don’t encompass all of the relevant variables. For one thing, one must separate fiction from non-fiction as the uses of extended media would have very different purposes and, thus, very different criteria for success.
    My keenest interest is in non-fiction, eTextbooks in particular. I attended an all-day eTextbook conference last week where I discovered that most other eTextbook authors have a very different workflow than I do. I see text, static images, moving images, quizzes and interactive widgets as my exclusive authorial responsibility. For me, these elements of composition are inseparable without doing violence to the message I want and need my audience to receive. The other authors I heard from take responsibility for only the text or the text plus a few key static images. The rest of the eTextbook is composed by “instructional designers” who add additional media, interactive elements and formative quizzes. This mirrors the workflow for Learning Management Systems used by instructors everywhere so the MO is well established. Content delivery is separated into multiple roles, each of which may or may not be consistent with the other.
    In reading even the exemplary eTextbooks (e.g. E. O. Wilson’s “Life on Earth” for iBooks), I believe that I perceive a disconnect between the narrative and the media. That sense is not unlike the feeling I got when I saw a classic Volkswagen beetle with a Rolls Royce grille and ’59 Cadillac fins attached. The workmanship in applying these add-on elements was superb but the impact was disconcerting and confusing. What was the instigator of this creation trying to say?

  3. @Frank: Your thoughtful note deserves a longer reply. But in a nutshell, there are different ways to apply Joe’s model. I’ve already raised the possibility of moderation. You could also limit people authorized to add links and other forms of annotation.

    > With the OS X version of iBooks, I select a word and then Control-click to reveal a hierarchical menu that includes glossary, searching web and Wikipedia, social media, mail, notes and TTS as well as annotation, copying and highlighting in one of several colors.

    But the glory of Joe’s approach is that READERs (if need be, just authorized ones) can do annotations and links for the whole world. As I think this through, I believe that Amazon or someone else might have had something going involving reader-created annotations as opposed to just highlighting (and maybe still offers this). But Joe’s approach is more refined. Among other things, he discusses the possibility of automated tag creation. He offers a great mix of the structured and nonstructured.

    As for the issue of comments defacing Great Art, so be it! This will be a choice of publishers and authors. I myself in general like the idea of more interactivity although, as noted, we might want to restrict it to certain kinds of people. That way, discussion can happen at an authoritative level. Exposure to different well-informed opinions would be helpful to students. Talk about encouragement of critical thought! That should be what the humanities, especially, are all about. Yes, there are limits. We don’t want anti-science kooks cluttering up science textbooks. But that’s what the moderation could address.

    On to the issue of fiction. For most writers, the big issue for most novelists is what Tim O’Reilly or someone else said–the problem of being ignored. Writers need to engage their audiences. This is one of many ways to do it. It would be a book-by-book thing.

    About commercialism: We need to be careful. But plenty can happen without ads. It’s a question of taste and judgment in other respects. Google says its ads could generate a lot more revenue for TeleRead if I didn’t exclude such categories as sex-related ads. I choose to keep ’em out! Doesn’t fit in with the TeleRead community. Savvy publishers would feel the way I did about this. Or maybe there wouldn’t be ads. Again–let’s think book by book.

    Finally, remember that the service would be invisible except to those who wanted it. And the author’s voice would still be the primary one by far. This wouldn’t be like images from strangers unavoidably distracting from the main show. People could just keep the comments invisible. Bear in mind that some readers thrive on clutter. I say: Readers first–which is really “Writer, too!” if they want people to care about them.

    Whether I’ve won you over or not, thanks for caring about these issues!


    P.S. I’d intended to be brief, since my sick wife needs help with something. But—typos and all—I guess I wasn’t 😉 Now need to get back to her.

  4. @Frank: The mix of auto-tagging, text analysis and search results is what caught my attention. Were Joe’s ideas refined to this level five years ago? As for the privacy risks, I agree on the need for caution. Then again, people can be warned about the permanence of the annotations. Fodder for snoops has been an issue going back to UseNet and probably before that.

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