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The Uber-Index

Infinity The Rich Content post I wrote back on March 29th keeps popping into my head.  I think our industry has spent way too much time trying to force-fit video and other types of content in with the written word.  Meanwhile, the real solution to rich content has probably been right here under our noses the whole time: the index.  Actually, what I'm talking about should be called an "index on steroids" or an uber-index.

For years publishers have generated those backmatter elements we've grown to know, love and rely on...the index.  Index specialists are charged with finding all the critical terms, synonyms and other entries then compiling them into one of the most important elements of the book.  Up to now those indexes have been static and almost exclusively focus on providing pointers within the book the where index appears.  In tomorrow's ebook, the uber-index should grow as more related content is available on websites, blogs, other books, apps, etc.

Liza Daly expressed a similar vision in this excerpt from an iPad-related interview she did with The New York Times about a week after my "Rich Content" blog post:

I see the consummate iPad reading experience to be one that is, on the surface, traditional: heavily textual, quiet, hand-held. But lurking beneath the words is the whole Internet, ready to be questioned — “Find other works that quoted this,” “Where was the Marshalsea prison?”, “Which of my friends is also reading this?”, “What is that attractive person across from me reading?”

None of that requires a publisher to “enhance” the e-book prior to publication. A truly modern e-reader is one that is intimately connected to the Web and allows a user to make queries as a series of asides, while reading or after immersive reading has ended.

So what this all means is that authors and publishers could continue to build books they way they've done for hundreds of years, but a new effort needs to be dedicated to the index itself.  Not the print index, of course, but the uber one that works within the e-reader.

Imagine an e-reader/app that lets you read a book in the traditional way but below the surface it offers smart links to all the related content and resources you could hope for.  As I mentioned in the 3/29 post, some of this could be automated but then it's little more than a set of algorithm-based search results.  I want something more and I'll bet you do too.

How about applying the wisdom of the masses to the problem?  Just as the Wikipedia provides encyclopedia-length entries on subjects far and wide, what if there were a community-based service that created nothing but the most relevant pointers to all the best content?

You're an expert in 70's music and you spend all your waking hours looking for the best sites, videos, interviews, etc., on the subject  Why not share your discoveries about Thin Lizzy and Mott The Hoople by adding to and helping curate the uber-index on these topics?  The uber-index would then be made available to e-reader apps so that when someone clicks on Glen Frey's name in Don Felder's (terrific!) book about The Eagles, Heaven & Hell, they'll immediately have access to a growing list of outside resources that confirm Felder's point that Frey was a complete jerk!

All of this functionality would be included, btw, with little to no work required by the publisher.  A utility would run the book's contents against the uber-index and generate all the relevant links.  You could do this when you buy the book or periodically as you're reading it, to make sure it's always up-to-date.

How about that?  An infinitely deep index, the uber-index, that dramatically enhances and extends the reading experience while preserving it at the same time.  Isn't that what we're all after?

P.S. -- Now take it a step further.  Are you familiar with the "Sponsored Links" area of the Google search results?  These are the links someone has paid to have included in your search results  Why not introduce a sponsored link section to this as well, where monetization can occur?  So when you pull up the menu for Glen Frey mentioned earlier it also includes a paid link from Amazon where you can buy his latest CD, if you're so inclined.  Click that link and the publisher/author get a cut of the sponsored link payment.  If a substantial enough AdSense-like ecosystem builds up around this it creates an additional revenue stream that could be shared by all parties.


Susan Neuhaus

Uber indexes would be fabulous. Imagine a text book that updates itself and can explain a concept in more detail if a student needs it.

I'm not convinced that indexing would be as automatic as you might hope, my experience with current indexing tools makes me skeptical. These products would be labor intensive, and least in the near term. But worth the effort.

Tim Brandhorst

Great post. I hope you'll keep trying to think through how this could be done--it's quite fascinating. Is this something you would look to a device maker to try to develop? Or an entity like Google that already "organizes" the Web, that could provide an uber index to any publisher or device maker? Seems beyond any given publisher.

self publishing company

Good post, but I'm not all that certain that this level of indexing would be as automatic as you might hope - I guess it's worth the effort.

Caryn Sobel

The uber-index is a great concept, but might it not recapitulate the same problem we are having with the Internet itself? I know the idea is to organize the data that the uber-index points to, but since it will change constantly--even while the reader is examining it--I wonder how fluid the organizing principles will have to be, and how tightly the information can actually be drawn together.

As an indexer and educator, I would like to see (and be part of) the development of an index format that would allow a focus on the text material itself, so that concentration on the content is not lost, and an additional "branching" that adds the enrichment material, e.g., the discussions, products, etc.

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