eBook Indexes & User Interface Features
Why Bookstores Should Cozy Up to Apple

The Social Networking Potential for eContent

Kiss It Good-Bye I recently finished reading Kiss It Good-Bye, another take on the Pittsburgh Pirates and their miraculous upset of the Yankees in the 1960 World Series.  (It's a pretty good book, btw, if you're a Pirates fan!)  I bought the Kindle edition and read it on my iPad.  That's when I discovered a feature Amazon slipped into the reader that I hadn't noticed before.  It's called "Popular Highlights" and you can see an example of it in the screen shot on the left (click on the thumbnail version for a larger view).

You'll notice a small pop-up bubble that says, "3 other people highlighted this part of the book."  The popular highlights have dotted underlines, setting them off from the rest of the book.  In fact, you can see another one at the very top of that same page.

The cool thing about this is I can see what other readers felt were the most interesting aspects of the book.  That's nice for a story about the 1960 Pirates but it becomes even more compelling when applied to how-to guides or textbooks.

What if a chemistry e-textbook included highlights from everyone else who used it in previous semesters?  That capability exists today and becomes more valuable the more the book is used and highlighted.  Take it a step further.  What if you add notes to that e-textbook?  Again, the more it's used the more valuable it becomes.

One problem here is that each e-reader platform (e.g., iBooks, Kindle, etc.) will implement their own versions of these highlighting and commenting features.  So, unfortunately, the comments/highlights added by Kindle readers won't show up when iBooks readers use the same book.

Nevertheless, this could easily grow into a very valuable feature.  So valuable, in fact, that I could see a model where it helps distinguish one retailer's version of the book from another: If the iBooks edition has more highlights and comments, it's a more attractive option than the Kindle one with fewer highlights/comments; that leads to more people buying the iBooks edition, adding their own highlights/comments and creating a snowball effect.  If ebook retailers are smart, they'll invest heavily in this functionality since it will help distinguish them from their competitors.

Btw, I'm sure somewhere deep in Amazon's end user license agreement (EULA) I allowed them to share my highlights with other readers.  OK, but wouldn't it be nice if publishers and authors could turn the tables and say, "sure, you can capture all this information, but when you do so with our products you need to share the results with us."  We'd learn more about what readers think of our products, which pieces they felt were most important and if we're smart, we'd use that knowledge to create better products (e.g., revisions, related titles and supporting materials).  That's wishful thinking on my part though, I'm afraid.  As a publisher, of course, I'd love to see the Amazon's and Apple's of the world simply share this information with their publisher partners, but I figure it's more likely they'll charge for it as they do other services.

Why does this feature have to begin and end with books though?  I think it could be even more useful for newspapers and magazines.  I can't keep up with all my news sources and I'd find it extremely helpful if I could just quickly glance at the key elements of a story, as highlighted by all those people who read it before me.  Sure, the newspaper sites offer commenting functionality today but they don't let readers highlight what they feel is most important.  Newspapers feel they're being ripped off by Google and other search engines?  They should make this highlighting feature a key element of their e-subscriptions, something that's not accessible through their free website.  Wouldn't it be cool if your local e-newspaper subscription showed up on your iPad each day with yellow highlighting of the key pieces of each story?  What we're really talking about here is convenience, time-savings and a service that's not accessible through the free access option of a website.  I'd pay for that!


Mac Slocum

I noticed that too. It's a nice bit of crowdsourced curation -- and I like how it's got a serendipitous hook to it as well. There were a couple good passages in "The Bullpen Chronicles" I would have glossed over had I not seen the underlining.

David Crotty

Dave Pell had a good piece about the downside of "collaborative reading", on the invasion of privacy it creates, and on the potentially negative effects on readers (being spoonfed the "Cliff Notes" version of a book automatically) and on authors (will publishers force authors to focus solely on the types of content that proves popular for underlining?). Well worth a read:

Joe Wikert

Mac, you'll have to let me know if "The Bullpen Chronicles" is a worthwhile read. I just started yet another baseball book I got for my birthday: Cardboard Gods. Unfortunately it wasn't available as an ebook so I had to settle for the dead-tree version.

David, you're absolutely right about the invasion of privacy issue. Done right, I believe this should require a title-by-title opt-in approach, not a broad EULA. There are some books you might have no problem sharing highlights and comments on whereas others you may not be too keen on the idea.

Paul Foth

So am I correct in guessing that you can't turn these groupmind highlights off, at least in their current iteration? Like Dave Pell, I would much rather read without the distraction of highlights that the writer didn't put there him- or herself. Afterward, it might be interesting to know which passages three or more other people found valuable, but not during the first time through.

Joe Wikert

Paul, yes, as near as I can tell, there's no way to disable Amazon's service at this point. That should be a pretty simple option to implement though.

Ed Renehan

I think expanded tools for collaborative reading, and increased demand for such tools, to be inevitable - a natural part of the growth and development of the broad e-reading ecosystem.

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