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Margin Notes in eBooks

Screen shot 2011-02-21 at 2.50.08 PM I was disappointed to read the conclusion drawn by this recent New York Times article.  The writer, Dirk Johnson, makes it sound like margin notes have no future in the ebook world.  I couldn't disagree more.

In a blog post I wrote late last year I talked about how content mark-up and sharing are features that need to be improved upon in today's ereader apps.  You can take notes with most apps but note sharing is only now starting to become a reality.  That concept led me to something more interesting though.

If you click on the image in the top left corner of this post you'll see a slide I presented in a TOC webcast called "My eContent Wish List."  The slide shows a marked-up ebook page and a picture of Bill Gates.  I referred to the feature as the "VIP notes edition."  The concept is that famous people read books too, and sometimes they probably even make some margin notes in them.  So why not let them do the same thing in an ebook?

Here's the kicker: Rather than there just being one copy of that famous person's notes, why not offer them for sale to anyone else who buys the ebook?  I'd pay more to see Bill Gates' notes on some of the books I've read.  The idea is for thought leaders, celebrities, etc., to make handwritten notes in ebooks they read and sell them as an add-on.  Like most rich/famous people, Bill doesn't need the money, so he could donate it to his Foundation if he chooses to.  There would be two versions of the ebook available: One without notes at the current (lower) price and one with the VIP notes at a slightly higher price.  Maybe you even have more than one thought leader with notes on the same book.  For example, the next time I buy a sports ebook, I might say, "I'll take Scorecasting with notes from Steve Rushin and Dan Patrick."  (Actually, I'd pay a lot more for any sports ebook with notes from Steve Rushin!)

It's too bad Dirk Johnson limited his thinking to how margin notes work in the print world.  I think the concept has even more potential in the ebook world.  We just need to get people to start thinking more about ebook possibilities and less about print limitations. 


Michalis Kalamaras

Dirk Johnson is not right, I agree with you. Margin notes need improvement though. If I have some notes, bookmarks or highlights on a ebook in Kindle, there is no way to extract them separately for its ebook and, when extracted from all available ebooks in the device together, I can not reintegrate them in the ebook. In iBooks extracting notes is not even possible. And the same goes for other devices and apps. Cloud storage of notes in Kindle is good, but not enough, and we don't read only Kinlde ebooks.

Nicholas Eng

"Rather than there just being one copy of that famous person's notes, why not offer them for sale to anyone else who buys the ebook?"

that is a fantastic idea! there will be amazing possibilities in academic publishing as well.imagine e-textbooks with your course lecturer notes in the margins. can't imagine any student that would not stump up a few more dollars for that.

or maybe your best friend's Lonely Planet guide to Tokyo where he has made notes on his favorite places.

I use the Kobo app on the iPad. the note-taking, content-markup features on it frankly sucks.


I'm certain that margin notes will be a crucial selling feature for ebooks especially textbooks. Margin notes are invaluable study aids which customers will demand.

I still remember the marked up copy of Chaucer that helped me in college. It had numerous notes written in it by my mother's favorite English teacher. It was worth more to me than any brand new copy of Chaucer would have been.

Account Deleted

This is a fantastic idea Joe!

I think it would be interesting to see chatter/public notes that other people have made about quotes/passages, as well as the option to filter public notes made by specific individuals (celebrities for example).

I remember seeing James Bridle's talk "The Condition of Music" at TOCCON. He mentioned the temporal nature of the book and how we've been unable to replicate this with e-books. Wouldn't it be cool to have a saved personal history locked to a book? For example Bill Gates buys book 'X' which has a unique ID. He makes public notes, viewable by everyone else who owns a copy. Maybe however, he's also made personal notes, which are attached only to that version of the book. If he sells his digital copy, the notes go with it.


Great post Joe and I anxiously await a chat with you about Highlighter :)

You are spot on about the sharing. We have seen that sharing on all of the sites that have our WordPress plugin installed see a 9:1 ration of shares (to Twitter, Facebook, or email) over actually making a comment.

We were originally shocked by this but after reflecting and talking with some of our publishers, it is because we have piggy backed on a behavior that readers are already doing. That is to highlight something then copy and paste it into another browser or into Twitter or Facebook etc.

We are really looking forward to our new version coming out that provides analytics for this data back to the publisher and double excited about our technology moving from just websites and blogs but into ebooks.

If our hypothesis is correct, big and small ebook publishers will receive even more value from using something like you proposed or something similar to Highlighter than strictly web publishers because ebook publishers haven't had access to tools that allow for such easy sharing, or analytics prior.

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