Here’s how search will evolve and become more powerful
Why publishers should embrace the evolution of “fair use”

How readers will become curators and resellers

Glasses-272401_1920It’s easy to think that today’s ebook is as good as it gets. Publishers are mostly satisfied with the current print-under-glass model and, unfortunately, flattening (or declining) ebook sales trends aren’t likely to drive investment in digital innovation.

What if readers could help drive some of that innovation in the future? Here’s why that’s a viable scenario…

When it comes to annotating ebooks today, consumers are typically stuck with some very basic options: highlights and comments. Those annotations are almost always limited to private view only. In fact, there was a startup a few years ago called which tried to enable readers to share their highlights in Kindle books; they were quickly shut down by a rather large, powerful company in the northwest.

I think Findings was onto something and one day readers will not only be able to share and socialize highlights, but they’ll be able to add more content and value to the original ebook.

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.

So while Jane is studying chemistry she comes across a slick periodic table website that allows her to dive deeper into any given element. Today she merely bookmarks the site in her browser; tomorrow she drags the url into the textbook, perhaps configuring it as a pop-up element inside the ebook, thereby enriching the reading experience.

Maybe she also finds a few terrific videos online that explain some of the more complicated concepts in this chemistry course. Why not drag those into the book too?

At the end of the semester, Jane has managed to curate an entirely new product. The textbook is the foundation, but web elements and widgets curated by Jane help round it out. This has been useful for Jane, but what if she’s also able to sell her annotated edition to other students next semester? Maybe Jane’s edition sells for $5 more than the standard edition and Jane gets a cut of that price difference.

Are you getting hung up on all the IP and content rights issues this raises? It’s fair to point that out, but what if all these web elements are nothing more than pointers in Jane’s annotated edition? In other words, Jane isn’t actually embedding the videos and web pages in her ebook, she’s just inserting pointers to them. It’s the same as when the book suggests the reader “go to”. In my model, the words are replaced with a link and the link might just open the widget as a pop-up or perhaps a new tab in the browser. In short, I’m convinced the legal issues can be completely avoided.

I’m also convinced this model will one day become a reality. Readers will become curators and resellers. Not every reader will be part of this movement, but enough of them will see the opportunity to leverage their passions and experience to make it a viable model. Publishers will also have an opportunity to promote the reader curators who create the most interesting, value-added annotated editions.


Adam Engst

I have to say, I think this is wishful thinking. In all the work we've done in our Take Control Crash Course series to engage readers by making it possible for them to share chapters to social media, ask questions directly from within the book, and so on, the reality is that the vast majority of people don't do anything. They just want to read, and benefit from the text, nothing more. Perhaps 1 in 500 people will take any action at all, and nearly all of those are one-time actions, not a concerted course of behavior.

(And speaking of textbooks, I had the opposite reaction to highlighting - I tried very hard to avoid buying a used textbook that had been so defiled, because it put me at the mercy of some other student of unknown intellect and insight. Would you have been excited about the highlighting if you'd known that the student who did it failed the class? Even if I knew that I wanted to draw my own conclusions as to what was important, it was impossible to avoid those highlights while reading.)


We're trying to do something similar for the courses we are developing, Joe. It is a nightmare! I have gained a lot of respect for developers who have to make dozens of different systems work together, with complexity that's far beyond my ability to understand.

I understand what Adam is saying - but I think drawing on many different sources is definitely a learning or reading/experiencing method that will emerge in the future. I encourage and teach my students to do this. They have to be prompted or encouraged or rewarded. If I do not specifically guide them through, it is the rare student who seeks to investigate on his or her own. (Like, I have to say, read, watch video, write about this, read that, etc.)

I think Findings was onto something and one day readers will not only be able to share and socialize highlights, but they’ll be able to add more content and value to the original ebook.

That has been tried at least twice that I know of. Both projects faltered due to lack of support, so unless Amazon, Apple, or one of the other major players steps up I don't think this will be coming around again.

Amazon, for example, might be able expand the shared notes and highlights into the feature you describe. But is there really a need for it?

Frank Lowney

A motivated and self-directed learner can make use of free and powerful authoring systems such as iBooks Author to collect and annotate content gotten via the web and elsewhere via scanners, cameras, screen capture and even analog/digital conversion. The benefit is in the making of the book more-so than someone beside the author reading it. Think, "He learns best who prepares to teach." Writing a book is teaching in the sense that Papert (Windstorms) used that term in having us "teach" a screen-based triangle called a turtle (LOGO). Making a book exclusively for oneself has the additional benefits of avoiding all of that IP mumbo-jumbo as well as overcoming the transitory and ephermeral nature of the web (dead links, untraceable edits, etc.).


I started a comment in response to this over on Book Business, but it grew into a TeleRead post all its own. I think the idea that e-book sales are flattening or declining is a bit of a false premise, and it's not clear how effective annotations would be at "saving" them.


And BTW, your idea of a marketplace where students can sell their notes already exists, only it doesn't quite fit your description. B&N invested in one such marketplace earlier this year.

FlashNotes functions largely independent of digital textbooks, and with good reason. College students don't buy digital textbooks; the costs are too high. This is why paper textbooks still dominate.

To put it simply, you speculation that "Maybe Jane’s edition sells for $5 more than the standard edition" is simply unworkable. The price would be closer to $50 or $100 higher than the used paper textbook most students will be buying, so Jane's edition probably never be bought,

Joe Wikert

Thanks to everyone for all the terrific feedback on this article. I agree there are challenges to making this work in today's environment, but I'm not convinced today's environment will last forever. Incumbents will evolve, markets will adjust, new technologies and solutions will emerge, prices will fluctuate and new opportunities will arise.

Barbara Miller

No one mentioned rentals. They take up more and more of the higher ed market and students are allowed to highlight.

Michael Miller

I fail to see where the majority of readers want to annotate or share their notes; for most, reading (even in education) is not participatory. I simply don't see the demand there.

In addition, crowd sourcing content (which is what this is) does not necessarily deliver accurate or relevant results. See Wikipedia as the prime example. By saying that every reader's comments are equally valid we devalue true expertise -- and the original content. I really don't want to rely on what my neighbor or fellow reader thinks he knows. I'd rather go straight to the expert source. The "entirely new product" that classmates or other readers or Joe Schmoes in the ether might create might not be that good or accurate -- and, in fact, probably won't.

I don't trust the crowd. I trust experts. I'm not sure we in the authoring and publishing industries should be encouraging crowd sourcing.


The word ' reading' now takes on a more significant meaning. At one time readers, held up book, scanned visually and processed information to understand the content.

This visualization of the printed word constituted 'reading' and traditional publishers milked this concept dry. Now, however, 'reading' constitutes more than one sense and draws, inter-active responses to the word. All the five ( or six/seven?) senses come into force. The printed word becomes interactive. New digital formats can extend to offer these experiences in future books!

There again, self-publishers are now better equipped to offer a wider and richer experience. What was once left to the' imagination' to create and construct the printed word into a two- dimensional experience is now multi-dimensional. In other words, the 'imagination' we used from the old printed word has become 'multi-imaginative' in experience value.

Learning will take this route. It is imperative to go down this road.

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