Managing book highlights and excerpts

In the pre-ebook era we didn't have a lot of options for managing book highlights and excerpts. They generally lived on your shelf and if you didn't have that book with you, well, you were out of luck

The 2007 launch of the Kindle platform dramatically expanded the capabilities for highlights and excerpts...sort of. You didn't have to carry all those books around anymore but your thoughts were pretty much trapped in the Amazon ecosystem.

Not much has changed on this front over the past 10+ years but there are other tools that can unlock your book thoughts and notes. I'm talking about Evernote and how I use it to manage my book notes.

When I start reading a book I immediately create a new note in Evernote with the book's title. I'm reading more print books than ebooks these days, but the same approach I'm about to describe can be used for either. When I find a page or section I want to highlight or create a note about, I simply use the camera option in Evernote on my phone, take a picture of that page and stick it in the book's Evernote entry.

The result is a set of excerpts and notes that travel with me on all my devices. Better yet, I can share those notes with friends or colleagues. In fact, I'm using this solution right now to collaborate and share thoughts on a book I'm reading with one of my co-workers.

Evernote has optical character recognition (OCR) built-in and I often take pictures of hand-written meeting notes to save digitally. Oddly enough, Evernote is almost always able to translate my awful handwriting but it often has a hard time recognizing printed words on a book page photo. It works better on the Mac than my Android phone but it's still hit and miss. The downside is that your book page photos often aren't searchable within Evernote and I'm hoping they fix this soon.

Despite that issue, Evernote is a terrific tool for managing and sharing your book highlights, excerpts and notes.


ScanMarker Air: Great concept, poorly executed

Screen Shot 2018-08-12 at 12.21.42 PMDespite my strong interest in the digital content marketplace, I still read quite a few print books every year. I also like to highlight excerpts for future reference.

That works great in the ebook world as those highlights are always only a few taps away on my iPad but my print highlights are far less accessible, especially if I'm away from my physical bookshelf. I thought I found an interesting solution to the problem when I saw the umpteenth ad for ScanMarker Air in my Facebook feed.

The promise was simple: A handy OCR device which looks like an oversized highlighter and wirelessly sends your scanned text to the device and app of your choice, all for about a hundred dollars.

The device connects effortlessly to laptops, tablets and phones. The scanning and text conversion process is pretty good, although far from flawless. It's the limitations around where that text can be sent that has me scratching my head.

The Mac app works great. Not only can you send the text to the ScanMarker app but I can instead send it directly to other apps like Evernote. That's a key feature but this functionality is missing from the iPad and Android versions of the ScanMarker app. The problem I've run into is that I don't always have my Mac with me when I'm reading a book. My phone is generally nearby, but that means I have to scan the excerpts into my ScanMarker phone app then copy-and-paste them in Evernote, an extra, clumsy step.

I'm hoping the ScanMarker team updates their apps to support scanning directly into other tablet and phone apps. That seems iffy at best though as I noticed their Android app has only been downloaded a few thousand times and it hasn't been updated in months. If the user base remains small, early adopters like myself will end up with an orphaned product.

If the ScanMarker team happens to see this review, I hope they consider a pretty simple use-case for future development: I'm sure most, if not all, ScanMarker customers are using it with books. If so, how about adding the ability to identify the title by scanning the ISBN? Further, allow me to configure my app so that anytime I scan a new ISBN the app create a new Evernote entry where all highlights go till I scan a new ISBN, for example. If I switch back to a book I started scanning earlier, let me switch the excerpt destination to the older Evernote entry when I re-scan the first book's ISBN.

ScanMarker Air could become the device I was hoping for when I bought mine a week ago. If you're thinking about buying one, I recommend you wait until we see if TopScan, the company behind this device, adds much-needed functionality to this marginally functional product.


The digital content scalability problem

Screen Shot 2018-05-20 at 3.04.46 PMWhy are ebooks still stuck in the print-under-glass model? Why haven't we seen anything new and exciting in the digital book transformation process?

Those are questions I've been asking myself a lot lately. Ebooks are convenient in that you can carry an entire library on a phone or tablet. They're also more readily available for browsing or purchase, right from the comfort of home. But the reading experience features nothing more than a digital version of the print edition.

I've spent a lot of time evaluating content transformation platforms over the past several years in the hopes that I'll discover the path forward from today's world of dumb books on smart devices. I'm disappointed to say we're at roughly the same stage as we were at more than 10 years ago when the Kindle first hit the scene.

The problem? Scalability.

There are countless books which could be greatly enriched by leveraging technology. Everything from the simple insertion of video to the addition of more interactive elements would turn a static experience into a much more memorable (and probably more effective) experience. These enrichment platforms are becoming easier to use, enabling drag-and-drop functionality so you don't have to be a programmer to create a rich user experience. However, the cost of creating these next-gen products is typically more than what the publisher invested in the creation of the original print product.

Think about that for a minute. As a publisher, you have a pretty good sense of the ROI for your next new title. Most of the variables involved operate within a fairly tight range (e.g., author advance, editing expense, manufacturing cost, sell-in level, etc.) Even the total sales, and therefore resulting revenue, are fairly predictable, within a given range. All this predictability provides the publisher with a P&L model without a lot of surprises.

Now think about asking a publisher to spend two or three times that initial product investment to create an enriched version of the same title. The product development expenses are higher, and may even result in cost overruns due to the newness of the approach. More importantly, the resulting revenue projection is a total shot in the dark. Until the publisher has created enough of these new products, they have no idea what sort of sales range to project.

Scalability should lead to better efficiencies. We saw this with ebooks; an ebook can be created today at a fraction of what publishers used to pay for the service 5-10 years ago. The same thing needs to happen with enriched content. Vendors need to have a path to a model where the transformation cost is less than half the original print/ebook product cost. If they're unable to get there, they might as well abandon ship and get into a different business.


Unlocking value with audio and DBW 2018

Screen Shot 2018-02-18 at 3.54.52 PMI haven't attended or presented at a major publishing event since TOC ceased operation in 2013. Over these past five years I've returned to my roots on a couple of fronts. First, as a former software developer, it was fun heading up strategy and business development for a small software company which specializes in helping print publishers make the leap to digital. For the past couple of years though, I've been blessed to work with and lead a team of publishing professionals, similar to the various publisher roles I've previously held at places such as Macmillan, John Wiley & Sons and O'Reilly Media.

These two recent roles have enabled me to step back and look at the future of content development and distribution in a whole new light. The rapid pace of technology has also brought a number of new capabilities and services to the forefront, some of which simply didn't exist in 2013 (e.g., Alexa).

Many of you know that the last major digital publishing event, Digital Book World (DBW), recently changed hands and is now owned by Score Publishing. I've had the pleasure of speaking with Score's CEO, Bradley Metrock, and I'm inspired by the energy and vision he brings to the table for DBW. That's why I'm excited to announce that I'll be both speaking at DBW 2018 in October as well as moderating the New Media Book World track there.

My DBW session, "How Audio Will Unlock Value", connects a number of topics I've written about on my website and will cover each of the following, for starters:

  • Siri, Alexa, et al, are just scratching the surface
  • The importance of richly tagged content
  • Playlists, both personal and crowdsourced, show how curation becomes at least as important as creation
  • Voice UIs lead to the most powerful adviser and mentor you'll (n)ever meet

I'm looking forward to this session and track, but more importantly, I'm excited to reconnect with many members of the community I haven't crossed paths with since 2013. I hope you're planning to attend DBW 2018 so that we can continue the conversation in Nashville this October.

(P.S. -- In case you're wondering, no, I'm not on the DBW payroll -- I simply remain a fan of these important industry gatherings and I want to help spread the word and serve as an agent of change, same as I did in the TOC days.)


Blockchain and the next generation of content reuse and syndication

Chain-2364830_640What do you think about the KodakOne and KodakCoin strategies? If Wall Street is any indication, these might represent the long-awaited turnaround the tired Kodak brand desperately needs to regain relevance. Then again, the resulting Kodak stock surge might be nothing more than a short-term blip once the Bitcoin buzz settles down again.

I tend to think the long-term effects of KodakOne and KodakCoin will fall somewhere between those two extremes. I'm more interested, however, in what the underlying blockchain technology could bring to the broader opportunities in content reuse and content syndication.

Some have speculated that blockchain could help solve the content piracy issue. I disagree. I'm not convinced publishers are really suffering from piracy, so this is a solution in search of a problem.

But what about content reuse and the ability to truly unlock the full value of any piece of content? Today there are a variety of platforms and services acting as content clearinghouses who manage rights and payments. It's always seemed like a highly inefficient part of the business, requiring too much manual intervention. Think instead of a blockchain-powered content bazaar where creators offer their IP to anyone and are assured they're receiving their fair share of all reuse revenue.

The content remix model that's been predicted for so long could become a reality with blockchain at its heart. This isn't just for written content, btw. Think audio and video as well. It lends itself to a true remix marketplace as well as a frictionless syndication model: Just set your terms and let the open market determine what's valuable and what's not. Remixes could be built on earlier remixes, all with a reliable audit trail and accounting built in. This model would also generate a wealth of rich, useful data; the key question is whether the platform developer makes this data widely accessible or hides it from the community.

So even though blockchain might not be Kodak's salvation, it has the potential of becoming a game-changer for more effective content discovery, distribution and reuse.