Ebook annotations, links and notes: Must-haves or distractions?

O'Reilly editors discuss ebook functionality and connected reading experiences

Liza Daly’s recent piece in the New York Times inspired a great back-channel discussion among O’Reilly’s editors. The subject: pros and cons of ebook links, annotations, and notes. There was a lot of interesting back-and-forth, so I asked participants if we could publicly share a handful of excerpts.

Mike Loukides on the reading path:

iBook screenshot showing embedded dictionary… inasmuch as I have lots of questions when I’m reading, I don’t think I’d like to have the tools to answer them right at my fingertips. It’s too easy, at least for me, to move from Little Dorrit to the entry on the Marshalsea in Wikipedia to a history of debtor’s prisons, and sooner or later: what was I reading?

I suppose it depends on the implementation. The “Annotated” series from the 70s was, I think, just annoying. Better to just read the book and go back later for the commentary, rather than shoving it all in the reader’s face.

There’s an excellent book titled “What Jane Austen Ate and Dickens Knew” that goes into all the nitty-gritty background: how much was rent, how much did bread cost; if someone has an income of 500 pounds, is that a lot or a little? But it’s a good thing that this information is packaged up in a separate book, not embedded into my copies of Dickens’ books. But if someone could figure out the right way to build this kind of reading experience in a way that wasn’t intrusive, that would be really good.

Adam Witwer on annotations as an option:

As a formerly serious student of literature (I got better!), I couldn’t agree with Mike’s sentiments more. The more difficult and rewarding stuff that I’ve read required all of my focus and attention. The only secondary aid I wanted was a dictionary, which is why the built-in simplicity of the iPad dictionary is such a beautiful thing.

Still, there are some texts for which the annotations are an indispensable part of the experience. I would have found “Ulysses” to be nearly impenetrable in places if I didn’t have the annotations handy. To have those annotations somehow built in to the ebook so that I could easily flick back and forth between text and annotation sounds very appealing to the grad student in me.

Tim O’Reilly on anticipating a reader’s needs:

The Oxford edition of Trollope has amazing footnotes, but they really get in the way of reading the book. If you don’t ignore them, you don’t get the benefit of the narrative because you’re constantly distracted.

But I still think back to my days editing. One of my principles was that you had to anticipate the reader’s questions and objections, so that just when they were about to leave you anticipated their need and filled it. It’s what makes a great book compelling. I was so delighted when a reader wrote in about one of our “X” books to say that just as a question was starting to bubble to the top of his mind, Adrian [Nye] answered it. That’s an awesome technical book. So even if the reader can go out for more info, it increases the need for thoughtfulness about what the reader really needs to know.

Russell Jones on a toggle solution:

There’s a difference between linked information (where links can become obsolete) and embedded information, which is persistent. I’m sure you’ve all had the frustrating experience of clicking on a link only to find that the information is no longer available. In contrast, footnotes or endnotes in a book are always available. Ebook publishers can use both, as needed. If the information is critical (and small), embed it; otherwise, link to it.

The UI problem of all the ancillary material getting in the way of a clean reading experience can be solved easily, by simply making the links/extra info invisible until the user reveals them. That can be done through a gesture, a Ctrl+Click or some other unused-in-ebook-reading action. The reveal would be a toggle, so users could turn it off equally easily. That lets publishers include as much ancillary information as they wish without interfering with the reading experience.

And because I can’t resist adding my own two cents …

Ebook discussions sometimes degenerate into binary debates. Digital vs. print. Disconnected vs. connected. Sometimes even good vs. bad (although that’s a bit much). But what I found most interesting about this conversation is that everyone approached the topic from a use-case perspective. And use cases vary wildly between people, and even within people. It all depends on the particular need, goal or subject. That’s precisely why I find the toggle solution proposed by Russell Jones so compelling. There’s no “or” involved. You’d have public and private, disconnected and connected. Just flick a switch for your desired experience.

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