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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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  • Brian

    As part of this thread, I though of the incredible potential for discursive authors such as David Foster Wallace, who uses end notes to disrupt the main narrative and actually advance the plot in such a way that you can’t ignore them. The Atlantic has experimented with hyperlinked footnotes online and experimented with different ways of displaying this kind of approach in print, but I can’t wait to see what might become of Infinite Jest on the iPad.

  • Michael R. Bernstein

    Re: “anticipate the reader’s questions and objections”

    I tried to do that with the book I co-authored a few years ago, and by most accounts I succeeded very well, but I also got a dozen or so email inquiries where readers got stuck in one particular place in the book (it was always the same one), where my reply was literally ‘turn the page to find the answer’.

    This probably wouldn’t have been an issue if the book’s pagination hadn’t ‘hidden’ the answer, which I suppose underscores how difficult it is to write format-neutral content.

  • Liza Daly

    I didn’t say strongly enough in my original quote that I envisioned the web lookups to happen more or less asynchronously. I want to be able to tell my ereader, “This word, phrase or image interests me,” and have the system act as an autonomous agent and look up basic information on my behalf.

    My needs as a reader aren’t scholarly and I don’t need a full-blown AI. I can imagine a handful of simple queries (wikipedia more than anything) serving 80% of my questions.

    Mostly what I want to be able to do is record traces of interest through the text. Some of that interest could be satisfied by simple automatic queries; more detailed manual study I could do manually when I was no longer in deep reading mode.

  • Tim Letscher

    Is it at all telling that in the article above, there are over 10 html links to deeper information? If I like what Russell says, I can click his name and learn more about the man. An e-book can provide the same level of deep dive at my (the reader’s discretion).

    It’s definitely a use-case scenario for me. If what I’m reading is captivating enough, I’ll focus on the primary text or storyline before going back and for further information.

    The power of the side-channel in an interactive reading experience lies in its ability to provide deeper context. A map that tracks the progress in the Lord of the Rings trilogy or choosing to play a Doors song while reading about a performance in No One Here Gets Out Alive. Two simple ideas off the top of my head, but hopefully they illustrate potential.

    I think we’ll see deeper interactivity coming from magazines first with books to follow.

  • bowerbird

    as per usual, your discussions of e-book functionality
    are amazingly superficial, and quite poorly-informed.

    and this is what’s making the new york times?
    and the backchannel lists of o’reilly editors?

    sigh. heavy sigh.

    no wonder e-books are limping along so pathetically.


  • Andy Day

    Mac, I think Russell’s idea is interesting, but I wonder if it’s practical, as a way to enable both immersive and casual reading, on a single device. In some ways, clicking Jones’s “distractions off” switch is akin to getting up before everyone else, taking your book into the study, and shutting the door. But in the latter case, you need to go to some effort to get away from your book. It will be much easier, for users of Jones’s ideal device, to press that button, telling themselves “I’m only going to write one email.” For device designers targeting those who do a lot of immersive reading, the goal should be a “better Kindle,” rather than “a stripped-down iPad.”

    I’ve blogged about this, btw, at http://www.litnow.com/wp/?p=871.

  • Paul Camp


    Everyone is assuming that annotations are something done to the reader rather than by them.

    Clearly no scientists in the room.

  • Marie Bjerede


    I find I have two modes of reading. One is purely immersive like a great science fiction book – no thank you, I don’t need a link to the physics of tachyons or the community discussion of FTL. Another might be characterized as semi-scholarly, such as lay neuroscience texts, where I find myself thinking about the topics, refining my models of epistemology and learning and often re-read passages. In these cases I almost physically feel the need to toss ideas around with one of my fellow epistemology geeks, and I have found myself literally pushing on cited references as though they would link to the original research. Understandable perhaps on my Kindle, but what does it say that It happens with paper books, too!

  • Julien

    I am in a research team on this subject, and we started off targetting a particular audience – young post-grad students – and then ran a first series of interviews.

    I think it’s a shame that people should react with personal intuitions here and should think that these have value. What reading activity are they thinking about? Leisure? On their couch? In a reading group? DUY manuals? Educational? In a classroom, a library, at home? What’s their age and occupation? Do they participate in social networks, and when? Do they mute their phone when reading and close the door?
    (a bit provocative, that last question, I’ll admit)

    Excellent point by Paul Camp: annotations exist.
    Let’s add that they are UGC. Before Facebook or Twitter (or even Flikr), no one would have predicted the extent of UGC sharing, status updates etc. Does that mean we should perhaps envision a different future for annotations that scribbles on paper?

    And if the conclusion is that no one seems to wish for additional material, is that a feature issue, as in “the intelligent fridge is doomed to fail”, or simply a design issue, such as “before the iPhone, only geeks used all these (already available) features”?

    Sorry for the passionate tone, but we hear a lot of this “I don’t want to be interrupted when reading” all day long. I hope I’ve showed how, even though it’s perfectly valid as a first remark, it misses the point.

    (oh, and thanks to Lisa Daly whom we follow of course)

  • http://www.cxware.net/social-reading/ Johnny Jiang

    It is an interesting topic, and is also our focus.


    We are targeting classic books that don’t have copyright restrictions as well as academic materials.