On Book Business Magazine, sometime TeleRead contributor Joe Wikert muses on the possibility of reader annotation and curation becoming the next big thing driving the sale of e-books. (Nate Hoffelder informs me that it’s a reprint of a post from Wikert’s own blog.) Given the “flattening (or declining) ebook sales trends,” Wikert posits, something new is necessary to “drive investment in digital innovation” and take e-books beyond “the current print-under-glass model.”
He discusses a too-soon-quashed startup called Findings.com that was intended to let readers share their Kindle annotations, and explains that he thinks they were onto something.
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.
He suggests that this system could be extended across apps—rather than bookmarking a useful new web resource, why not drag it into the textbook as an annotation instead? And then, once she’s finished the class, the student can sell her annotations for a small fee to other students looking for the same kind of useful material.
It’s an interesting idea, though I’m not so sure it’s strictly necessary. For starters, every single note-taking and study-skills class I took or book I read during my college years advised me to eschew textbooks that had been marked by someone else, because there was no guarantee that I would need to remember the same parts the previous owner thought were most important. (For that matter, highlighting a textbook isn’t necessarily as useful as lazy college students think it is—it’s better to take good notes instead.)
Of course, digital annotations would go well beyond the simple act of applying fluorescent yellow marker to paper, and it’s possible they could prove useful to other people—especially if they’re more in the way of collections of bookmarks to useful external material. That being said, I don’t see this as being the sort of thing that could “save” e-book sales.
For one thing, it’s worth noting (again!) that e-book sales aren’t necessarily “flattening (or declining).” Big Five e-book sales might be, but that’s not the same thing; there’s no indication that indie or self-pub titles are seeing the same decline, as they weren’t even measured by the study everyone’s citing like Chicken Little after the acorn hit him. And given that this change seems to be driven largely (or entirely) by the Big Five’s stupidity (or cupidity) in jacking up e-books’ prices, rather than anything endemic to the format such as people actually falling out of love with it, it seems unlikely that this kind of bold new change is necessary to keep people interested. They’ve been interested, and they’ll still be interested, as long as the price is right.
For another thing, who annotates and takes notes in mass-market fiction books? I certainly don’t, even if my Kindle (and Kindle apps) has that capability. I don’t doubt some people highlight passages, and some even do take notes, but it seems unlikely most people do unless they’re taking a class in something. Why go to all that extra effort? As such, it seems unlikely that this capability could “save” most e-book sales, even if they needed “saving” by a bold new gimmick. (They might help with flagging e-textbook sales, but that’s hardly a large segment of the market overall.)
Studies like the ones that touched off all the kerfuffle are really worse than useless, in my opinion. They turn people toward panicked speculation about how to prop up the falling sky, when in fact the sky is in no danger of collapsing. People hare off looking for this or that new gimmick that could “rescue” e-book sales, when in fact all that needs to be done to “rescue” them is for publishers to shave a few dollars off their prices—and there’s no sign publishers want to do that.
As nearly as anyone can tell, declining e-book sales are apparently just what publishers want, because that takes some of the pressure off dead-tree-book stores. (Never mind that the biggest dead-tree store beneficiary is Amazon itself, who gleefully prices new-release paper books below the cost of agency-priced e-books just because it can.) Might as well not waste any life-preservers on that drowning man; he evidently doesn’t want to be saved. Meanwhile, self-publishers and small presses are swimming circles around him.
So let’s not worry about “declining” e-book sales. Any decline seems to be what publishers want, so why should we fret about it if they aren’t? And I’m not saying that we shouldn’t keep trying to improve e-books beyond “print-under-glass” if we can, either, but we shouldn’t do it with the expectation that any particular gimmick will be some kind of magic bullet that Saves The World for us. At the least, if we do try to improve something, we should make sure it’s something we know people want to use, not something we’re building in the hope that someone comes.
Update: Nate Hoffelder has his own, similar take at The Digital Reader, with some points I missed.