Someone else may have already noted this, but it took me four days to realize the game-changing potential of the upcoming Public Notes feature Amazon is bringing to the Kindle. If authors and celebrities take to it the way they’ve taken to Twitter, they could create entirely new marketing angles (bleh), as well as entirely new virtual editions of ebooks (whaa?). And the benefit for Amazon could be the creation of added value that no other ebook store can currently match.

Take for example a book on American politics, not because that kind of book is fun to read, but because such a book always has two characteristics: a strong point of view that practically begs for counter arguments, and debatable errors either in actual facts or in the interpretation of them.

With Public Notes, now a noted public figure of an opposing political bent can read and annotate a Kindle edition of a new book by someone on the other side of the argument, and the reading public can tune into that person’s highlights and notes from within the original text.

It’s a virtual annotated edition, and one that only exists temporarily. The author of the notes can remove them or disable public access to them at any time, or a reader can choose not to follow their annotations the same way I don’t follow certain celebs on Twitter.

Earlier this week I was laughing to myself about how much fun it would be to add funny or satirical notes to someone’s book, but the big problem was that almost nobody would want to read my notes.

But if Glenn Beck were to annotate Rachel Maddow’s book, and Rachel Maddow were to annotate his, I bet you’d have a considerable amount of interest from consumers. You’d probably sell more of each book to readers who would normally avoid your book.

For now, this seems more compelling to me with nonfiction categories like politics, memoirs and media/journalism criticism. But I can imagine too that public annotations from authors could be used by publishers as a sort of “blurb on steroids” — the key difference being that annotations are actually added content, and therefore added value, that only Kindle editions can currently offer.

And then there’s the possible bad news: will publishers and authors freak out over this? Do they understand its potential? Will the Authors Guild, or some executive, or a famous author accuse Amazon of producing new works, and therefore infringing on copyright? My guess is yes, and like text-to-speech the feature may get hobbled before it can really take off.

But since I think this can sell more books in the end, I’m hoping that everyone involved on the publishing side of the business embraces it wholeheartedly. And, while I’m blue-skying this stuff, that Amazon hasn’t managed to somehow patent it.

Via Chris Walters’ BookSprung blog


  1. If I thought this was going to be a built-in feature of a book, that would stop me from buying it, right then and there. Are we in danger of losing reading as a private occupation? If I want to follow such a discussion, I’ll do it online, not in a book that I purchased.

  2. That’s an interesting take on an otherwise ho-hum new addition to the fast-moving Kindle feature parade. It’d get even more interesting if Amazon were to allow the authors of better quality Public Notes to get compensated for them.

    I know one example. In creating my Lord of the Rings chronology (Untangling Tolkien), one of my printed copies became tagged with handwritten notes for each change of date (a long and complicated labor). That matters because Tolkien deliberately kept actual dates out of his narrative. In the middle 60 percent of The Lord of the Rings—that’s 38 chapters and 595 pages— Tolkien gives the current date precisely once. By one count, in the entire narrative of The Lord of the Rings (the book less prologue and appendices), the current date is given only 23 times. It wouldn’t be hard to transfer transfer those handwritten notes into Public Notes for the Kindle edition. The result would be a major help for those trying to penetrate the book’s many complexities. The text and those Kindle notes would be a perfect match.

    Even better would be a feature that would allow the authors themselves to add purchasable post-publication notes to their books–something that could be called Author Notes. It’d be like the director/producer commentary now being added to some movie DVDs.


    * For really good fiction, readers could read a book once without notes and again with the notes turned on to understand better what the author was doing. Murder mysteries, for instance, could explain where clues appear and what the author intended by including them.

    * Authors could more easily create a popular edition without footnotes and a more scholarly edition with them.

    * The author of a controversial work could answer his critics post-publication and perhaps even add an extended note as an appendix.

    In any case, the addition of Author Notes would allow authors to have a conversation with their readers rather than just a single, one-directional remark. Things that weren’t clear in the original could be explained without the bother, cost and confusion of a second edition.

    Amazon could sell these Author Notes alongside the Kindle edition. Everyone–readers, the author, and Amazon–would benefit.

  3. The idea of it in fiction is appalling to me.

    In non-fiction, if the function is turned on can the reader chose to only read specific people’s notes ? or once on will they have to trawl through the million others with notes of varying … quality … let’s say 😉

  4. Good discussion.

    Chris and commenters have some valid points.

    We definitely need a gatekeeper to control the notes: unlike treads on the Internet which can turn into child’s play. I pick the author or publisher.

    As soon as this feature was active, I added public notes to my novel, “Call Off the Dogs”. This ebook is an historical fiction novel about the Assassination of President Kennedy. The public notes I added were references to the actual historical events that were not included in the fictional story. I started my notes with the word “Author:”.

    The way I see it the real winner will be Education once they get to know how to use this tool.

    I blogged the other day about public notes on SPR. You can read my take on this at:

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