Change we want to see

I am continuing to build on a summary of Baldur Bjarnason's call to "make eBooks worth it". Last week, I looked at what Bjarnason calls “democratised tools of publishing". In this post, I'd like to consider his argument for a “more peer-like, less hierarchical, relationship between the reader and writer".

In a number of ways, the change Bjarnason wants to see is already happening around us. For several years, Bob Stein has been developing SocialBook, a peer-based commenting system. Platforms like Medium have launched with intuitive, web-based commenting as a core feature.

More recently, the Open Knowledge Foundation developed Annotator, “an open-source JavaScript library and tool that can be added to any webpage to make it annotatable.” The Annotator web site goes on to explain:

Annotations can have comments, tags, users and more. Moreover, the Annotator is designed for easy extensibility so it’s a cinch to add a new feature or behaviour.

In September, Peter Brantley, director of scholarly communication at, gave a presentation at the Publishing Business Conference that included a partial list of the companies and projects that are using the Annotator API. Early adopters include, Annotorious and the Max Planck Institute, as well as projects at Harvard University (Open Video Annotation) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (its Annotation Studio).

These early efforts are exploring and extending what Brantley called the “key characteristics of open annotation”. Among these characteristics (presented here pretty much verbatim):

  • Specificity via direct reference
  • Additional detail/content by authors
  • A ‘mesh’ that links across publishers, authors, works and media
  • Threaded conversation
  • Interoperability across services
  • Social features (e.g., following, groups)

So, with all of this good work underway, why is Baldur Bjarnason still pining for a “more peer-like, less hierarchical, relationship between the reader and writer"?

Remember that this series started with his post, “Make eBooks worth it”. Although the eBook standard is based in part on HTML, it is not yet “of the web”. To the extent that annotation – conversation, really  – occurs within the current eBook ecosystem, it is largely controlled by the platforms that sell and host the content.

Generally, publishers accept these limitations. Steeped in a format – print – that offers few opportunities for review, comment and conversation, publishers tend to see annotation as an aberration, a special use case that need not be widely supported.

But book, periodical and user-generated content spurs conversation every moment of every day. Amazon’s acquisition of Goodreads points to the commercial value of efforts to capture some of those conversations. Authors like Hugh Howey illustrate how self-published authors can capitalize on a substantial opportunity, learning from and responding to the reaction and direction of their fan bases.

Admittedly, it can be easier to continue to rely on locked, digital containers. Testing the value of making content accessible and annotatable on the web requires skill sets not yet native to traditional publishing.

Standing still is not a great option, though. Content formats that emulate what we’ve had in the past represent a static, if not declining market.

It’s more than possible that an “interoperable, threaded ‘mesh’ that links across publishers, authors, works and media” could open up new markets and new levels of engagement for readers around the globe. It’s worth testing, and not in a small way. Some things must be believed to be seen.

A bit of disclosure: Peter Brantley is a colleague and a friend. He afforded me a spot on the agenda of each of the first three iterations of "Books in Browsers", the annual meeting that he created and now plans jointly with Kat Meyer and the Frankfurt Book Fair. His support and willingness to take a risk on a new idea was instrumental in the development of "Context first" in 2010.

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.

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