Meta-content is the future of the book

This evening I bought Jeffrey Eugenides ‘The Marriage Plot’ from the Amazon Kindle store. I would love to say that I always buy books when it would be just as easy to download a pirate version for free, but I would be being  dishonest. But buying the book has recently become a far more likely outcome, for the simple reason that I want to see what other people are saying about it.

Reading through The Marriage Plot I am able to see where other readers have highlighted passages. I find this really quite interesting. It would of course be much, much more interesting if readers could share comments on the text directly through their Kindles. We may read books in isolation but we love to talk about them together. Books are about our shared human experience, so it’s good and natural that we want to exchange thoughts about them. Take it a step further. Think about the commentary that accrues around a text over the years. Reviews. Academic studies. Reader comments. Author interviews. Social media gives us the technology to connect all of these materials directly to the text. That’s incredible added value, which has hardly even begun to be tapped.

The publishing industry has been chronically slow in exploiting the unique added value of user generated meta-content around the product they publish. Particularly as it provides an absolutely compelling solution to the problem of piracy. Only the authorised text allows you both to read commentary, and to comment upon the text. Readers are in effect paying not for the book, an increasingly worthless product, but for entry to the community of the book’s readers, an increasingly valuable experience. My prediction is that the first players to provide a seamless commentary and meta-content system for published texts will gain an advantage in the game of modern publishing. It will almost certainly be Amazon, unless the major publishers suddenly gain a gift for innovation they have previously lacked.


Published by Damien Walter

Writer and storyteller. Contributor to The Guardian, Independent, BBC, Wired, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine. Special forces librarian (retired). Teaches the Rhetoric of Story to over 35,000 students worldwide.

10 thoughts on “Meta-content is the future of the book

  1. Very interesting, Damien. Easily your best blog for quite some time. Of course the simple-minded non-Eco readers won’t get it:-)
    In software terms there’s nothing much new to do here, I don’t think. Similar apps are everywhere. Wonder why it hasn’t happened yet?
    btw I’ve been told that the 3G version of the Kindle has a free for ever mobile web i/f, though of course it’s monochrome.


  2. I have to agree with you. The merging of technology and the written word is something that has fascinated me over the last year or so, but I have been a little disappointed with the current crop. It’s important to note that this might be due to tech limitations, but industries are always slow to react to changing tech and consumer patterns. There have been some interesting examples. Al Gore’s recent book had a particularly interesting app (though it did have a little bit of a novelty factor) and the Guardian app is particularly strong, though it lacks the community aspect of the website.

    Design company IDEO did some very conceptual work along similar lines to what you seem to be suggesting. This video explains their three concepts –


    1. Thanks for that video Rob, very interesting. There are elements there I agree with and others not so much. interactive narrative, for instance, is a bit of a dead horse. Part of the problem with adoption from the creative perspective is the point where technology and creativity meet. Often digital projects become content vacuums. Lots of flashy tech, very little real emotion…


      1. That is true. I think the third concept they present really reflects this. I can’t think of anything worse than a book that requires me to go somewhere in order to ‘unlock’ additional content. I can see where this might work, The Da Vinci Code instantly springs to mind, but otherwise it feels like a novelty that doesn’t enhance our experience in a meaningful way. Therein lies the key point, for me anyway. I’m all for embracing technology within culture, but it has to add something otherwise it will just be a gimmick – an excuse to mark the price up a couple of pounds.


  3. This is actually one of my least favorite things about reading on the Kindle (or, in my case, via the Kindle app on my phone). Until I turn it off, it makes every book I buy into the digital equivalent of a second-hand copy marked up by a student for an English class. I don’t want my own attention to be nudged toward a common denominator of quotability by shared highlighting.


    1. I have exactly the same sensation when I see those underlines, however, I am also curious about what is being said. I’m 99% certain that curiosity wins out in the majority of people, which gives the commentary value for the publishers.


  4. So can you turn this highlighting thing off? I’m with ejfischer on this one. If I wanted a copy that had been scribbled in, I’d buy second hand and lend it to my three year old goddaughter. You just have to look at the internet for examples of fourteen year olds uploading their latest literature essay to see this needs some sort of quality filter.

    I like the idea of “additional content”, like special features on a DVD, but I suppose Kindles/e-readers would have to be more sophisticated. Suppose this would work on a i-pad though.


  5. I remember reading a book called ‘The Annotated Alice’ which added a lot of extra useful tidbits of info to the Alice in Wonderland story. But this was the work of an author who’d spent years studying the book/Lewis Carroll etc. Additional content that added value would certainly be a way forward. Thing is, piracy can get around almost any obstacle put in its way. Is there really a feasible way to protect online content from piracy? I ask because I don’t know.
    On the kindle thingy that lets you read other’s comments… I’ll pass. Don’t think I’d be impressed with the general rabble gawping over my shoulder and passing comment on the book I’m reading.


  6. Damien!

    You may want to check out my essay, published today at, on the socialization of reading, which incidentally features some extensive commentary on my recent e-reading of The Marriage Plot =)



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