Openmargin Lets The World See Your Book-Margin Scribbles

A public digital forum in every book is the Dutch startup Openmargin’s aim. It even thinks it can make money at it.

Openmargin Lets The World See Your Book-Margin Scribbles
Ed Yourdon

One of the incidental charms of library books is to see what notes have been left in the margins by those who borrowed before you. When a text is shared, so can the annotations on that text be shared. That’s the insight behind Openmargin (it styles itself as *openmargin, complete with the asterisk quirk, but I don’t want to have to write “[sic]” after every mention of the name). Openmargin is an iPad app that lets you share your marginal notes on e-books with others, and lets you see their annotations as well.


E-books have succeeded in part because of the ways they’ve imitated the classic paper book. In fact, in the moments when they’ve deviated from the classical book format–eliminating page numbers, for instance, causing trouble in hybrid book groups–there has been backlash. But Joep Kuijper, the Dutch co-founder of Openmargin, thinks that for e-books to truly take off, they have to evolve in their own direction–to become unanchored from the features of the traditional book. 

The user interface of Openmargin is simple. Highlight a passage in an e-book, tap on it, and you can both leave a note related to that passage and read the notes of others. The app is available in limited beta on; the app will be coming to the Apple App Store soon.

For a few reasons, Openmargin decided to make its product not just as an add-on to existing readers, but as an e-reader in its own right. Says Openmargin programmer Marc Köhlbrugge in an email:



The idea of *openmargin has always been focussed on the margin of
the book, not the book itself. So when we first started out we didn’t
want to create a whole new e-reader, but simply partner with an existing
one and implement the openmargin in their application. Without having a
concrete example to show however, this proved to be difficult and we
opted to create our own ereader instead.
In hindsight this was the best decision we could
make, because our limited resources forced us to keep the e-reader
functionality to the bare essentials and it also really helped us think
about how an e-reader should work opposed to how many work today. Some of
those ideas you can find already in the initial version which includes
paginated scrolling (instead of flipping through virtual pages), and
something we call a ‘bookmap’ which visualizes the book and the activity
inside the openmargin.
Besides recreating a whole e-reader, we also ran into
some interesting problems with regards to identifying books and the
highlights people make. We have to make sure that when a reader in the
Netherlands creates an annotation, it shows up the exact same way in the
same book when a reader in China opens the same book. Since the e-book
standard (ePub) is still quite young we had to come up with our own
solutions instead.



The application debuted recently at The Next Web Conference in Amsterdam. The project began two years ago, “as a graduation project,” Kuijper tells Fast Company.

Now onto the meddlesome question of how it’ll make money. Kuijper says on his site that “[t]he eBook as a meeting place gives new possibilities to authors and publishers. On the internet people are not always prepared to pay for digital products, but they are eager to pay for relationships. The musician earns his money with concerts, likewise the author can earn his money by getting involved in the dialogue around the book.” This sounds a bit far fetched to us. Most successful authors guard their privacy; the ones who do engage in conversation are usually doing it on Twitter for free, or at the behest of their agent for one of those back-of-the-book study guides. It’s unclear how many authors would throw themselves in headlong with a random Dutch startup; book writers as a whole aren’t typically an early-adopting set.


Even so, Openmargin already has some partners on board. It’s gambling that a few independent authors–“authorpreneurs,” they call them–will sign on. And according to Kuijper, Maven Publishing (of Holland),
Eburon (also of Holland), Ebookling and Bloomsbury Academic have joined as content partners so far.

[Image: Flickr user Ed Yourdon]

Follow Fast Company on Twitter. Email David Zax, the author of this post, or follow him on Twitter.


About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal


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