When reading, I consider the ability of highlighting and taking notes a basic requirement. If I can’t do it in some way, even with rudimentary copy and past, my reading experience becomes much less rich.

Digital reading possibilities

The arrival of digital reading should help us with that and open new possibilities:

  • No need to handwrite notes with tiny letters, just to fit a small blank space at the side of the page.
  • Possibility to write without being conscious about the length.
  • No need to be afraid to mess a book or document.
  • Easily and quickly delete the annotations, without damaging the pages.
  • Browse through all your annotations.
  • Etc…

However, the actual state of it always bothered me.

After all these years, we still lack a standard way of handling annotations. Depending on the file format, the platform you are using and other details, they work in a particular way.

This causes many problems, such as:

  1. Your highlights and notes are easily spread all kinds of services, apps, etc.
  2. Interoperability is nearly nonexistent. I can’t browse the annotations I have in different platforms in a central place.
  3. They can get vendor locked.
  4. They are stored and exported in different formats.
  5. Importing annotations from a system to other varies from difficult to virtually impossible.
  6. In this scenario new ideas and ways for improving annotations may have been hindered.
  7. It is far from elegant.

It actually seems like we are far from taking advantage from all the possibilities the digital opened to us.

Storing and exporting

Let’s see some examples of how things work currently.

If you are reading PDFs, you may annotate them directly on the file.

For ePubs, each reader stores the annotations internally. Some of them do allow exporting, more or less conveniently. But to which format? Well, it depends on the app. It can be a fancy docx, a messy txt, a well-formated markdown, etc.

Google Play Books, in particular, stores your annotations with their copy of the book, and allows you to export it to a Google Docs file, automatically updated. (IMO one of the best solutions out there, yet far from ideal.)

For DRM’ed books, such as the ones you buy on Amazon, you are - besides that -, stuck reading on their apps.

About the Kindle, specifically, I talked on this post. TL;DR: also a mess.

More problems

We just saw that many softwares have a way (their own) to export your annotations. So at this point you could say:

Well, so it is just a matter of using applications that support exporting to a nice format. Export them after reading the book. Store all in a same folder.

This is more or less my current strategy (which I will detail next), but it is still far from ideal.

For example, what if you want to see your annotation IN the book?

Let’s say I want to build my digital library, and all my books would have my annotations, like on real life. Not only that, but, as I said, digital annotations should opens us a world of possibilities, including searching them, browsing the book by them, etc… None of those is given to be my a html or docx file with my highlights.

Also, some analog features such as “having my notes at the side of the relevant part of the text” are missing in that solution. So how do I get it?

Well, to get it, you’ll have to pretty much stick with a particular software all your life. Awesome, right?

For example, you may like the feature from Google that I mentioned, of seamlessly updating a document with your highlights and notes. You could then decide to add all your books to there, but… If you ever stop using Play Books or if it is eventually discontinued, all you’ll have is the Google documents. You cannot browse your ePub anymore with your annotations. You can’t see your notes while you re-read your book…

To make it worse, let’s say, for the sake of the argument, that you found that perfect software, that you’ll use until death, and it will surely never drop support or stop working. OK, let’s just use it forever and all is solved, right? Not quite. How would it import the annotations for all the books you’ve read until today?

Moreover, if you buy a new e-reader device you’ll probably not be able to import the annotations from this software either.

So no luck.

And lastly, good luck if you ever want (or need) to change software while reading a ton of books… You’ll probably need to stick to both and go back and forward to see your annotations spread over them.

My strategy

Really, what a mess!

So in 2019, the best strategy to keep my digital annotations still is:

  • Pick an app/platform/e-reader and try to stick the most to it. E.g.: your Kindle, Google Play Books, etc.
  • Make sure to find a way to periodically export your annotations from it to a universal format, such as plaintext, PDF, etc.
  • Also convert the readings you do out of that platform to a universal format.
  • Keep everything stored and organized in a directory or database.

This should help you:

  • have all your annotations in one place
  • have most of your content annotated (on the platform you pick)
  • be safe against your annotations being vendor locked

Of course, a lot of how you implement that strategy and how well it works depends on your habits, formats and platforms used.

One example for that in action:

  • Do most of your reading on Google Play Books.
  • Enable the built-in sync of annotations to Google Docs.
  • For your readings outside Play Books, save your annotations in markdown format and store in the same Google Drive folder.

For the future, I hope we finally get a standardized way of doing all that.

Btw, if you happen to use the Kindle, this post might interest you.