Your Book as a Database (Part 2)

In Resources, What's the Buzz by Edward Nawotka

By Chris Kubica

Yesterday, in Your Book as a Database: A Primer, we laid the foundation for thinking of books as relational databases. Today, I want to expand that to demonstrate how you can rate a single book to the larger ecosystem of books and reading.

Books, readers and their libraries

Have a look at another book-as-database diagram with some additions (in red). A discussion of the new boxes follows:

What we have here is a diagram that shows your book — or any book — and its relationships to the human beings. There is a box for the author of the book and a box to represent a reader — any and all readers. There is also a box that represents a reader’s copy of your book in their collection. This copy is what you take home when you buy a book at a bookstore (or save onto your computer’s hard drive when you download an e-book). Finally, I’ve added a box to represent the “markup” a reader might add to their copy of your book. This could take the shape of highlights, underlines, margin notes, bookmarks, even Post-It® notes.

There is desktop software that let’s readers keep track of a paper book library. Delicious Library comes to mind. There are also websites that let a reader build a virtual library of the paper books he/she owns/has read/has on a shelf like GoodReads, Library Thing, and Google Books among others.

And you can make comments on books in some of these virtual libraries and give your books rating stars and add notes and so on. But these sites generally do not let you query the contents of the book in very interesting ways, in my opinion.

You can find out “does this word exist somewhere in this book?” which is of only limited utility, usually, to either a reader or the author. You can find the “next occurrence” of a search term, too. Whoopee!

In other words, sites like’s Your Media Library or Google Books have scanned the contents of a book and you can search those contents, but only in a way of limited use, like: “Is this word or phrase in this book or isn’t it?” Also, the only utilities provided are generally for the reader only and certainly give little to an author about what a reader is doing to their copy of a book other than the reader’s rating or review of the book as a whole.

However, if your book is a book-as-database on a platform that supports it, a reader can search the book in a few additional useful ways, such as:

  • Show me all the books by author x.
  • Show me all the reader bookcases in which my book appears.
  • Show me all the comments and reviews of book y.

Even stuff like this is possible now:

  • Show me books by author x that are not in my library.
  • Show me books I don’t yet own rated 4 stars or higher by readers of this book.
  • Show me all the readers geographically near me/who’ve indicated shared interests that also have book y on their bookshelf.
  • Show me all the readers that rated book z four stars or more.

I hope you are beginning to see that in my book-as-database vision, a book is much more than the “paper” it is written on, a reader is more than just someone that pays $25 for a copy of your book, and an author is more than just a person dreaming up stuff and typing it out in complete isolation.

Adding back in the contents of the books

If we combine all of the boxes that are part of the book-as-database that we’ve covered in all of the diagrams so far, the graph gets more complex and looks like this:

Interesting! A reader using a book-as-database (book-collection-as-database is more true-to-life since most of us own more than one book) like this can now, for example, do a search across his or her entire library for a particular word or phrase. And he or she can search for how many times an author uses a certain phrase in all the books he or she wrote. Based on the relationships between the boxes shown above, one can now start to see connections emerging between individual readers and individual sentences or even single words.

A book-as-database living in an ecosystem described in the above diagram is no longer the island that a single copy of a paper book is, out in the ocean of all that has been written, waiting to be discovered by a passing reader. Rather, it is available to everyone at any time to anyone online and can never be completely lost — it has become a point on a larger map of the world. It is an organized, collected set of words, sentences and paragraphs that is no more than six-degrees away — as the saying goes — from any other set of words, sentences and paragraphs. It is data and can be sliced, diced, graphed, charted, interpreted.

And with a book-as-database like this the queries that readers can do get even more interesting, like:

  • Show me other books in the same genre as this book that I might like.
  • Show me a word cloud of the top 25 most-used words by this author. Or in this genre. Or in my entire personal library. Or in this genre but among books I don’t yet own.
  • Show me a table of contents or index that spans not just one of the books in my library but my whole library.

The author is authoring a database and the reader is reading from a database.

Books as Dynamic Databases and Multimedia

What all of the above makes possible are those types of never-before-written types of books I noted at the very start of this article.

For example:

Say an author adds or changes something — even just one word — in their book, the reader will “receive” that edit as soon as the author hits the “Submit” button, just like:

  • How anti-virus updates get pushed into your computer automatically with no effort on your part or;
  • How when you see a red badge with the number (3) inside it on your iPhone Home screen you know there are three new status updates to be read from your Facebook friends.

Every layer of relational data that gets added to your book — by you, your readers, your publisher, your agent, the marketing team, your Grandma — has the potential to make the book more widely read, more accessible, more interesting, more data-mine-able, more useful to researchers, more findable, more shareable by the people who already like it, more part of people’s lives and more of an integral part of the ever-growing vastness of Web-based knowledge, content and community. A book-as-database literally has a life of its own.

Like any Web page, as soon as the text of a book is electronic, you aren’t limited any more to just text and pictures. Presently, though, most e-books and e-readers are generally limited to showing text and static pictures only (though new e-readers with new abilities are announced with every passing day). But there is so much more that a book can have if you, pardon the pun, think outside the book: embedded video, audio, apps, hyperlinks, an integrated dictionary/thesaurus, books-within-books, downloadable files . . . anything that enhances a book’s topic.

I’ve added one more box to the book-as-database diagram to allow for all of these non-text possibilities: Image, video, link, app, et cetera:

And once this type of non-static, multi-media content is possible, there is no reason why you couldn’t apply a filter to a book to:

  • Show only the text and pictures.
  • Show just the videos.
  • Show just the photographs.
  • Show just the charts/graphs.
  • Show just the videos across all books in my library.

“E” doesn’t only have to be the “electronic” of “electronic book”. It can also refer to all of the cool “Extra stuff” you can add to a book-as-database.

Finally, on Monday in the third and final part of our series, I’ll tell you how to put all this information together and make it work for you.

About the Author

Edward Nawotka

A widely published critic and essayist, Edward Nawotka serves as a speaker, educator and consultant for institutions and businesses involved in the global publishing and content industries. He was also editor-in-chief of Publishing Perspectives since the launch of the publication in 2009 until January 2016.