As much as the idea of enhanced ebooks brings the sexy to publishing, it doesn’t really do much for most of the books published. Enhanced, enriched, transmedia, multimedia…these are ideas best applied to those properties that lend themselves to multimedia experience (or, ahem, the associated price tag). While many focus on the bright and shiny (and mostly unfulfilled) promised of apps and enhanced ebooks, the smart kids are looking at the power of social reading.
And with the reading comes the book discussion.
Social reading is normal reading. It’s how we already read in an offline world, and, yes, how we read in an online world. First, some historical context, all stuff that is well known. In the beginning, humans told stories around campfires*. The storytelling happened in group situations, with some stories passed from campfire to campfire, and eventually the woolly mammoth the hunter felled was a large as the Titanic. Some stories became institutionalized — myths, biblical stories, parables. Others, well, they never really gained market share.
Hmm, publishing, the early days.
Time passed. We developed alphabets, we coalesced around local language standards, we wrote stuff down, but the process was laborious (think rocks) or fragile (think parchment) or valuable (think illuminated manuscripts). These printed stories (using both words broadly), fiction and non-fiction, were not possessed in great numbers by common folk. Reading, or sharing of stories, was done in groups, except for those ancient-times-us who wrote stories in their heads (go ancient-times-us!).
Even after the invention of the Gutenberg press, the possession of books was outside the reach of most people. We moved from campfires to candlelight, while the act of reading remained a social activity. The tradition of people reading to each other remains alive and well. I cannot think of the stories of the knights of the Round Table without remembering my mother reading them aloud to four impressionable minds. Likewise, when I remember “reading” The Island of the Blue Dolphins for the first time, I remember my third grade teacher’s voice as she read it to us.
And with the reading, of course, comes the book discussion.
It wasn’t until mass market books became available that reading, as we know it, was identified as a (almost-solely) solitary activity (overall literacy rates had to catch up as well, but that’s another issue). By reading as we know it, I mean selfish reading: alone in the bathtub, alone under the covers, alone on the couch, alone in a restaurant, alone in a park, alone in the bathroom while the family argues about football. Solitary reading is my preferred style, but I also make my book club’s monthly meetings for literary discussion**.
(At this point, I really want to thank my dearest friends who, in all innocence, asked me “What? Social huh?”, thus leading to me writing them a very long email that ended up being the first draft of this crazy post.)
Transforming the Text: An Essential Part of the Reading Experience
Throughout all this, and focusing particularly on booky-books because they consist of ink and paper (which, for centuries, was a really important part of this whole phenomenon, or maybe behavior is a better word), marginalia or annotations or comments or whatever you want to call them flourished. People love making notes about what they’re reading, and, let’s be honest, they love writing in books, even though generations of librarians have discouraged this behavior.
For example, my notes, if I am reviewing a book, sometimes consistent of comments like, “You have got to be kidding me!” or “Seriously? She’s practically commuting to London from the north of England. In the winter. By carriage.” Since I mostly read digital these days, my Kindle notes are similar, though sometimes it takes some re-reading to understand what I meant when I typed “!!!”. Excitement or disbelief…that is always the question.
This kind annotation becomes part of the book, and is generally private unless the book is sold or shared. I once bought a used book with mini-reviews written in the covers. It was clear this was a book passed among friends, all of whom shared their thoughts. Amazingly sweet.
But we do not only engage in marginalia. We write reviews about the book. We write extended analyses about the book. Speeches are given about the words written by an author. Movies are made. Plays presented in the park. As people interact with the text, many transform the text.
For many of us, transforming the book is as important as reading the book.
As we have developed online tools, we’ve moved our natural tendency to comment and extend text online. Someone will correct me, I’m sure, but this has been happening with increasing regularity since 1992. We annotate, review, discuss, write letters, emails, blog posts, tweets, and more. What makes this interesting to me is, with an exception of actual notations in physical books (or, ahem, some digital editions), very little of this activity is actually attached to the book.
Social Reading, Social Publishing
Think about that for a moment. In the analog world, it made perfect sense that publishers, authors, readers, and aggregators were unable to collect the discussion around a particular work. It is somewhat mind-boggling that we are in 2010 and the nitty gritty serious discussions around social reading are just beginning to happen — and there are many nitty gritty discussions to be had. You’d think this was the kind of control publishers would have grabbed early and often (it would be a wrong-headed attempt, as we’ll discuss in a few paragraphs).
So the discussion around social reading is really a discussion about how to bring an ages-old activity into the digital age, and how to do it a way that makes sense. Though, as Aaron Miller of Bookglutton — a company that is leading the way when it comes to social reading — noted, the starting point for the discussion may more properly be the idea of “social publishing“. I like his definition:
Social publishing is the natural evolution of publishing as a business. It encompasses the Web and all new digital distribution platforms, including the way people read and discover on them. It includes social reading, which is really just reading, an act that has always been social. Social publishing requires a deep interest and study of what happens to a text after it is disseminated — how readers interact with it, how they share it, how they copy it, how they talk about it — and it requires action arising from that deep study.
There’s a good chance that what I’m talking about here, the idea of social reading, is really the idea of social publishing. The layer that happens after or while people are reading books. It is the user generated content tha surrounds the published work (what we call a book, but what is a book, and are getting to the point where book means many things, much as record or album does?). Are we already shifting our vocabulary? Perhaps, and maybe that’s the right thing to do.
Walled Gardens Won’t Work (Unless You Cede Control to Amazon)
However, I’m going to stick with social reading as my descriptor, for the moment. Mostly because I don’t want to go back and rewrite this mess of a post. I suspect my vocabulary will change soon. Very smart folks are talking about how to capture all the discussions around the book. Problematically — for me — are the walled gardens like Blio and Copia and Kindle. These discussions take place in silos, and if you, the reader, are not part of that silo, you are not part of the conversation.
This is the problem with Facebook as well. It seems like everyone has a Facebook account, but this is simply not true. And while some people seem to live on Facebook, many consider it a necessary evil, interacting on the site with reluctance. The Facebook hate is, I’d say, almost perfectly balanced with the Facebook love. While Facebook has extended the social graph beyond its core site, Facebook is a walled community, albeit a large one. For book people, limiting interaction in any way seems like a dangerous proposition.
In fact, as I think about this more and more, I have great concern for business models built on the expectation that people will come, when the Internet is predicated on the notion that people will aggregate where they feel most comfortable. Look at some of the biggest (U.S.) social networks: Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. Think about how some people are perfectly happy on Twitter but allergic to Facebook. How others prefer the slightly more formal nature of LinkedIn to Twitter.
One thing I keep hearing from people who are excited about social reading is they already have enough places to go when it comes to managing their online lives. It turns out people don’t need more destinations; they need destinations that work with how they use the internets. All of them.
Perhaps once upon a time, you could build it and they would come. Look at MySpace and Facebook (I’d include Twitter here, but the beauty of Twitter is that you can be part of the conversation from a thousand starting points). There has to be a compelling reason for people to come, and, much as it pains me to say it, talking about books simply isn’t enough. I know, I know. And maybe there is a magic elixir to change all this.
If I get books from Amazon and Barnes & Noble and All Romance eBooks and Kobo and Books on Board and, heck, my library, I certainly want the ability to engage in annotation and commentary, but I don’t necessarily want to maintain my comments and thoughts in individual silos. That would get old in about thirty seconds. I want, oh I want, my library and annotations and thoughts in a single place where I can access them easily.
(I am wondering how we, as an industry, can approach the major retailers to convince them being part of the whole community is to their benefit. Anyone want to do a study documenting how people loathe silos that don’t help them accomplish their goals?)
This means allowing readers to engage in these activities where they live (Facebook, Twitter, blogs, reading applications [in particular]), while feeding the conversation into a more centralized location. This means allowing the social part of reading to reside with the work, which means consolidating editions/versions into a single item.
What we are talking about is the social layer on top of the text, and thinking of the best ways to connect books from any retailer/library/resource to the social layer (and, again, I am stealing somewhat from Aaron Miller; welcome to the thieves den, Aaron!). There will be interesting challenges arising as smart people try to figure out ways to corral the entire book-related diaspora into a single place. Imagine if tweets and Facebook comments and blog mentions were nestled alongside commentary attached to the text (okay, that’s pretty huge, so let’s just add this to the great social reading wishlist).
(I should note that I am engaging in some magical thinking along with my practical thinking. Gah, the mind just boggles at the idea of figuring out how to pull tweets into the social layer of a particular book. Some sort of magic and short hashtag that is unique to the book? How does one discover what that particular work’s hashtag is? Oh, metadata. Surely this problem could be solved by metadata. It seems to be the solution to all our problems.)
A few weeks ago, the New York Times discovered a social reading platform called Social Books, which allows commentary to happen via Facebook and Twitter, something that is critical to the success of any social reading platform. However, as I consider the situation, I am more likely to push content from Facebook and Twitter than I am to push content to those destinations. Think about how irritated people get from Foursquare updates! This platform, which has some investment from John Ingram, seems a bit device focused. I’ll be curious to see if there is a well-integrated web component. To me, that’s absolutely essential.
(Aside: I don’t know what it is about the NYT, but the approach of this article was “hey, this has never been done before!”, when, in fact, Bookglutton and GoodReads are engaged in social reading/publishing already, while Blio had just launched, and Copia, launching after the article, was certainly a high-profile start-up.)
User-Generated Content vs. The World
This user-generated content or UGC (marginalia, annotations, reviews, etc) would reside with a service — I believe this has to be the case, because publisher websites are not the right place for this — and the information would be extracted by other services (publishers, marketers) because that’s how life works. The readers have to feel like they have an ownership interest in their contributions, which is why I believe publishers cannot control this data (not to mention the disaster surrounding territorial rights that makes the ownership and associated conversations surrounding a specific work messy).
Seriously, my advice to publishers is this: step back, let the readers do their thing, and figure out how to work with the service provider(s) to get the best possible benefit from social reading. Oh, wait there is one area where publishers can be proactive…
In a recent post on this topic, Joe Wikert said this, and I think it’s important:
What’s missing in the recommendation area though is a fast and easy way to share excerpts. If I come across a terrific sentence or paragraph I want to share from Drew Brees’ ebook, Coming Back Stronger (a terrific read so far, btw), what are my options? The Kindle reader on my iPad doesn’t offer a way for me to even tweet/email from within the app let alone share an excerpt.
Yes, publishers could make the social part of reading and publishing easier by making it easier to share little bits and bites (bytes?) of books. I can imagine the teeth gnashing as the implications of what this means sets in. Get over it. Some people will, likely, try to share too much. But my guess is you’ll see a lot more people sharing a small percentage of the book…most often, even, sharing the same passages.
Get over the fear. Embrace the fact that people love what you publish so much, they want to share it with others. Embrace the fact that people love what you publish so much, they want to talk about it with others. Figure out ways to be part of this conversation, without, you know, stepping on the conversation. Like I said, step back, but be creative.
Some will argue that people don’t want this, but I would argue that a) people have been doing this for centuries and b) the online conversations about specific books, many specific books, are already happening. The next step is to make it happen in a more cohesive manner.
If hand-selling is truly the secret sauce of bookselling, then letting real readers supplement booksellers is critical. The key to achieving critical mass is moving the conversation online, allowing the online big mouths to do their thing (big mouth being a relative term), and letting readers do what is already happening in a disconnected manner. Which is to say, let readers connect with like-minded individuals who will then expand the book’s social graph.
Another key aspect of social reading in the digital context is making accommodation for synchronous and asynchronous discussion. Bob Stein discussed this in his Taxonomy of Social Reading, and I think he’d agree it’s just a beginning. The former would be useful for book clubs, classrooms, and other structured reading environments. The latter…
Asynchronous marginalia reflects the reality of how books are distributed and read around the world. Encounters with books can come days, weeks, months, years — centuries! — after initial release. As a person discovers the notes and comments of readers who have gone before, what sort of thoughts are inspired? This leads to the idea that there needs to be some sort of feedback loop integrated into the social reading level. One that allows readers to opt in and out of the conversation with relative ease.
How to do that as unobtrusively as possible becomes an issue. If we’re talking about a book that reaches Harry Potter level hysteria, real-time updates would be, um, irritating beyond belief. Most books, however, would inspire fewer comments. Some could inspire extended conversations; some, not so much. Do readers subscribe to the commentary on a book level, on a paragraph level, do you get updates in real-time (annoying, I’d imagine) or in daily digest format?
I don’t know, and I think this is where we will see a lot of trial and error before mores develop. That’s the cool part about iterative technology. We don’t have to get it right on day one.
Then there’s the challenge of connecting various versions of the work so the entire spectrum — hardcover, paperbacks, audio, enhanced, international — becomes one “book” in the mind of the social layer. As noted, this is reason one for publishers to facilitate rather than control. Now I have me thinking about supporting local language discussions…and then I wonder about including translation services. Must. Stop. Imagining.
A Quick Word About Business Models
The business model around the centralized location is the most problematic, hence my suggestion that the UGC be licensable to publishers and marketers, suitably anonymized of course (though one could some value in the non-anonymized content, think blurbs). This content could form the basis for book clubs. Or education material. Perhaps charging publishers for including their books in the “catalog” (what do we call this in our post-paper world?). Hosting and maintaining this middle layer will be expensive, various financial models may be required.
It’s in the best interest of the publishing industry to support projects like this, if only because it’s not in the best interest of individual publishers to manage this kind of content and interaction. Imagine the social reading disaster of two publishers owning different rights to the same book. Isolated or segregated discussions are grand, but they only reach a specific audience. They feed the all-important Long Tail sales (and if you are discounting the Long Tail, you are likely relying on incomplete information, and I suggest you read the book or blog).
Imagine if those isolated discussions could feed into the greater discussion. What if we managed a true social layer that integrated all discussion, from everywhere, around a book? Oh, there goes that magical thinking again.
Whatever the business model is, its middle name should be “flexible” (yes, yes, you wouldn’t do that to your kid, why would you do it to your business model? Oh right…because nobody’s figured this stuff out yet.). Much experimentation will happen because it’s technology that is trying to replicate and innovate human behavior, and nobody really knows how people will respond and what features they’ll ultimately want. I’d say start small with a plan to iterate, adding and removing features…but have a master plan. A good one.
Challenges, Especially Privacy
As we begin discussions about creating fantastic social reading environments, challenges become obvious. How do we intersect on- and off-line discussions? What about privacy? Consider the recent North Carolina court decision that said Amazon does not have to turn over customer purchase history due to First Amendment rights. We love to talk about books, but how much of that information do we want made public?
Will the systems allow readers to make their commentary private or only visible to certain people? Can I be anonymous when the need (or mood) suits me? Privacy is, as Jason Schultz from UC Berkeley put it during his “Books in Browsers” presentation, contextual. Obviously, I want to decide the right context.
How will these companies protect my identity and my content? How are publishing companies doing this today? I’m not sure there’s been any extended, serious discussion about privacy issues in the age of digital books. The law certainly hasn’t been updated to cover reading or commenting in the digital realm.
As we’ve learned from Facebook, sometimes technology companies forget about the privacy concerns of end users. Worse, they assume their own belief systems are indicative of popular thinking. Mark Zuckerberg suggested (can’t find link) there was something wrong with people who use pseudonyms or fake names online. He lives in a special bubble. Our reasons for protecting our privacy are varies and important, if only to us. For more thinking on this, check out the ACLU’s report on this, “Digital Books: A New Chapter for Reader Privacy”.
I think about how zealously librarians protect my First Amendment rights. I want to see social reading companies approach my privacy with that same level of seriousness. This circles back to the business model discussion — I have to expect there will be some sort information sharing happening, information being the currency of the 21st century — so how can I gain comfort that my data is being protected as it’s shared?
There is a permanence in digital marginalia that doesn’t exist in the print world. There will be implications. We should talk about this. A lot.
How much public is public? What about potential copyright issues? UGC is copyrighted content, just as the books being discussed are. How can you balance the needs of the copyright owner and reader? How does Fair Use play into all this? And so on.
Seriously, if you’re not getting excited chills thinking about all this stuff, I am going to consign you to a solid year of reading Booksquare 1.0 (the clueless stuff).
The best of these projects will come from companies that focus more on user wants and needs than they do on publisher wants and needs. Creating a consumer-facing product that wholly satisfies the executives at a company is never a good idea. It’s important to talk to publishers, but even more important for publishers to listen to what these innovators have learned from their customers.
I’m sure there are more thoughts to come. In fact, I know there are.
* – or bonfires or roasting pits or whatever
** – Or, ahem, wine. One or the other.