BookGlutton Logo

Some startups are driven by money or market control, but BookGlutton was created out of a passion to help people appreciate what they read. Its mission has always been to make reading books more like the way we read, share, and discuss other content.

Since 2007, BookGlutton has delivered an innovative social reading experience. For many years, it was the only way people could discuss a book right from the page. Shared commenting has always been a core part of the experience.

For 7 years now, I’ve devoted countless personal hours striving to iterate on the BookGlutton experience and technology. It’s been an “interesting” ride with many ups and downs. Both my co-founder, Aaron Miller, and I have learned a lot along the way.

Unfortunately, we now find ourselves unable to fund further business operations and continue to devote our attention to innovating on the site. As of September 7, 2013 all of BookGlutton’s operations and associated services will be discontinued. This includes the website, catalog, unbound reader, widgets, APIs, and EPUB conversion tools.

The site has represented a great innovation in reading and publishing, and we’ve seen it inspire other entrepreneurs and visionaries. I would like to personally thank all of the users who’ve used our products.

For those looking for a replacement for BookGlutton, try ReadUps.com, a new reading experience we’ve just launched. Like BookGlutton, it’s also a social reading system that allows paragraph-level comments and real-time messaging. ReadUps, as a platform, is designed for people to “meet up” inside a book / url / personal writing sample. It’s the evolution of BookGlutton, in a way. But unlike BookGlutton, every ReadUp is part of a single group event, with a set duration, after which the content expires. Inviting people to a ReadUp is as easy as just sharing a URL – and it’s the details like url-based sharing that we expanded on from our days with BookGlutton.

If you’d like to know more, I’ve posted a brief post mortem below, as well as some personal notes about the experience of running this publishing startup.

Sincerely,
Travis Alber, Founder
BookGlutton.com / ReadUps.com

—————

POST MORTEM

 

HOW IT STARTED

We came up with the idea for BookGlutton in a bar, when we were sitting around complaining about PDFs and the difficulty of actually getting and reading an ebook. (Isn’t this what everyone talks about it bars?) The crux of the argument: “why can’t you share and discuss a book like you can a movie or webpage?” We wanted to read a book in a browser, like we read news, email, and blogs. We wanted to leave comments for each other, and, knowing full well that many of these might be snarky, we wanted the ability to shield that from the masses. Ideally we’d even be able to talk in real time if we were in the book together, especially with friends far away, in NY or LA.

In truth, the idea had been building for some time. Aaron Miller and I had lived in Krakow, Poland in 2005. There’s a cool English language bookstore there, but we didn’t have access to many of the things we wanted to read. We also didn’t know many English speakers. We were craving conversations with people about real things (not just how we felt about Polish beer!). We wanted to work our brains a bit.

But the concept began even earlier. Aaron’s master’s thesis had been about the ramifications and logistics of  publishing a novel on the web. Part of it was a self-publishing experiment using a homegrown Perl script. This was way back in 1998.

It didn’t dawn on us until much later, not even as we sat at that bar, drawing little boxes on a napkin, that both of us had been thinking about the enormous possibility of  books in browsers for most of our adult lives.

As we sat talking about what kind of reading experience we’d want, Aaron said if we can’t find what we want on the Web now, we should just build it. That sounded like a good idea to me.

 

BUILDING BOOKGLUTTON

At first BookGlutton was going to be a small side project in relation to our other freelance work.

BookGlutton Site Circa 2009

Core features included a reading system built using JavaScript that could parse ebooks in EPUB format. For social features we decided the paragraph was a good unit to attach shared comments, and we also decided to include in-book chat capabilities, limited by chapter.

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As we began to build out core features we realized we’d ignored group dynamics. We’d need to have multiple levels of public / private / group reading, and those settings would need to extend to notes as well as the reading system. Moreover, people needed more things to read, so we built a library and started pursuing publishers to get even more content. We built a free converter to help people get their content into EPUB (and our system). We built a widget so people could embed the reading system in their blog (and still log in to limit it to group members). We built in the ability to skin the reading system, create collections and reading lists, and an  API to get notes out. Eventually we built an entire publishing platform that ingested ONIX files (metadata catalog files) from publishers. We built in the ability to track usage to get statistics on group growth and other key indicators.

Then we built a store. And a mobile site. And with every new browser that came out, and new devices like the iPad, we redeployed. Although we were smart about how we built it, it was huge.

We were grappling with typical startup growing pains, namely Feature Creep. We had a good process: functionality docs, wireframes, strategy docs, full-on designed templates. But, like many people building the future, we totally overbuilt.

 

TIME AND MONEY

Three years passed, and we self-funded it. To bootstrap that long meant making some serious personal cutbacks. We whittled down all our personal spending, cashed in stocks we’d accumulated during the dot-com boom, and drained our bank accounts. We moved to a pretty seedy part of town (with drug dealing neighbors) to save rent money and put it toward hosting costs. A guy lived in a van in the driveway next door.

There were many points along the way we should have pulled the plug. But we had plenty of encouragement too. Teachers at NYU and Yale using it in classrooms, NPR interviews, Wired magazine articles, Webby Awards. Partnerships with Random House and O’Reilly Media. Investors calling, other entrepreneurs asking to license our technology. One particularly large company from Seattle cold-called us to suss out our plans, and said we had “deep wells of optimism.” It was probably not meant to be a compliment, but it only spurred us on.

Too many options led to a lack of focus. As the money continued to dwindle, we hooked up with someone who’d come out of a large media company’s M&A department. He believed strongly in the ideas behind BookGlutton, and we brought him on board to spearhead a fundraising round. It was hard to tell if we should raise Angel or Series A. We had only 150,000 uniques a month and a tiny trickle of revenue. But we had just built the first DRM-free, EPUB-only social bookstore, and feeling like that was worth something, we pounded the pavement. We hit both Sand Hill Road in Palo Alto and a number of firms in NYC, making contact with over 200 investors overall. It wasn’t hard to get meetings: the idea was exciting.

But the responses we got broke down into three categories:

  • We don’t invest in books – publishing is not a high-growth market
  • We’d love to talk to you when you top 1M users or when you’re revenue positive
  • Come back when it works on the Kindle.

We never closed a round.

 

WHAT WENT WRONG

For most startups, there are plenty of factors that work together for you to shut you down. For BookGlutton it included:

  • Being too early (we launched six months after Twitter, and two months after the Kindle came out)
  • Having a small market size
  • Running into difficult content acquisition (publishers couldn’t use our system if they wanted digital rights management, but it’s hard to lock a webpage)
  • Realizing complex user expectations (for both content and devices)
  • Money (to build awareness or acquire content)

Most of those factors go far beyond our control as founders. After all, we had a great vision for something we’d want to use, and it did inherently have use to thousands of people. But without a strong product/market fit, or money to drive conversion, it’s very difficult to bridge the gap.

 

NEITHER SUCCESS NOR FAILURE

That brings me to today, and the concept of what it means to not fail and not succeed at the same time. When you’re running a startup, everyone says it’s okay to fail.

“Fail early and often!”

Having done this a few times, I can safely say that 80% of the people who say this are posturing. What people really mean is that you can’t tread water forever. Don’t be afraid to change. Sometimes it’s also hard to define failure. If people still use it, did it actually fail? How much cash do you need to blow through to define failure? Failure is the absolute hardest way to learn a lesson, but you don’t easily forget the mistakes you make running a startup. The ramifications are huge, and often quite personal.

The time for us to move on from BookGlutton was probably two years ago. At that time BookGlutton was 5 years old – ancient for a website. We’d relaunched it twice, but now the chat functionality was overloading the servers – we were going to need to rewrite the entire way chat was handled inside the book, and that was weeks of work. The discussion we had was heated. After years of work, how could we shut it down now, with people still using it? On the other hand, how could we find the time to fix it? By then we’d moved to NYC and had to pay rent.

We talked about joining an incubator and relaunching, but felt our product was too far along. Also, places like TechStars and Y-Combinator require all founders to be on site full time. Since we were married, we were already taking on external work to pay for health insurance and pay our bills. At least one of us needed to have a job. Without time or money, we decided to scrap the chat. In its place we added in Facebook chat – a huge compromise. It didn’t quite do the same thing, and felt different, looked different. It was at that point we started thinking it was time to shut BookGlutton down.

In the end, we’ve spent hundreds of thousands on hosting, development, and lost income. Note to other couples: don’t marry your co-founder – someone needs to bring home the bacon. We postponed starting a family for years, thinking it would be dumb to try to do both. When decisions are being made at that level, failure doesn’t seem like an option. It just means pivot-as-needed. I was willing to work weekend after weekend, month after month. Plenty of people still wanted to use the site, despite the compromises we were making in the product. Four hundred schools used it to study and discuss humanities online. English as a Second language teachers used it for tutoring, in places as far away as Japan. Publishers used it to develop author audiences. Even families were using it to mark up Tom Sawyer together – how cool is that? All the while, large internet companies would check in frequently to see how we were doing. There was the frequent talk of an acquisition. It’s hard to shut something down that people found useful and interesting. Wasn’t that why we built it in the first place?

Today BookGlutton is still only one of a handful of web-based reading systems with extensive social features. So why shut it down?

The answer to that is that we respect our users. If we can’t afford to maintain the technology and plan for future iterations, we shouldn’t run it. People expect something to work, and all the explanations in the world won’t pacify an angry parent whose kid can’t leave a comment because the server’s choking. Also, I personally want to do good work, and if the money and time aren’t there to maintain something, it’s not set up for success.

Some people say what kept us going on it was passion, although close friends called it addiction. In either case, what we’re left with is an affirmation, mainly to ourselves: that whether you build a company or just a site, the beauty of the Web is that you can build what you want and share it with the world.

A lot like a book, really.

Travis Alber & Aaron Miller   |   August 9, 2013

 

We (Aaron Miller and Travis Alber) just contributed a chapter to Book: A Futurist’s Manifesto – Collections from the Bleeding Edge of Publishing. The digital book is being released by O’Reilly in three parts. Our chapter, which appears in Part 2, comes out today!

You can buy a digital copy now, and get an update when the rest is released. You can also check it out and discuss the book in-progress on Hugh McGuire’s site, Pressbooks, right now. The entire book (including a print version) comes out later this Spring.

Check out our chapter in Book: A Futurist's Manifesto

Book: A Futurist's Manifesto

Our chapter “Above the Silos, Reading in the Age of Mechanical Barriers” is part philosophy, part social reading, part internet history, and part technology. We think it’s a good blend of what we built, what we learned about social reading, and where it’s headed next.

Here’s an excerpt from the chapter introduction.

…We think there is a very simple but profound answer to the question of why people read books: people read books to make connections. This can be considered at a cognitive level, through simple, repetitive pattern recognition, or at a conceptual, spiritual level. Either way, the basic work of the reader’s mind is to make connections, and the basic mode of higher thought is to exist both in and out of the physical world for a bit, drawing lines between the two.

In any written work, there is a cognitive process of connection-making which makes up the act of reading itself: glyphs form letters, letters connect into words, words into phrases and sentences, sentences into paragraphs, paragraphs into a sense of semantic completion. As we read, we progress through linear rhythms of pattern recognition even as we gain higher understanding of an author’s argument, a character’s motivation, or a historical event. By connecting very small patterns together into larger ones, we connect concepts back to the real world around us, to real people and places. The pattern-recognition part can be thought of as a linear progression, necessary grunt-work for the brain to get at the concepts. However, the tangential connections we make are the ones that matter to us — and they’re the reward which is so hard to get to for those who have trouble with the mechanical work of processing the words and sentences. We may even make many unintended connections along the way, and sometimes it’s those surprises that keep us going. From a description of a road on a summer day, we might recall a bike ride from our youth. From a listing of facts about milk, we might be startled by a sudden craving for ice cream. Perhaps during an introspective passage about spirituality, we look up from the page to see our future spouse for the first time.

A book and its patterns, and the place we sit reading it, and the person we fall in love with, can become forever tied together. It is at this level that reading interests and addicts us. We think of it as a solitary act, but it’s often the connections we make back to the real world that make it so rewarding. These connections are sometimes even more interesting when made across larger gulfs. Fake worlds, or extinct ones, can interest us more than the one we live in. We’re fascinated by fictional characters when they mimic or reflect real personalities. Even the most outlandish science fiction can be interesting in this way, because of the allegory, or the grand sense of scale that crisply dramatizes contemporary issues, or the parallels we can make between even the most alien worlds and our own. It’s these very large, meaningful connections that are the ultimate goal of reading. It’s the understanding we gain, or at least feel we gain, about the world we live in, and the people we share it with, that are the deepest connections we make when we read. In that sense, it is entirely social.

Feedback Tab - Open

Feedback Tab - Open

We’ve added a feedback tab to the BookGlutton site – it’s something we’ve been meaning to do for some time, so it feels good to get it out there.

The Feedback tab just hangs out there on the right side of the screen. Act on impulse! Tell us if you run into problems on the site, right from that page. Share your suggestions for improvement. You can even automatically attach a screenshot of the page you’re on.

Every bug you track down, every recommendation you make, improves BookGlutton. Thanks for contributing to the experience.

Aaron and I are working on an article, and we’ve been digging through our other writing for inspiration. I wrote this for Digital Book World in Fall of 2010. -Travis

Books are social. It’s rare to meet someone who reads and doesn’t care to tell anyone what he’s read. The phenomenon of social reading, whether it means pushing commentary out to social networks or spinning out conversations alongside the content, will grow significantly in the next five years.

Although there are technical and legal challenges with making books social, it’s a natural progression, and one readers will come to expect. Social reading is tied to this simple idea: people want to share what they’ve read. Technology is the great enabler for this — from Flickr to YouTube, blogs to Facebook, we’ve become a society that values sharing our collected thoughts and observations. After all, Facebook has 500 million members (now 800 million), and half of them update their personal details every day.

THE EVOLUTION OF SOCIAL READING

When we started working on BookGlutton in 2007, the iPhone was new and the the Kindle hadn’t come out yet. There was a huge disparity between how people communicated online and how they consumed digital books. Ebooks, unlike other kinds of content, were being sold and consumed in silos, as disconnected from the online world as their paper counterparts. There was very little online conversation about them aside from reviews. Discussion revolved around posting responses to a reviewer’s thoughts, rather than posting responses or comments directly on the text. In all of the emerging social networks at that time, the content was nowhere to be seen.

Flash forward to today. Online discussion can be broken down into two categories: using social networks to post updates, comments, or show appreciation for a book, or building conversations inside the book itself.

Most people have seen an example of the first type – posting short updates to social networks. Goodreads lets people post what page of a book they’re on to their Facebook friends. Amazon lets you integrate a reading list with your LinkedIn profile. Using Twitter, Electric Literature published Rick Moody’s story “Some Contemporary Characters” and gained 10,000 followers in three days. This approach has tremendous value for word-of-mouth marketing, and although most conversations are more sound-bites than discussion, they are engaging and can be good fodder for conversations elsewhere.

The second approach, integrating book content with conversations, requires that the content be available and accessible by those who want to discuss it. Recently the Kindle began showing how many people have highlighted a passage, creating a significant foundation for book discussion. For BookGlutton, social reading is exclusively about paragraph-specific conversations in virtual book groups. We’ve had recipe discussions around hundred-year old cookbooks, margin-notes from Random House authors, professor and student Q and A’s about passages in King Lear. We also allow in-chapter chat, which is great for getting my friend’s brilliantly sarcastic comments on our club’s book selection. The value of content-specific conversation cannot be understated.

In the long run, these conversations woven through book content are much different from the conversations that have evolved around blog posts, news stories and other timely content on the Web. Whether they are seen as perennial cash cows, or important objects of academic study, many books are seen as timeless objects that continually accrue discussion over time. Books are read over and over, making in-book comments a long-term investment. Over time, weaving these conversations through books creates a networked knowledge layer – something unique to the digital world.

THE FUTURE OF SOCIAL READING

There are three characteristics of social reading that will develop over the next five years.

1. Content will become more dynamic and retrievable. For the last twenty years technology has continued down an open and networked path. Rarely is “I don’t know” an acceptable answer. People have come to expect instant knowledge gratification, networked inside content, and that will continue.

2. Distinguishing “Presence” will become important. If you’ve ever checked into a physical bookstore on Foursquare, or Tweeted that you’re attending a reading, you understand the rise of the real-time component in interactivity. Developers call this “presence” – detecting where someone is or what they’re saying in real time. Kat Meyer’s real-time Twitter discussions about publishing (#followreader) are a good example of this, as is BookGlutton’s in-book chat. Yes, it can be distracting, in the same way that an onslaught of feed updates can seem like an avalanche of information. Used in the right context, however, this is an amazing way to connect. Before the real-time web I lived in Krakow, Poland, and would have done anything to talk about a book with someone who spoke my language and was available on my schedule. Given the right book, that is now be possible.

3. Open systems will beat out closed. This point may seem a bit heavy on the technical side, but it’s tremendously important. People don’t want to stay tied to one hardware system, and digital rights management usually forces people into this arrangement. The more standards-compliant a system is, the better it will weather the sea of time.

CHALLENGES

There are some big challenges for the publishing industry to be able to offer content to social readers. Some in the industry think it’s a matter of educating the user to accept these limitations, but it’s more likely the policies will change, not the consumers.

1. International Rights
The more networked and distributed a readership is, the more work a publisher has to put in tracking where readers are coming from, and adjusting availability and pricing accordingly. Consumers don’t understand this barrier, and will expect all their friends to be able to buy the same version of a book at the same time.

2. Digital Rights Management (DRM)
Although the ePub format has limited format confusion (many people know their reading system is PDF, ePub or Mobi, for example), there’s still plenty of room for uncertainty. Companies often wrap proprietary DRM around these files, making some ePubs unplayable on other ePub-reading systems. Utterly confusing.

3. The Meaning of Ownership
The great thing about paper: it never stops working. Not so with digital systems, which may come and go. Should we solve the DRM problem, those files will continue to work on new systems, but until then, the question of whether I own something is a bit tricky. If it’s only available in a locked format (and I stop using the technology that unlocks it), I’m out of luck. It’s a similar problem for content that lives in the cloud and can’t be downloaded to your desktop. Most users won’t ever need to download and warehouse that file, but there is a desire to own something that’s been purchased.

4. The Complex Network
Networks are complex and difficult to build. Ultimately it’s not just about slapping a few social features on top of a book – it’s about creating an experience. Google’s recent decision to sideline Buzz is a prime example of how the reading experience and a user’s perception of a company figure in to usage. Deep pockets and a hodgepodge of features won’t necessarily mean success, and it may be very difficult for Amazon, Apple and Google to break into the social book scene.

A POPULATION OF SOCIAL NETWORKING

The best technologies mirror how people live their daily lives, and we have become a population immersed in social networking. How it ultimately pans out may be a compromise, based on the challenges inherent in bringing together the old expectations of publishing and the new expectations of readers. However, people are already clamoring for social sharing in books, and social reading is not going away. In fact, it may take off faster than anyone expects.

Stay tuned, this is about as publishing-geeky as we can get. You might have noticed we’ve been gradually open-sourcing parts of the BookGlutton platform as time permits. We want to share some of the tools we’ve built over the last five years to encourage development of reading systems, startup-technology, and, of course, the publishing revolution (underway now!)

Aaron Miller (@vaporbook), who built the technology running BookGlutton and ReadSocial, and who is now working with NetGalley, has open-sourced the PHP ONIX Importer we use on the BookGlutton site.

GET IT HERE
BookGlutton PHP ONIX Importer
https://github.com/Vaporbook/POI-PHP-ONIX-Importer

WHAT IS ONIX?
Most people probably haven’t heard of ONIX (ONline Information eXchange). ONIX uses XML to process metadata for book publishers. If you’re a publisher that wants to deliver all your titles and associated metadata (title, author, publishing date, price, cover image, etc.), you push it out in an ONIX feed for the retailer to pick up. There are a lot of variations on this — every publisher formats their ONIX feed differently, and they change them at will.

WHAT DOES BOOKGLUTTON’S PHP ONIX IMPORTER DO?
The PHP ONIX Importer is an easy way to import any kind of ONIX and make it available as JSON data structures. JSON interfaces well with web applications and can be served directly from Web APIs and consumed by various kinds of Web clients without depending on other libraries. It’s a small tug, but it gets publishing a bit closer to the web, so we can easily use vital metadata about book products.

WHY IS THIS GOOD?
We attended the Books in Browsers 2011 Conference at the Internet Archive and saw that people are speedily moving toward the web for reading experiences, publishing platforms, book catalogs and reading recommendations. This code will help some of those endeavors get a head start. The BookGlutton PHP ONIX Importer moves the conversation forward, because it is:

  • Based on the most widely proliferated and supported languages of web applications: PHP
  • Timely in the age of HTML 5 where JSON-interchange is replacing XML
  • Compatible with widely used CMS systems such as Drupal and WordPress
  • Battle tested in production on the BookGlutton.com site for several years

AARON MILLER’S OTHER OPEN SOURCE TOOLS
You can find some of Aaron’s other work on github under vaporbook. A lot of it has had a good workout on BookGlutton.com. He’s also involved with the National Information Standards Organization (NISO) and its Standards Development for E-Book Annotation Sharing and Social Reading committee. Here’s some of Aaron Miller’s other open source code:

Good news! Aaron Miller, BookGlutton’s CTO (@vaporbook), has open-sourced the BookGlutton Core Epub Library. This is something that people can use in web-based reading systems, and we hope other developers will use and improve it as a basis for creating Epub 3 workflows.

GET IT HERE
BookGlutton Core Epub Library (PHP):
https://github.com/Vaporbook/BookGluttonEpub

WHAT DOES IT DO?
The Core Epub Library is what powers the BookGlutton converter, as well as much of the book content on the site. It is a self-contained library meant as a server-side component in an Epub content management system, with a special extension to allow for virtual zip containers (without writing files to disk).

The Core Epub Library can be used in conjunction with the previously announced Epub Framework which is a set of command-line tools for viewing and creating Epub files.

WHY IS THIS GOOD?

  1. The BookGlutton Core Epub Library is in PHP, so people now have an alternative to existing libraries, most of which are not written for PHP.
  2. It is the most robust PHP library for working with Epub files – it’s been used in production on a live bookstore and publishing platform for several years, so it has a lot of useful and stable features.
  3. You can use this to allow a system to modify an Epub file or read metadata from it with just a few lines of code; and of course, you can use it to do conversions or even build new Epubs from scratch.
  4. It can be used as reliable a back end to WordPress systems which need to utilize Epub files as part of a content workflow.

FINAL WORD
This is part of a suite of tools Aaron Miller is open-sourcing to drive Epub creation and innovation. We’re hoping to get other developers involved so that we can use the BookGlutton Core Epub Library as a foundation as we all move toward Epub 3!

–Travis (@screenkapture)

We’ve been doing the ebook thing for five years now. A veritable flash-in-the-pan for the publishing world. But like dog years, web years fly by at an accelerated rate. Five years is a lifetime in web-years. Five years should really get you fifteen years of street cred.

We’ve learned a lot. About building communities. Running destination sites. Integrating with publishing workflows. Reaching out to third party systems. Pulling content in from other sites. Creating online reading systems. Making people happy. This has all been a valuable, powerful, (sometimes painful) learning experience. But when we sat down and thought about what we really know, we know the most about Social, with a capital “S.” We know what people will and won’t use (which is not to say that we can’t be surprised). We know how baggage from other web communities figures in to people’s expectations for a digital reading system. We know what types of behaviors people bring with them from the print world, and what they really miss when they switch back to it from digital. We know about user experience, and the compromises that sometimes need to made of it in terms of schedule and technology. We know all about user-funnels, stickiness, and a whole host of other concepts that figure prominently into the digital publishing world, whether or not publishers realize it. But when it comes right down to it, we decided we should focus on what we really know. What we’re passionate about.

ReadSocial is launching soon.

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