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.

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