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Industry News: How reading will become instantly social and why you’ll care about metadata

September 21, 2013

Right now, reading is becoming social. You get your book–hardcopy or electronic–then read it. And if you see something you like or don’t like, you go on Facebook or log into Goodreads and find the book to add to your list, then make the comments based on that book. If other people see it, they’ll respond.

You know, after they logged into Goodreads and added the book to their list and found your comment.

At least one company–and at least one journalist–thinks the future of reading will be much more integrated than that. It may force you away from hardcopies–or even entice you with untold jewels you haven’t considered. And for authors and publishers, it may change their approach to the entire industry, as well.

The piece, which I saw on a friend’s Facebook feed, is from a magazine called Fast Company and it describes the main product of a company called Readmill. They’ve created an app that allows you to read a book on a smart phone, then instantly post comments about the book that are visible to other readers, including the publisher and author if they’re so inclined. The app’s free. The company makes its money by selling metadata about your reading back to the publishers.

The prospect of all this is exciting, intriguing, and Orwellian and scary all at the same time. And it raises a lot of possibilities about the future.

The Exciting and The Intriguing

Imagine an ongoing reading group you can join while you’re reading the book. Personally, I don’t write a lot of book reviews because I don’t mark places I want to reference as I go. Then when I’m done, I can say Gee, I really like that book. But I can’t say Well, when Catherine punched Jim in the face on page 273, that didn’t seem like something in character for her. (It is in character, by the way.)

Now, instead of taking a note or remembering, I can make the observation immediately, and other people can see it (or not, if they choose). And other readers, including the author, can respond.

Imagine if you read a passage from your favorite author that reminded you why he or she was your favorite author. On the spot, you posted a note reaffirming how much you’re in love with this author. And imagine if the author responded directly back to you at that point in the book.

Or imagine if you’re reading a non-fiction book about the 1918 Flu pandemic and you don’t understand something. So you post a note asking for someone to clarify. And imagine that the author does–right there.

Further, imagine you’re that author and a few people ask the same question. Not only can you clarify on the spot, but you can also work the new clarity into a future edition of the book. And if most people are now reading online, you don’t have to wait for a new publication cycle. You can update the book as needed. And maybe, by then, people who own the book will get the updates downloaded automatically.

The Exciting and Intriguing for the Writing Process

Because the software works on nearly any type of electronic book file, it’s not only useful for reading books, but it could revolutionize critique groups, too. You may love the look and feel of a book, but who loves hauling around eight or ten twenty-page sections of book to mark up and critique?

And too often, the critique is one person’s response at that point in time. Depending on the format of your critique group, you might never get the synergy (sorry, but it was the right word) of critiquers getting to see and think about other peoples’ comments and responding to them as well.

Imagine the ability for you to think about the collection of comments you see and responding with questions to them, to further understand what worked or didn’t work.

The Orwellian and the Scary

As mentioned, the app company makes money by selling aggregated data about the readers’ habits and preferences. It’s not the first time that’s happened with online content. Netflix analyzes your viewing habits to help figure out what you might like to watch next–hence its suggestions to you. It’s even used that data to help shape the shows it’s developing.

It’s the same tracking that takes place when cookies are placed on your computer. And, with all the NSA stories recently, it’s theoretically possible that the software could be used to determine and report who reads The Turner Diaries.

After all, most of the data collected by the online services we use is aggregated before it’s distributed. But–depending on who you believe–that hasn’t stopped the government from asking for the unaggregated data.

Also potentially troubling is app’s ability to track what you do. In other words, maybe you skipped over chapter 12, or you blew through pages 43-51. The app tracks that, as well. And if a lot of people skip that chapter, it’s entirely possible for a publisher to tell an author not to write anything like chapter 12 or pages 43-51 again. Or tell all its authors that readers don’t like <insert whatever here>, so never write that again.

Henrik Berggren, Readmill’s CEO, says he expects that kind of data might be more useful for non-fiction books than fiction books. If readers skipped the section on the chemical makeup of the flu virus, maybe the next books on pandemics shouldn’t include that information, either. (Of course, it’s entirely possible, it should be included, but presented differently.)

Berggren thinks overall, that kind of feature will make books better by allowing publishers or authors to track trends through their books. And while the privacy issues are potentially troubling, I tend to agree.

The Future

I suspect very few people will actually use the Readmill app, primarily because it seems almost destined to have Amazon, Facebook, or maybe Apple buy it out and make it part of its product set. It seems like a match for any of them. Amazon could integrate it with Goodreads. Facebook could integrate it with Facebook. And Apple could develop it as a standalone app with integration to whatever it wants.

In the larger picture, we’re at the beginning of the ebook revolution, just the way we were at the beginning of the Internet revolution in the late 1990s. It took services like YouTube, Netflix, Spotify, and Facebook to add the next layer of shiny things to entice people. I suspect it will be the same with ebooks.

And that’s exciting for readers and for authors.

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