On Monday, 7th of April 2014, the Labo de l’édition welcomed for the second time the computer pioneer and visionary Bob Stein to benefit from his forward-thinking experience in digital publishing.
Founder of the New-York-based think tank Institute for the Future of the Book, Bob Stein is a prominent thinker and entrepreneur of the electronic publishing industry, paving the way for enhanced ebooks by founding the first commercial multimedia CD-ROM publisher, The Voyageur Company, in 1985. Eleven years ago, Stein started ‘Night Kitchen’ to develop authoring tools for the next generation of electronic publishing. That work is now being continued at the Institute for the Future of the Book.
When Bob Stein gave his first talk at the Labo de l’édition back in May 2012, he exposed to us the concept of his flagship project : SocialBook. This platform’s purpose is to engage collaborative discussion around a book and uncover new ways of monetizing engagement around content. This time, Bob Stein presented the tool’s new features and the development policy adopted for the platform.
SocialBook follows Bob Stein’s approach of digital publishing stakes. To preface the depiction of his project, the thinker addressed some key issues of the future of the book.
From Efficiency to Aesthetic : the Future of Print
As digital publishing allows easy and inexpensive production and distribution of content, printed books are facing the challenge to offer non-reproducible experiences to readers. As an exemple, Genesis, the portfolio of photographer Sebastiao Salgado’s eponymous project is a luxurious art book that reinforces the idea of printed publications as highly crafted objects.
In the same way, digital publishing has always been stimulated to produce unparalleled experiences to its readership. For Bob Stein, we are at the exciting stage of experimentation and although some current initiatives are struggling to succeed, innovation is finding its path in this market. We need experimenters to overcome the commonplace of digital replicas of the printed book. However, Bob Stein recalled that « the affordance of new technologies is a slow process ». In this sense, it took him and his team a long time to reflect on ways to create the most intuitive platform for readers.
Since MIT interactive reading project in 1979, Bob Stein envisions books as “vehicles for moving ideas in time and space”, where pages are no longer static. From this reflection comes the idea of live margins, establishing a dynamic space for conversation. The concept of engaging readers in the book originates from medieval culture, as Bob Stein mentioned Copernic manuscript with its small text and large margins to allow annotating space. Keeping a trace of several voices and opinions expressed within the book is in a way a « going back to the future”.
The experience of reading gains a new dimension as the exercise of commenting reconciles reading and writing to produce deeper thinking. This stance results for Bob Stein from several experiments in the field of annotation. From the creation of a WordPress plugin dedicated to social interaction for texts (named Comment Press) to the Golden Notebook Project in 2008, Bob Stein developed his know-how in social reading to create SocialBook in 2011. He envisions the book as a place, a campfire for ideas and people to congregate.
A disruptive reading mode
As the platform combines reading and writing activities for readers, the platform also rebalances the relationship between them and content producers. In fact, the traditional comment thread that places the author on top and commentators at the bottom of the page is largely emphasized in blogs layout. One of the objectives of SocialBook is to flatten the hierarchy between writers and their readership : conversation happens in the margin on the right hand side of the text. Although a lot of social reading schemes exist on the web, the one proposed by SocialBook allows for the natural reading flow to be uninterrupted.
The main characteristic of the platform is to encourage conversation between readers on sections of the text. Other features to improve user-experience and user-interaction (like video and animation integration or real-time interaction with authors) are currently being developed. So far, Bob Stein’s main though was to create a new type of distribution platform for the project to work. Unlike Google Docs or wikis, the structure of the text isn’t changing, but conversation emerges from it and nurtures it. More importantly, SocialBook works as an open entity whereas Google Docs is only available through invitations.
A complex adoption of the technology
When designing the tool, Bob Stein and his team build up strategies to attract communities committed to social reading. Fan fictions and education audiences are the early adopters of the platform. A project was launched with 85 students in British literature and a syllabus of 15 books. The result is a complete change in the experience of lecturing and following a class. The discussion is generated ahead of the class meaning it serves as a preparatory work to enrich the debate but it also implicates an intensified workload for teachers and students. Despite the actual benefits of the model, yet few have decided to use it in their curriculum. The adoption of this disruptive thinking process is slow because it required a deep change in teaching methods, and appears to be irreconcilable with the current system.
Bob Stein and his team became beta-testers of the platform by replacing traditional emails with the SocialBook interface for their internal discussions, proving the platform allows several uses.
To them, it is the publishers’ role to embrace social reading. In fact, the capacity of the platform to build a strong community of interest synthesizes the key objective of digital publishers. Bob Stein’s hope is that social reading tools like his could help publishers regain the momentum lost to Web giants like Amazon.
To enter the market of digital publishing, Amazon, Google and Apple often chose to mimic print-like experience. Considering this strategy, it seems very difficult to escape skeuomorphism to create disruptive design interfaces and so to introduce new usages. The proprietary software business model naturally conflicts with social reading experiences. Why would Amazon encourage a reading habit that reveals the weaknesses of its closed ecosystem? noted Bob Stein.
The ongoing revolution of social reading tools
As soon as social reading becomes a common practice, digital readers might not tolerate to be locked in an ecosystem that prevents them from sharing and discussing freely inside a book, explained Bob Stein. Thus, he notes that GoodReads and Shelfari acquisitions by Amazon didn’t let to social reading innovations the two companies could enabled. Kindle’s social reading features deepen recommendation and social media engagement but not the experience of reading itself, because it lead outside of the book and not through it. However, promising startups are based on social reading schemes like Amplibook, a service that allows users to read books for free in exchange of social networks shares to promote their reading. Otherwise, initiatives like SoundCloud commentary system or Reddit AMA could be sources of inspiration for social reading-based platforms.
For Bob Stein, free and open-exchange solutions will break out of the silos. For now, social reading is left to the initiative of readers and publishers, that’s why Bob Stein is making SocialBook available under license. To increase economic activity, Ecommerce implementation should be effective soon. One way of monetizing the service could be to keep a percentage of revenues on every book sold through the platform, following Maria Popova model in her blog, Brain Pickings.
SocialBook is an innovative opportunity for publishers to experiment another kind of reading experience. This apparatus leads us to wonder about the possible future developments for the book. Is social reading suitable to all literary forms or will it gain momentum in niche publications and for specific audiences ? The future of SocialBook will tell.
The podcast of the conference is available on SoundCloud.