Beyond eBooks

Reading Technologies is a series about developments in digital reading and related technologies. Over several weeks, we’ll have guest posts from a variety of people on the cutting edge of e-reading, interactive media, and digital publishing.

This installment is by Rachel Thomas. Rachel is the cofounder of Subtext, a digital reading company with a vision to empower the largest community of readers, authors and experts in the pages of ebooks. Before founding Subtext, she served as VP of marketing for social gaming giant Playdom, now the cornerstone of Disney’s Interactive Media Group. Subtext’s first product is a free iPad app available on the App Store.

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It all started with the ebook. Suddenly, buying and carrying around a metaphorical bagful of books was delightfully easy. (I would also argue reading them got delightfully easy: Why turn a paper page when you can lazily tap the edge of your iPad or Nook?) Then technology improved, and publishers and tech companies began to experiment with adding digital media and interactive features into ebooks. A catchphrase entered the zeitgeist for these new and improved books: “enhanced ebooks.”

My favorite enhanced ebooks include Penguin’s On The Road (Amplified Edition) and William Joyce’s The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore. They are beautiful, and they add an element of entertainment and interactivity to the reading experience that’s hard to dispute. But they aren’t without limitations. Like the original book itself, they need to be developed by a publisher, author, or expert of some kind. This means that there’s an inherent limit to the number of books that can be enhanced, and your favorite book may never make anyone’s to-do list. In addition, after they’re published they remain more or less static. As much as I enjoyed the augmented version of On the Road, over time, there is nothing new and meaningful that compels me to return to the book.

A book that exists on a social reading platform like Subtext, on the other hand, is alive and dynamic. It is what I’ve started to call a “socially enhanced ebook.” For those of you who haven’t experienced social reading yet, imagine a Facebook-style discussion thread right in the pages of your book. As you read, you can add and explore notes posted by friends, experts, or even the author herself, and these notes can link out to anything on the Web from YouTube videos to New York Times articles. Let me give you an example from the Steve Jobs biography in Subtext: Users have linked out to images of Apple products, the company’s groundbreaking 1984 commercial and Jobs’ commencement address at Stanford. In effect, the community is enhancing the book. Even more interesting, they are debating controversial threads in the story and offering alternative points-of-view. As one of many examples, a user kicked off a discussion on Jobs’ use of psychedelic drugs with the question: “Would you let your kids read this book given it glorifies drug use?” As a reader, you can offer your opinion or simply take a moment and reflect on the question. In either case, I would argue you’ll suddenly feel more engaged. While a hardcover copy of Isaacson’s book is frozen in mid-2011, in Subtext, the book is constantly being updated as Apple continues to innovate, new insights surface about Jobs’ life, and the drumbeat of popular culture continues.

I am bullish on the transformative potential of socially enhanced books. Take a moment and imagine life before Wikipedia, and you begin to see the incredible value and scalability of a crowd-sourced layer of insights and information over books. An isolated reader can’t possibly have all of the answers or see the full range of meaning in what they’re reading. As a member of a social reading community, I can learn from other members and share and be recognized for my own ideas and knowledge. Much like Wikipedia is always growing and extending into new content areas, there is also no limit to the number of books that can be socially enhanced. It all starts with one passionate reader with something to say.

Social reading also opens up exciting opportunities for authors. They can enhance their books on their own terms and interact directly with their readers. From the consumer perspective, it’s nothing short of mind-blowing to be in the pages of a book with the actual author. I will always remember the first time an author responded to a question I left in Subtext. It was Jean Kwok, and it totally changed my experience reading Girl in Translation.

(Side note: Enhanced books and socially enhanced books are not mutually exclusive ideas. There is no reason community-generated content can’t coexist with additive content developed by publishers or authors. The additive content can serve as an interesting springboard for social discussion.)

What does this all mean for the future of ebooks? No one knows for certain, but I am thrilled by the range of possibilities. Here are some of my ideas, and I’d love you to share your own by adding a comment:

  • Consumers will be able to customize their reading experience, from creating their own book covers to weighing in on how the story ends.
  • We’ll see the return of Dickensian-style serial books or perhaps a new format of serial book created to bridge the gap between major releases.
  • Consumers will actively participate in the book editing and marketing process.
  • Publishers and authors will benefit from a new level of visibility into how consumers read and how they respond to particular books, styles of writing, themes and more; this will have a pronounced impact on how commercial titles are written and promoted.
  • A marketplace for additive content will develop around ebooks. I, for one, would gladly pay $12.99 for Malcolm Gladwell’s next book and another $3.99 for his notes.
  • Social discovery will accelerate and a new and much broader definition of a digital book club will evolve.

I believe publishers can play a valuable role in this new world. As more tools are developed and the range of possibilities around ebooks expands, important decisions will need to be made about how books are written, marketed and delivered to consumers. Here’s what I know for sure: We’re all just getting started, and I’ve never been more excited to be a reader!

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