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Social Reading Revolution: What’s Next?

In Sean Prpick’s CBC article ‘Social reading’ the next phase of e-book revolution, he claims that e-reading is going to evolve into a social activity. The article mentions two types of social reading: Socialbook, an in-browser reader that lets you make comments, add marginalia, highlight text and more, while also allowing your friend network to see what you’re reading; and what are essentially hyperlinked web books, of which Hugh McGuire is a major proponent. McGuire’s vision is for books to be published online as their own websites, with hyperlinks peppering the text connecting to useful information such as photos and maps to enrich the text. The article mentions using a web book edition of Dracula to take a tour of the book’s setting in London. Both of these types of books and networks offer different and social reading experiences.

Social reading is new again. Via Wikimedia Commons
Social reading is new again.
Via Wikimedia Commons

The article asserts that McGuire’s vision of free web books is frightening to publishers because they “are in the business of selling access to that information in order to get you to buy a copy.” While this is for the most part true, I don’t think that free web books are necessarily scary to publishers – for example, Penguin UK has its own series of interactive web books called We Tell Stories, including one Google Maps-based version similar to the one described for Dracula. I also predict that free web books will work best for public domain texts, because websites for books do not offer the same kind of revenue stream that traditional books or e-books do, because there are no sales; website revenue is driven by ad sales, which would likely be undesirable on this kind of website. If publishers got on board with this kind of model, it would be just as but probably more expensive than developing an e-book: regular editing and marketing and some production costs would still apply, while the development and maintenance of the website (similar to building an app, I suspect), the research necessary to provide useful hyperlinked information and other costs, would also apply to this project. Unless the book was hidden behind a paywall, I don’t see how web books would be a lucrative channel for publishers; the paywall, of course, dashes McGuire’s dreams for open access content. (Side note: Hugh McGuire gave a talk similar in content to the CBC’s interview to my Public Texts class at Trent University last fall. It is interesting to note that his new book, Book: A Futurist’s Manifesto is available for purchase in traditional format as well as online in a free, hyperlinked web book. Even Hugh needs to pay the bills, I guess.)

As for SocialBook, I like that its creator links his service with the oral and social history of the book. In the CBC article, Bob Stein, SocialBook’s founder, connects it to the “pre-historic, preliteratre era [when] storytelling was communal, as tales were told around the campfire.” In fact, you don’t need to go quite that far back to find social reading as a part of everyday culture. Reading aloud was a form of entertainment as late as the 19th century, before silent, isolated reading became popular. While I agree with Stein that social reading is valuable and deserves a comeback, I don’t know if I would use his product. While I have not taken the plunge into e-reading on devices, I have tried desktop readers, and browser-based readers such as Zinio, Issuu and Flipbook. I do not like sustained on-screen reading. Additionally, I am not sure that I actually want my friend network knowing what I am reading as I read it via a social network (for that matter, I don’t want another social media platform to keep track of). Furthermore, Socialbook is also only available for Chrome and Safari, which excludes Firefox users like me, as well as Internet Explorer and other browsers. The ability to add marginalia is cool, but I think adding this feature to an e-reading device would eliminate SocialBook’s edge.

Both of these new forms of e-reading raise interesting questions about the direction of e-books and publishing. Will offering different e-reading experiences increase sales or an interest in reading? I am not sure. People who use e-reading devices might not try out a new type of in-browser reading. As mentioned before, I don’t see how web books can be profitable enough for traditional publishers or authors to become mainstream, while the source of SocialBook’s online library is unknown. McGuire is suggesting a move away from publishers-as-gatekeepers and towards open access and self-publishing. I think that if SocialBook takes hold, it could be an interesting alternative to GoodReads (rest its independent soul) if a review feature were added, while web books might work for traditional publishing if they were paid content; otherwise I suspect they will be more popular with public domain and self-published books. Either way, I will stick to reading a codex or on an e-reading device.

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