August 25, 2012

A perspective on the future of the book


Travis Alber and Aaron Miller both have undergraduate degrees in English, and Aaron also has a MFA in creative writing from Irvine. One might expect them to have typical literary professions, perhaps in traditional publishing or journalism. In fact, for the last 15 years they’ve had careers in technology. Having always been interested in the ways that literature and technology intersect, they’re two brilliant minds on the forefront of the ways that web and ebook technology are converging. And they think it’s an exciting place to be. Travis was able to answer a few questions about the future of publishing from Argentina.

CK: You’re in Buenos Aires now. Why do you spend a month in the summer there?

TA: Displacement is good for creativity! I really think getting out of your normal routine is a great way to gain perspective on what you’re doing. Moreover, Argentina is a literary place to do it. It’s really inspiring.

CK: Could you describe your latest projects, ReadSocial and BookGlutton?

TA: ReadSocial is a service (actually an API, for those familiar with the term), that makes it easy for publishers and developers to add paragraph-level discussions into their books. It gives readers a way to discuss things contextually. When ReadSocial is installed inside a book or website, readers can leave comments on paragraphs and others can respond; discussion groups are built in as well.

Aaron and I have been looking at cool things you can do with technology and books for around 6 years. Some projects didn’t make a dime but were really amazing from a technology perspective. We built a system that read and discussed Google ebooks inside Facebook, a way for people to customize their ibook reading interface, an HTML5 reading system, and an epub conversion tool (among others). They were all exciting projects, but like most R&D, they didn’t pay the rent. It was experimentation for its own sake. Our very first venture, BookGlutton, was our most business-oriented. BookGlutton is a website where readers form groups and then read a book together in a browser. On the site, people chat inside a chapter or leave comments for other group members; the business model combined book sales and paid features.

CK: ReadSocial was built with assistance from Dogpatch Labs and WeWork Labs, and your office in New York is in a think-tank environment. Do you have groups of developers and innovative thinkers that help you brainstorm ideas?

TA: Absolutely. The NY startup community is fast-paced and full of ideas. It helps to have people who are focused on the future, not afraid of it. Being a part of these communities does two things. First, it keeps you current on the coolest technology. Second, it gives you a community to go to for feedback.

CK: Social reading seemed to be a bit of a buzz word at BEA this year, but what will it take for traditional publishers to embrace the technology you’re creating?

TA: It needs to be easy. Easy for the publishers to install, easy for readers to understand. If it’s an enjoyable experience, social reading is a way to get more mileage out of content publishers already sell. In web parlance, we’d say it makes the content stickier.

But since social reading is this huge, amorphous beast that everyone wants but no one has, we probably need to clearly define what we’re talking about. Posting an alert to Twitter that you opened a book, or linking to a review on Goodreads, is a social action, and great for marketing. But that’s not social reading as I define it. Social reading is more contextual; it’s a way to facilitate discussion about specific content, while you’re looking at it. For most publishers and developers it’s unrealistic to expect them to design and build a system with that kind of complexity. That’s why we created ReadSocial in the way that we did, as something that publishers and developers can drop in, to allow readers discuss ideas next to a paragraph, wherever that content lives.

CK: Who is doing the most innovative work in ebooks?

TA: Hugh McGuire has done some really interesting things with book production and workflow. I was lucky to work with him on a recent O’Reilly book developed via his Pressbooks system. Also, Recommended Reading, a new project from Electric Literature, is an interesting foray into viral sharing of long-form text on Tumblr.

CK: What is your opinion about book publishing today? How will we be reading books in the next few years?

TA: It’s going to be fine. Publishers spend too much time in a defensive position, thinking they don’t know what’s next. But at this point it’s pretty obvious what’s next: mobile, DRM-free content. When one company makes the leap, the rest will follow. This is not a bad thing, but it would help their businesses if they would accept a few of these ideas and build on them now, rather than waiting. In terms of DRM-free content, breaking down barriers to sharing has been the main trajectory of the web for the last decade, and reader expectations for this will carry over from other media types. It’s a natural progression.


Claire Kelley is the Director of Library and Academic Marketing at Melville House.