Books

Technology is changing the conversation about books

The presents have been opened, wrapping thrown away, and for a few quiet hours you've been curled up reading the new Steve Jobs biography, a gift from your dad. You find a surprising detail and call to your significant other, "Honey, did you know ... ?" but he or she is busy making dinner, and the idea fizzles away as you turn the page.

Or maybe, when you get to that passage, with the swipe of a finger you highlight it and email it to your dad, adding a thanks for his gift. Or you click to add your thoughts to a chorus of readers who found that same passage interesting; or you check to see whether there's a link to a video clip; or you find an annotation from the author; or you post it to Twitter or Facebook or Google+, where others may comment on it.

That's called "social reading," and it's coming to an e-reading app or device near you.

"Increasingly, the devices we use to read — the Kindle, your iPad, various types of phones and other devices — they're connected," says James Bridle, a British writer and publisher who has been at the forefront of e-book development. "They have a whole bunch of capabilities that the paper book didn't have."

Put those connected, capable devices together with books and add the best aspects of social networking — sharing, conversation — and the result is social reading. It is a logical step that's just taking shape; it's in its Wild West days, mapping out boundaries, with players staking out sometimes overlapping territory.

Amazon was an early entrant; people reading on its Kindle have long been able to post favorite passages to Twitter and Facebook. It hasn't gone much further than adding limited annotation. Kobo, Canada's most popular e-reader, has picked up where Kindle left off.

When using Kobo's devices (and its apps for the iPad and Android tablets) users read with Kobo Pulse, a brightly colored, interactive, multi faceted interface. Externally, a single click with Kobo Pulse will tell Facebook or Twitter what you're reading or post a short passage.

But the inside of the book is really dynamic: You can see who else is reading what you are, join in the comment string on a page or start one, view statistics about the book and see everyone's comments within it. A vivid green bookmark drops where you left off reading, and statistics about your reading habits accrue. There are snazzy awards buttons you earn by finishing more pages, using Kobo's dictionary, highlighting and sharing, and doing something unusual such as reading through the night.

The awards are essentially meaningless, but they tempt new users into exploring the service fully. It's the most fully developed social reading interface to come from an e-reader.

One of the most ambitious independent social reading applications is Subtext. Built for the iPad and launched less than two months ago, Subtext offers all of the social reading elements with the bonus of content from authors themselves.

"I was very excited about this," says Amy Stewart, author of Wicked Plants and Wicked Bugs. "As an author, I think a lot of us are thinking about iPad editions. We're all asking ourselves, How could the book I'm writing be more than a book?"

Marginal icons show where she added links, video, color images and commentary, including a "Spoiler Alert" warning just to see how the function worked (the determined reader has to tap a second time to see the spoiler). Just as on Facebook, Stewart may respond to reader comments, which are indicated by icons in the margin.

"We find that one of the big opportunities on Subtext is bringing together book clubs," says Matthew Boyd, manager of special marketing initiatives for Penguin Group USA. Subtext launched with two of the publishers' novels, Jean Kowk's Girl in Translation and The Magician King by Lev Grossman.

Boyd says he is thinking about how the popular Penguin Classics line might work in Subtext.

"I would love to experiment with a classroom setting," he says. "You can set it so that all your notes can be read by only a certain group of friends. A professor reading with students could post questions, and they could read with each other."

One of the liveliest conversations that has emerged on Subtext is in George R.R. Martin's Game of Thrones, from the best-selling fantasy series recently popularized by HBO. Although Martin isn't there, his editor, Anne Groell, is, but the book's fans are driving the conversation. Their lively comments and replies are interesting — whereas many people in an app called Openmargin are still exploring the interface, typing simple greetings or simple nonsense characters, in Game of Thrones, readers discuss Martin's uses of language and debate literary references.

Although social reading tools are exciting, they're isolated. As with any other kind of social networking, people using it want to go where their friends are, not to an empty forum. To help draw people in, many social reading services are using Facebook as a connector — but they're just getting started. You might find hundreds of others reading the same book in Kobo, or you might find no one.

That's partly because there are other places to look. U.S.-based Copia was an early player, but European companies have recently debuted more sophisticated interfaces. Launched this summer in Spain and available in seven languages (including English), 24Symbols hopes to be an e-book version of the streaming music service Spotify, highlighting what friends are reading. Berlin-based Readmill, available in English, is focused on sharing content from within books. Openmargin, created in the Netherlands, allows for extended note-sharing within the text of participating books — including Remix, the 2008 book by Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig.

So far, most of those applications can't share; buy Game of Thrones through Subtext and you won't be able to access it on your Nook.

"We have this problem every time new technologies come along," Bridle says. "At the moment, we've got a bunch of competing systems. Each system has unique design features, flaws and tricks that take some getting used to — for instance, once a reader gets acclimated to Readmill, the features of Kobo Plus may seem baffling.

"For a long time, it felt like e-books were worse than paperback books. I think we're now getting to the point where people are seeing some of the advantages," Bridle says. But looking ahead, he worries that the notes we make and share, which "form incredibly important parts of your experience and your memory," might be lost in the ether, or fall under the ownership of the company that made the e-reading device.

The challenges to social reading might present too much of a hurdle for some. Then again, wouldn't it be nice to find someone to talk about what you just read on Page 57 of Walter Isaacson's Steve Jobs?

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