Tuesday, May 24, 2011

What If Every eBook Was Its Own Social Network?

Whenever disruptive innovation comes along, the first (and totally understandable reaction) is to take what was there before, and shove it into the new things. It's why automobiles were originally "horseless carriages." It's why when TV came along, the early shows were really just radio programs that you could see. It tends to take some time before people begin to realize that the new platform or technology allows you to do something truly different -- rather than just "updated." Lots of people think they understand this, but it's often really difficult to comprehend how to really embrace what a platform is good at. However, true "killer apps" tend to come about only after people start recognizing the truly native capabilities of a platform, rather than trying to shove the old into the new with some bells and whistles.

Take ebooks, for example. There has been talk about the fact that now that ebooks are "digital" it means that they can be more "interactive." Yet, what is the "interactivity" that most people have been talking about? Mostly adding audio and video. But that's just taking a book and adding a small bell and whistle, rather than what the native platform is really good at. Adding audio and video is still the same basic thinking. It's broadcasting. It's taking some form of content from the author/publisher and broadcasting it somewhat statically to "the masses."

But that's not what digital technologies are really good at. It's about building communities and giving those communities a voice. This is, of course, difficult to get your mind around, if you're only thinking about "the book" and trying to extrapolate outward.

In our recent discussion about personalizing and autographing ebooks, I thought that such autographs weren't all that interesting, but was intrigued by the idea of greater personalization -- such as an author who can respond to questions directly in the book, or provide new additional content every day. I'm beyond thrilled to discover that author JA Konrath, who we've mentioned plenty of times in the past for his embrace of innovations, connecting with fans and new business models, is thinking along very similar lines, and discussing the idea of making an ebook into a social network itself around the book.

Think about it: what if you could easily connect with others who are reading the book. Or the author. Konrath raises a whole bunch of possibilities. I'm quoting a big chunk here, but his post is a lot longer, and goes into a lot of the thinking behind this (so go read it!), but I did want to highlight this whole section:
Here's how this scenario plays out in my head:

I'm on my ereader, and I get an electronic invitation from a trusted friend to buy Whiskey Sour by J.A. Konrath. It's only $2.99, and the description looks good. Not only that, but it has a community of 12,393 people, so there will be plenty to do.

I buy the book with the click of a button. But rather than begin reading right away, I message my friend who is also in the book, and we decide to join the 4:00pm Whiskey Sour Book Club. There are eight other people signed up for that time slot, and we can all read and discuss the book together. There is also a 3pm slot open, but that's for fast readers, and my speed is moderate at best. The 4pm is a moderate speed club.

Since 4pm isn't until later, I browse the Whiskey Sour Forum, and read a few reviews. I also join a chat session and meet two of the other readers who are in my 4pm Book Club. One of them is a bit abrasive, but the bot monitoring the chat session warns him, then kicks him off. Typing on my keyboard becomes tedious, so I plug in my headphones and we voice chat for a bit, talking about thrillers we liked.

Four o'clock rolls around. I'm in the kitchen, making a sandwich, but my ereader calls my home phone to remind me of the start time.

I read a few pages, enjoy them, then let the ebook read to me until the chapter ends. There are already two people in the bookclub forum, discussing what they read. I join in. Others enter, and my friend links to the FAQ and Author Notes on Chapter 1, which we all discuss.

Whiskey Sour has a full length, author-read commentary, where Konrath explains where, why, and how he wrote certain scenes.

Some of the group wants to continue, but I'm curious to listen to the mp3 commentary, so I beg off and decide to join the 6pm Club for Chapter 2.

The commentary is interesting. Konrath is an entertaining guy, says a lot of funny things. But I realize I'd enjoy it more after I finish, so I pop into the next book club.

Me and another guy read straight through and discuss the book all night, and when we finish I write a review of it in the forum and recommend it to my friends via my ereader. I also notice that Konrath is having a live chat tomorrow, and sign up for it.

The next morning, I find I can't get some of the characters out of my head, so I pop into the forum again and read some of the user created stories. These are fans who have written about the characters in Whiskey Sour. Most of them suck. Some aren't bad. Some are even as good as Konrath. I rate a few, recommend a few, and vote for the top five.

I watch TV for a bit, until a screen comes up saying it is chat time. I sync my ereader with my TV and watch Konrath's talking head as he fields a Skype chat. Several people express that they wanted a longer ending. Konrath says he's working on one, as well as three new chapters which will be inserted into Whiskey Sour at the end of the week.

"Hemingway said that a book is never finished, it's simply due," Konrath says. "But now, books no longer have to be finished. They can continue to grow and improve for as long as the writer is alive. And beyond."

He says that the new additions will be marked as such. People can read the original, or the new version.

I get on my ereader, and ask it to call me when the new material is uploaded. I also ask for updates when people respond to my forum comments, or vote on my review.
There are so many wonderful ideas in here that once you start thinking about it, suddenly the idea that just adding some audio or video to an ebook somehow makes it "interactive" is like saying that putting an engine into a carriage makes it a horseless carriage. You're not getting anywhere near the true potential.

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