What If Every eBook Was Its Own Social Network?

from the thinking-beyond-the-book dept

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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Comments on “What If Every eBook Was Its Own Social Network?”

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Andrew F (profile) says:


This makes total sense for textbooks! As a student, I’d be wary of buying a virtual package of information in the public domain that I don’t have the legal right to resell.

But I might pay for a social network that helped me better understand the material.

I’d pay for access to a help forum where I could ask questions about particularly confusing parts of the book. I might ask questions there because my own professor isn’t all that great and maybe other users might be feeling helpful. But perhaps the author of the book would visit the forum too, because by analyzing the questions people ask, the author can gain insight into how to improve the book.

In addition to a traditional help forum, an interactive textbook might also permit interactive margin notes. When I see an interesting passage, I can double-click to highlight and make notes. I might also choose to make those notes public to others. This way, other students reading the same book have the option of seeing what parts of the books others found interesting. This would be useful if I’m pressed for time and didn’t have time to read all of the assigned reading.

Another example: Suppose that at the end of every chapter, there’s a short quiz about the topic that chapter covered. Suppose also that I’ve completed that quiz, that I have an exam coming up, and I really need more practice problems.

The interactive version of the textbook would not only let me take the quiz; it also let other users submit their practice problems and answers. So when I’m done working on the “official” practice problems, I have a whole slew of user-generated problems to work on if I need more practice.

Now usually students don’t pick books — teachers do, but an interactive textbook could have several features that cater to those teachers.

For instance, suppose in the above pop-quiz example, a teacher could see which were the most common wrong answers. Add in a way of showing only the results for that teacher’s students, and a proactive teacher could adjust his lesson plan to compensate for common misunderstandings in his class.

Some teachers also like to reorder the way the material in the textbook is taught. Nor do all teachers necessarily teach all parts of the book. With an physical book, this can be quite annoying: Today, we’re reading pages 234-255; tomorrow, read 23-34; and after that, read 912-915. An electronic copy could fix this by providing an easy user-interface that let the teacher reorder, skip, and otherwise modify the overall structure of the text for that teacher’s students.

Moreover, teachers could share their lesson plans and orderings using the textbook’s social network (assuming the schools themselves don’t throw a hissy-fit). They could also suggest supplements and other ways of presenting the material to their students.

I’ve been waiting for stuff like this for a while. Here’s hoping it happens soon.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Textbooks!

Who needs the teacher when you have the author(s) of the the book along with a community of students and subject experts to work with?

Every textbook could be it’s own class/school/program.

Do the book – take the test – move on. Earn enough points – get a certification.

Now that’s choice and competition in education!

Joseph Kranak (profile) says:

I see it differently

I like the general idea and agree there are many cool ideas in there. But I see it differently. One part I see as implausible is that people would pay for these sessions. It seems like it would be more free, possibly ad-supported, possibly with premium services. I also see it much more as a community of writers, not just a single writer, several writers that can build around some sort of fictional world. I really see such projects as a good direction for writing. But to me, the part that I really like about the interactivity is the possibility of using lots of user feedback and input to make books much more collaborative and hopefully harness that to produce better books. And I still think the ultimate goal is to make a finalized version of the book, one that isn’t changed anymore. Yes, you can tweak a book forever, but at some point, you just have to let it go. Also, I like the idea of books being released as the author is writing them; it reminds me of the old days of serial novels (something that seems like a good idea in the current technological climate).

Transbot9 (user link) says:


Y’know, sometimes I just want to read a book. I don’t want to tweet the book, discuss the book (at least in depth), chat up with the author…

I just want to read the book.

This is a strong idea for textbook, and I can see some social networking functions being added (connections to twitter or facebook), maybe some metadata to find similar books. I see that this functionality would probably be best served as part of the ereader app or os.

Otherwise, I already have the internet. I don’t need services that already the internet can do, and do it better.

Transbot9 (user link) says:

Re: Re: Um...

Let’s take a look at the PDF. It can have text, drawings, multimedia, video, 3D, maps, full-color graphics, photos, and even business logic. I did my state taxes using a special secure PDF form.

What are PDFs typically used for? Static page layout. Why? Sluggish readers are one reason. Text loads super fast, and hyperlinks don’t add to it. Just adding images and milage starts to vary. Start adding fancy scripts, multimedia, video, etc and PDF readers become really sluggish. The other reason is that PDFs are the standard document type for print documents.

What is an ebook? Mostly a book that has been converted to HTML. With the advent of HTML5, I can see apps and websites blurring the lines between ebook and a web page…but it will most likey be a case where the internet will eat the ebook (just as tablets will subvert ebook readers once they come down in price – heck, ebook readers practically are low-end tablets, already).

And at that point, is it still a book?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Um...

Does it really matter? It sounds like it’ll be awesome regardless of what we call it. Why is the concept of a “book” being held sacred, as if it should never be changed or improved? As if there is something inherently wrong with interactivity? It sounds like old-fashioned luddite fear of change to me.

As for sluggish e-readers, that would only be temporary setback. The technology will catch up, it always does.

darryl says:

So the book itself is not enough, you want them to entertain you in every way.. meet your every desire.

so what you are saying now is that being an author is not good enough anymore.

You have to ‘value add’ your product !

What is wrong with the vast majority of people who want to read a book just buying the freaking book and reading it.

Do you think that authors now have to create ‘party plans’ and ‘entertain’ their clients CONTINUOUSLY?

Is the contents of their book not “enough”?

Thats quite headonistic,

“Yes, im reading this great book, but I did not a certain bit, so I contancted the auther of the book and told her to chage that bit just for me”… and ofcourse she dropped overything and got right onto it,,,, im just THAT important”..

The Author:

“yes, i know my book is quite crappy, but if you buy it I will talk to you ” !!!!!!! (WOW)

why not just go and hire a HO. ????

sounds like more of what you are looking for !!

Brigitta (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: So the book itself is not enough, you want them to entertain you in every way.. meet your every desire.

Despite going a bit over the top, I think Darryl makes a good point. It is fiendishly difficult to write a book. This is something that almost no one in the general public realizes. While there are a few authors who are able to crank out several books a year, most manage to create far fewer than that. (Arguably, those who crank out several books a year are more likely to be resorting to a tried-and-true formula, but even so, producing something at such a blistering rate requires daily effort and discipline.) If in addition to the effort of creating a book they must also create some sort of entertainment conglomerate to keep their fans on board, I would think this would necessarily dilute their primary product.

Anyone who’s spent some amount of time on fan bulletin boards will know that among the crowd lurk trolls, or at least, troll-ish types, who go beyond the bounds of decency, and start demanding exactly the sort of attention and catering that Darryl describes. I can easily imagine that the effort of simply dealing with any amount of this type of behavior could be draining to the owner of the board, which in this scenario, would be the author. Even if the board’s other members and its owner do their best to ignore these types, merely observing their words or actions is disturbing. Not every author is capable of dealing with the hurly-burly of fan interaction while maintaining the inner tranquility necessary for the creative process.

I agree that it is wonderful to be able to discuss the works that you love with others who share your passion. But that is hardly an experience that requires the author to create. Patrick O’Brian died in 2000, but discussion boards and websites dedicated to his creations continues unabated. In fact, the primary POB discussion board is maintained by his publisher, who presumably has the resources to hire moderators and other professionals to do site maintenance work. Similarly, JRR Tolkein, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Angela Thirkell still have fan websites, despite being deceased.

Having tried to read one of Konrath’s books, I can fully understand the level of effort he must have to maintain in order to keep selling his books. I’m not sure that the same is required of every author.

Jeni (profile) says:


Wow. That’s a whole lot of time and fooling around to invest in a book! Personally I enjoy my quiet time (phone OFF) to relax and get absorbed in a good book, not analyze and dissect it page by page, line by line.

However, I can see the vast possibilities here, and many embrace the social networking craze so I can also see where aspects of this could be quite popular, especially connecting with a favorite author. But if I’ve already paid for a book, I’m sure as shootin’ not going to pay to talk about it. . . Just sayin’.

My mom is an avid book reader and loves to email her favorite authors if she can find a means of contacting them. Some are good enough to respond kindly to her enthusiastic praise of their works and that makes her day.

Gene Cavanaugh (profile) says:

interactive e-books

Isn’t it wonderful? We now know how to spend a full day doing nothing!!!
Contrast that to my boring days: Attend a Board meeting, making suggestions about how we can add value and ensure profits (really, long-term survival). Then work with an innovator on a new invention, perhaps setting them up with some people I know who can help them get into production, or perhaps encouraging them to think it through (“Not that I don’t want your money, but really, don’t you think that has been invented and is on the market? Look at …..”).
Stop by one of the “kids” houses, to install some electrical stuff. Skip lunch (always), since it would take too much time (might be pleasant, but not all that useful).

Wow! I am going to have to stop adding value to the community, join a bunch of “clubs”; maybe go on welfare – certainly don’t want to improve the human status; un-American in today’s world!

PrometheeFeu (profile) says:

Re: interactive e-books

I try to avoid ad-hominems, but your reaction is what we call stupid. Yes, some days, some people try to enjoy themselves and be entertained and relaxed. If you don’t like that, well, keep going to board meetings. Nothing stopping you from that. But expecting everybody to spend their whole day working just because that’s what you want is just plain stupid.

Oh, I just noticed who you are. I would just like to point out Mr. Improving Human Status that there is a word for what you do in economics: Transaction costs. In other words: It’s that thing that we really wish would go away because it gets in the way of producing value.

Derek Pearcy (profile) says:

Post Book

This is similar to the approach I’ve taken with Post Book, a method for book publishing which integrates the content with Facebook or another social network. Our first and pretty basic example, Hero Worship, came out four months ago for the iPad.


It was iPad App of the Week on Appolicious:


Another, a full-color not-for-children children’s book called “Where The Deep Ones Are” also gotten some attention.


Posts appear in the context of the book, either in a side panel or within the book itself. Only posts by the book’s author or the content’s curator, or that are “liked” by the author or curator, or that are by your friends, can show up within the book itself. By default, the posts get sorted in that order — with the advantage that posts that aren’t by you, or by someone you know, or that were liked by the author, don’t normally appear. So the random idiot saying, “Hey, everybody!” simply doesn’t show up.

The most recent post by the book’s curator appears on the splash page, when you first open the book. In the next release, the most liked comment by one of your friends appears next to it. Do you care what some lady from the New Mexico Sun Times said about a book, or what was said by someone whose opinion you’ve already calibrated?

Leveraging the reader’s location also makes it easy for reading groups to spontaneously come together. Five other people in Austin are reading this book this week? Create a Facebook event. Let’s meet up at Spider House and talk about it this Sunday! The author’s reading at a book store near me next week. I’m totally going. Tomorrow night, my class’ guest lecturer will be answering questions about the book live, through the app. A reminder comes up on my phone to open the app in time to hear what she has to say.

Before you even get to the point of categorizing the additions, comments, and marginalia, or surfing the book’s content by category or other characteristics, there’s a lot of value to be added for people willing to treat a book like a living thing. I think it’ll be easier than not for us to take the design of the book this way.

PrometheeFeu (profile) says:

I have to say, I kind of hate about 80% of what he says. I’m the kind of reader who likes to curl up in bed and read pretending the rest of the world has just disappeared. But hey, I’m sure some people will love whatever comes out of this and there will probably be something for people like me too. The flip side: I think it is really innovative and for that reason alone exciting. I really like this idea of the author releasing the book and adding more. To a point. I kind of like being able to go back and re-read old books. If the author has changed it in the mean-time, I’m going to be kind of confused, but who knows? It could be great.

Anonymous Coward says:

Sounds like Hell

Yeah, we never had communities or book clubs before digital technology. I have an idea, maybe if we can combine the ebook with a coffee maker, we could discuss our book while drinking coffee (it would have a fresh cuppa ready for right when our appointment starts)

Digital technology is good at one new thing (and it’s still not quite ready): Synthesized Intelligent Interaction.

A’la “The Diamond Age”

That’s the ebook of the future.

What’s described above sounds a lot like work. Appointments to keep, assignments to read, reports to write and/or discuss. My image of hell. Jesus, spent some quiet time in your OWN imagination.

Now I’m gonna go read a book. I leave you all to your discussions. 😀

Sol (user link) says:

It's here already - check it out

Sorry for the shameless self promotion, but this ‘future’ you are envisioning is actually here today.

Check it out at thecopia.com

Each book has it’s own discussions, can be it’s own book club/social network with members, groups and discussions and it’s own URL…

You can have conversations in the margins and share them

It connects with Facebook and twitter, works on your pc Mac iPad and (very soon) android

Please – Let me know what you think!

Levi Montgomery (user link) says:

Cold water

Just wanted to pop in here and point out a couple of things. No need for arguments here, ad hominem or otherwise.

First, fireside story-telling became print books became ebooks, right? Well, not really, because we still have fireside story-telling and we still have print books. Along the way, we acquired stage plays and movies and radio and television and LARPs, and none of those made any of the others obsolete.

Straight fiction, the story written once and read forever, will always survive. The new way never kills off the old way. New vehicles, yes. No one buys eight-track tapes any more. But neither the eight-track nor the cassette nor the MP3 has killed off live music, and it never will.

Mr Konrath is a very successful writer, and what he sees as coming next is clearly something he, and a few thousand other authors, and a few million readers, will want. As long as they want it, it will be built. And as long as it is built, it will be used.

But books are never going away. Even if paper books go away, the text-on-a-substrate, sit-by-yourself-and-read-it, turn-your-phone-off-and-shut-the-world-out book will never go away.

And neither will the authors (such as myself) who want nothing more than to write the book that will transport you, alone, to that place.

Travis says:

Groups comments inside books is already live

For people reading on the web, comment sharing inside books already exists at http://www.bookglutton.com. (RandomHouse authors left notes on paragraphs for their readers, and groups of friends can chat inside chapters of a book.)

This kind of interactivity on ereaders will expand once browser-based readers become more popular. It’ll take more standards-based solutions to cross closed, tablet-reading systems.

Stephen says:

this is a brilliant idea

I would characterize an ebook not as a book with AV bells and whistles, that is, to use a term developed in the CD-ROM era, a multimedia edition, but as a wall-off website. The walls have to come down and this would be an interesting way to do it. After all, most books are sold on the author’s following, but go through so many middle men: the publisher, the bookstore, often a distributor, a promotional vehicle. This will put the author in direct contact with the crowd.

Now this is not for every reader or author. I’m thinking how the leader of Counting Crows let fans remix his songs but was vehement about letting them anywhere near the masters. So there’s a balance. Trial and error will find it.

Aldous Irving (profile) says:


An interactive e-book? That sounds cool but I’m just wondering how they would do that? I love the idea, though, of involving the readers in the author’s book that’s why I find this cool.

I read an article about involving readers (here’s the link if you don’t mind http://yep.it/choice and hope you enjoy it)and I do agree to that…it makes us readers feel…involved.

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