The birth of the Social Media Serial

Jade_Maitre_750pxA few weeks ago, Joe discussed the importance of placing content "where the eyes already are", and creating an experience for readers that is "fully integrated" – or at least, as close to that as possible.

His article struck a chord with me, because I am about to embark upon a reading experiment that is, to my knowledge, the first of its kind. On April 1st 2014, I am releasing my prize-listed novel, A Short Death, for free on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Tumblr. Called a “Social Media Serial”, the book will be serialized into chronological social-media-friendly chunks, allowing readers to receive the latest installments simultaneously, in the convenience of their newsfeeds.

In this experiment I am teasing out the extent to which social media can enthrall us across a more sustained narrative. More importantly, I am seeking to discover new ways that writers can connect with readers in a shared experience.

Where did my inspiration come from?

I’m a photographer as well as a writer. In the world before social media, when I used to send photos to my friends by email, few people opened the attachments. But when I put my photos on Facebook, my images suddenly had a more engaged audience.

I looked at Farmville. And poking. And all those other useless things that people were doing and telling me about in regular newsfeed updates. The more I mused on these quaintly absurd and wasteful uses of our time, the more I realized why people were looking at my photos. When you are in the Facebook universe, you look for reasons to stay there. The inexorable pull of social media makes you want to be there in case something happens, even if nothing does. You form relationships with your news feed. On one level, you begin to live there.

Then I wrote a book

A Short Death was an experimental fiction. It told the story of Se, a sweet and hapless nineteen year old teenage boy who was killed on the beach in broad daylight in Rio de Janeiro. Inspired by a real murder that I witnessed in Brazil in 2005, the fictional account that I later created sought to unnerve the reader; to invoke the same kind of confusion and emptiness I felt the day it happened. The story I wrote was set in an absurd universe that emulated Brazil in its places, its language and symbols, but remained removed from the country Brazilians would recognize as their own. Its use of the second person heightened the sense of discomfort; of being a foreigner in Brazil, or indeed anywhere, regardless of literal home.

It was short-listed for Australia’s largest prize for an unpublished manuscript. It went through a few cycles of feedback and editing with a commercial publishing house. In the end this process stopped because the commercial and artistic concerns of the project failed to align. To be specific, the reader’s report requested that Se be rewritten like Holden Caulfield. I felt that was at odds with its genre as absurd fiction. I put the book away in the proverbial bottom drawer and decided to think before I decided what to do with it.

What are books?

Books are of course products: mysterious products that may or may not resonate with readers, subject to the whimsies of timing and trends. The way in which all these soap bubbles seek to rise to the top is via exclusion: more than music or art, the worth of a book rides upon its authority. Authors and publishers define themselves by referring, specifically or implicitly, to a supposed objective quality that makes the book worth reading. This is our idea of a good book. There is a sense that it is something objectively inherent in the work.

Yet inspiring a reader in this way can ignore the nature of a book as a two-way process. It mistakes publishing for a presentation rather than a relationship. In truth, it’s a communication. And while we often think of solitary writers plunking away at their keyboard, and lone readers thumbing a paperback on a hammock in the sun, in doing so we can mistake the form for the substance. A story is a shared experience; never private. The writer and readers share the world of the book.

Accordingly, I felt that offering A Short Death to its readers should invoke something more than objective qualities. Better understood as a shared moment between reader and author, I turned my mind to how the reader could feel the story of Se’s death on a beach in Brazil in their private lives, viscerally, as they read.

How is the Social Media Serial different from an e-book?

I decided that a Social Media Serial could accentuate the shared experience of a book. To communicate with readers where they were, merging the world of the book with their own private worlds, and in a forum where they might easily communicate their synchronized momentary experiences with others sharing the journey.

A Short Death will therefore take place where readers are already congregating, and create an integrated experience that will allow them to enjoy the content without having to go elsewhere to find it. In seeing the book appear on their news feeds, it has the opportunity to become integrated with their usual daily activities; to merge with their real social lives.

I also sought out other artists to see if we could collectively invoke sensations that would stimulate this idea of an experience more intensely while reading the book. In this fashion, A Short Death is also an artistic collective that offers extra-sensory stimulation complementary to the story.

Aurally, from April 1, musician Oliver Grimball’s album Anodyne Holiday will set the soundtrack for the ten week journey into the life of Se. It is complementary to the style of the story, and very much sets the scene for reading. As an independent album, Anodyne Holiday is a turntablist, music and lyric driven project where Oliver blends classic hip hop with spoken word. As a compliment to the novel, it similarly explores new territories. Described in the press as "…visionary in a way that hip hop nowadays seldom dares to be,” the album was said to have wordplay that is “origami like - microcosmic with hyperlinks throughout; smooth from the heart to hit the cardiac dead center."

For people seeking physical and visual overlaps between the story and life, readers will also be able to purchase fashion inspired by the plot, designed by the talented Paris-based underground street artist, Spizz.

In terms of temporality, there is a sense that the main character, Se, will be 'born' at the launch of the book on the 1st of April. When the book finishes on the 12th of June, the book will be removed from all social media channels, emulating his death once more.

Following the story as it unfolds on social media will ask readers to enter into the experience of the book with a spirit of openness; preparing them to feel provoked and unsettled, and offering them a participatory role in a shared momentary experience.

These are the aspirations of the Social Media Serial.

What do I hope to gain from releasing a book like this?

That you experience a new way of reading. You can read A Short Death by following on FacebookTwitter, Pinterest or Tumblr.

This article was written by contributor Jade Maitre. Jade is a writer and photographer who is passionate about creativity and media. She has worked as an editor for human rights publications at UNESCO, a communications consultant for NGOs, was the director of two artistic projects in Brazil, and wrote online news, interviews and gossip for MTV Australia. She has also been published as a travel writer and a journalist. She currently photographs for Getty Images and is the co-founder of the premium site for European vacation photographers, TripShooter. Jade is currently based in France.

Towards a better book recommendation service

The ideal content discovery service has yet to be invented. Plenty have tried but none have truly succeeded. The latest is venture is BookScout from Random House. It’s a nifty Facebook app that uses your social graph to help you discover relevant content. As Laura Hazard Owen recently discovered though, it’s far from perfect.

Reading Laura’s post reminded me of something a wise person told me last year: Just because I’m Facebook friends with you doesn’t mean we have the same reading interests. In fact, I’d be willing to bet my reading interests don’t map very well to any of my friends, real or virtual.


Social Reading is Coming. Deal with It.

The skeptics tell me “reading is a solitary activity” and “my reading will never be social.” That’s fine. When social features are fully built into our e-reading devices and apps I’m sure they’ll include a disable option for unsocial readers. The rest of us, however, will enjoy a level of engagement and discoverability that was never possible in the print world.

Don’t confuse today’s lame highlights-sharing functionality with tomorrow’s fully social feature set. Our industry is only in the very early stages of implementing social features and the major players are also the biggest laggards. It's remarkable that Amazon and B&N don't see how powerful social functionality can be to enhancing the e-reading experience as well as selling more content.

My optimism here stems from looking closer at a couple of terrific startups: ReadSocial and BookShout. I've been fortunate to spend time with founders from both of these companies and I think they're on to something. They each take different approaches but their early products are compelling.

BookShout currently offers a religious vertical with plenty of great titles. It's a terrific way for a church small group to read an ebook together. Watch their short video and you'll undoubtedly see the opportunity for more topic verticals within the BookShout platform.

While BookShout leverages your social graph ReadSocial accepts the fact that your Facebook friends might not be your reading friends. They leverage the hashtag we're all familiar with from Twitter but they use it in a new way to create reading groups around common interests. The ReadSocial platform is also one giant API so it's extremely flexible. You'll find more ReadSocial details in this interview I recently did with BookShout co-founder Travis Alber:

P.S. -- I'm at BEA this week. Things kick off Monday with the IDPF's Digital Book 2012 event. I'll be there Monday and from Tuesday thru Thursday you'll likely find me at the TOC booth, DZ2309. If you're at BEA be sure to stop by and say hello.

BookAnd: A Social, Virtual Bookstore

BookAndI must be more of a visual person than I'd like to admit. After all, I use Goodreads to store and share my book reviews/recommendations but I don't use it much to discover what my friends recommend. My behavior is largely because Goodreads is a list-based service and it doesn't offer an immersive experience. Don't take that the wrong way though...I still like Goodreads!

I've also heard plenty of skeptics who say reading/books and social don't mix, reading is a solitary activity, etc. That's true at times, but when it comes to discoverability there's no substitute for recommendations from your friends. And I seem to be interacting more with my friends via Facebook than ever before. So it still seems to me there's a big opportunity to solve the discoverability problem through the social graph.

I recently discovered an interesting approach to book discoverability. It's a service that's still in the very early stages called BookAnd. BookAnd is a platform where you can build your own virtual bookstore (see the sign-up form here). The screen shot at the top of this post shows my bookstore under construction. It's not just about putting covers on shelves though. You can design your store so that it reflects your personality. If it sounds a bit like Second Life for books that's because it is. I can add tables, stands, chairs, plants, lamps, etc., to my virtual store. And while that's kind of fun, the best part of is that I can feature my favorite books, face out on the shelf, just like how you'd see them in a brick-and-mortar bookstore.

OK, this isn't exactly revolutionary. But think about the experience it could create if this virtual world were embedded in your favorite ereader app. So when you finish that next book on your nook and you want to go find something new to read why are you limited to whatever B&N wants to feature? What if you could easily visit your best friend's BookAnd store, right within the nook app?

That app integration is key. I don't even want to have to go to Facebook to discover what my friends are reading. I'm in the reader app so give me the option of seeing it all right there. That's especially important since we live in a world where even the most sophisticated tablets don't like the idea of displaying windows for more than one open app at a time. (Imagine having to work in Windows or on your Mac with only one window displayed at a time -- it's crazy!)

It's hard to say whether BookAnd or a competitor will catch fire but I definitely think it all hinges on that in-app integration. I hope the big players in this space will jump on that soon. It will only lead to better discoverability and therefore more sales, so why wouldn't they be all over this?

TOC Podcasts: Now in iTunes

600x600_toc_podcast A month or so ago we decided it was time to extend TOC's reach with industry news, interviews, etc., in the form of video podcasts. I've already featured many of those segments here on the 2020 Publishing blog but now you'll be able to retrieve them in a more convenient manner.

Head over to iTunes and subscribe to the TOC podcast series using this link. Four of the first sessions are currently available via iTunes and more will follow shortly. Going forward we plan to create 1-2 new segments every week.

We're always on the lookout for new and interesting people, products and platforms to cover via this podcast series. If you know of any be sure to send them my way and I'll make sure the TOC team follows-up on them.

Zite CEO Mark Johnson on the CNN Acquisition and Zite's Future

Every couple of weeks it seems yet another iPad news reader is released in the App Store. Many of them leverage your connections in Facebook and Twitter but only one of them learns what you read and serves up more related content to match those interests. I'm talking about Zite, of course. It's been my favorite iPad app since the day I downloaded it. I've tried others but I keep coming back to Zite. This TOC podcast features an interview with Zite CEO Mark Johnson. He talks about the recent CNN acquisition, what makes Zite special and how the platform might eventually be extended into book-length content.

Should Online Bookstores Go Social?

As I walked through a local brick-and-mortar bookstore the other day I overheard this exchange:

Customer #1: This is why I don't always buy online. I love holding and flipping through books.

Customer #2: Me too, but I really like spending time in the store and seeing if I can get any good recommendations while I'm wandering around.

That's so true. Shopping in person can have a social element to it but shopping online is always a solitary experience. To be fair, I don't make a habit of bothering other customers in the bookstore but there have been times when I've asked their opinion, particularly if I overhear them saying something I'm interested in or if I see them picking up a book I'm considering. Then there are the in-store clerks. I've gotten valuable pointers from store personnel countless times.

What's the analog to that in the online bookstore? There isn't one. Sure you can read through product reviews but that's not the same as talking realtime with other customers or a clerk.

Online bookstores have gotten along just fine despite this brick-and-mortar advantage, of course. But if online stores enable this functionality would it lead to an even richer shopping experience? I think so.

Let's say you're searching your preferred .com for books about one of my favorite topics, the New York Yankees. Wouldn't it be cool if part of the screen listed other shoppers currently browsing the online store who have a history of buying books about the Yankees? They'd appear in a frame just like you see with instant messaging apps and you could initiate a quick chat with any of them about a book you're considering.

Before you privacy advocates get too wound up I'd like to point out that this service is something you'd have to opt into. If you prefer to shop without chatting with anyone you'd simply leave this service disabled. But if you're interested in talking to others with common interests and would love to get their recommendations this service is for you.

The service would automatically include your purchase history, excluding items you may not want to make public or just showing topics/areas of interest, not specific titles. Think of it like an overlay of your Goodreads shelf with a chat service, built right into the online bookstore.

As a consumer I'd love to have access to something like this. As a publisher I'd get even more use out of it. You could do real, live customer research anytime you want to (assuming the right customers are currently logged in).

Forget about the customers for a moment though and let's think about the in-store clerk. Wouldn't it be cool if there were virtual in-store clerks available to chat with, ready to make a recommendation or answer your questions? You might figure it makes no sense for an online bookstore to add to staff just to have a bunch of subject matter experts online for customer inquiries. I agree, but this is where the brick-and-mortar stores could use it to their advantage...

Think about B&N, for example. There are hundreds of stores open from about 9AM ET till about 10PM PT each day. That's 16 hours each day and every store has one or more in-store clerks on the job at any given time. Connect the in-store computers to this service so that the NY clerk who manages the sports section and loves baseball gets notified when I have a general question about Yankees books. The clerk steps over to the computer and joins me in a chat session. The in-store employee now adds value to the online bookstore experience as well.

I'm just scratching the surface on this idea. How about making it more compelling with badges and credits earned for answering customer questions? Better yet, how about including an affiliate program so that if my recommendation results in a purchase I get a cut of the transaction? Then there's the ebook side of this. How about letting me send you an excerpt from a book I'm recommending? If it's a better sample than the one the publisher made available it only increases the likelihood of generating a sale. And if it doesn't, the retailer should be capturing all this information and using it to follow-up with that customer to nudge them again on that book (or other related books).

I'm convinced social will play a crucial role in the future of search in general and I also see a terrific opportunity for it to add to the online book buying experience. How about you? Would you be interested in something like this if your favorite online bookseller implemented it?

"Google-level Relevance, Facebook-level Social, & Apple-level Design"

Of all the items I read over the holidays, a blog post from Bradford Cross called Why the iPad is Destroying the Future of Journalism was by far the best.  It's a must read for everyone involved in any form of publishing.  Here are some of my favorite excerpts (italics) and with a few comments of my own mixed in:

The iPad has been dubbed a revolutionary device and the journalism industry has raced to embrace it.  But their embrace is more of a desperate final grasp at the past.

Yes!  That's exactly why I've tried out at least 4 or 5 different magazines on it but have yet to subscribe to a single one.  Wired is my favorite example.  I spent $4.99 on the first iPad issue and never went back for more.  Even though they lowered the price, why should I buy the iPad version when I get the print one for $10 a year?  There's nothing new and exciting enough to get me to switch.

Publishers want to have their own branded channel - whether in their own app, or in some meta-app.  They are fighting back against syndicating their content on the web and they want you to come to their sites and pay.  Nobody gets their content from only one source; this is the Internet.  Nobody is going to pick their favorite newspaper or magazine and just stick to their app.

This is where we in the publishing industry need to think more about getting our content to where readers already are and not expect them to always come to us (or grab our latest app).

Nobody wants an app for each content source.  The parallels to RSS are striking.

This reminds me of a conversation I was part of at a recent conference.  One person in the session mentioned that he couldn't recall the last time he opened his RSS reader.  Another agreed, saying she felt too guilty seeing the new tally of unread items in it.  How true.  I also can't tell you the last time I looked at my RSS reader, but I certainly don't like the idea of individual apps for every type of content I'm interested in.

Since most non-direct traffic for news now is coming from search, Facebook turns out to be the largest subscription source of news content on the Internet.

Even though Bradford's post is all about the news industry, I believe there are parallels to book publishing here as well.  See this earlier post on publishing in the social world for more info.

The success of search, social, and design seem to indicate that the future of news products need Google-level relevance, Facebook-level social, and Apple-level design.

What a terrific way to state it.  And unlike the famous words of Meatloaf, two out of those three simply isn't good enough.

If journalism is going to rediscover a model that works, it has to figure out how to integrate with the social web.  What should I be able to do with that Economist article?  Should I be able to share it à la carte so I can discuss it with the people I want?  Should I be able to share it within my network?  Should I be able to share it publicly?

I think the answers should be yes, yes and yes.  Btw, I read this article using the Instapaper app on my iPad.  Doing so helped me realize social network functionality that need to be added to Instapaper as well -- see my latest iPadHound post for more info.

Publishing in the Social World

I spent most of last week at our Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco.  If you missed it, you'll find all of the video for it here.  I came away from it with two things in mind.  First, Google is under attack from every angle.  Sure, they've felt competitive pressures before but whether it's from Facebook, Bing or some startup in a garage, I get the impression it's more intense now than ever before.  No wonder they're giving all employees a 10% pay raise!  Seriously, search is getting more social every day and tomorrow's recommendations from people you know via Facebook are infinitely more valuable than search results from yesterday's algorithm.

That brings me to my second key takeaway from Web 2.0: The importance of a social strategy for every industry, inculding publishing.  I can already hear the skeptics saying, "reading is a time of solitude, not something that's done socially."  That's mostly right, but it ignores at least two key areas where a social strategy can have a profound impact on the publishing industry: recommendations and remixes.

Amazon pretty much pioneered the online recommendation aspect of book publishing.  Everyone wants 5-star reviews of their book, but I'm pretty sure we could also agree that a trusted friend's recommendation is even more powerful than a stranger's.  Almost every ebook purchase I make these days is because a friend suggested it.  There are just too many options (and too little time!) to risk buying a dud, even if it's only $9.99.

What's missing in the recommendation area though is a fast and easy way to share excerpts.  If I come across a terrific sentence or paragraph I want to share from Drew Brees' ebook, Coming Back Stronger (a terrific read so far, btw), what are my options?  The Kindle reader on my iPad doesn't offer a way for me to even tweet/email from within the app let alone share an excerpt.

Even though I mentioned Google could face challenging times ahead I think they're on to a solution for this particular problem.  Google Books lets you share links right into the book's content.  For example, I love it when Brees says, "Anyone can see the adversity in a difficult situation, but it takes a stronger person to see the opportunity."  I could tweet that sentence but it wouldn't leave much room for an attribution.  I prefer to share a link, like this one, which takes you right to that page in the book (the quote starts at the bottom of the previous page and runs through the top of the one linked to).

Since Google Books already offers this service it seems likely the much-anticipated Google Editions will too.  If it does, that's one reason I'll seriously consider switching from Amazon to Google for all my future ebook purchases.  I want to be able to not only share excerpts but also give my friends more context though a service that lets them dive right into the book I'm talking about.

Even though Google lets publishers determine what percentage of a book visitors can view for free in their Books service it's clear many publishers aren't participating.  For example, I've queued up Bill Bryson's At Home to read soon but all you'll find about it on Google Books is this content-free catalog page.

Any publishers who are skittish about sharing content previews today are likely to choke on the idea of content remix in the future.  Remix isn't great for all types of content but it lends itself to formats like how-to, for example.  The author may have one way of solving a problem but a reader might find an even better approach.  Why not make that reader's solution available to other readers, even if it's just a small change to one of the steps originally provided by the author?  Some readers will offer their appoach for free and others might want some form of compensation; we need to come up with a model that supports both.  And remember, nobody's trying to jam these remixes down anyone else's throat.  I envision an ereader app that lets you hide all other reader comments and content.  But for those of us who are curious to see what other readers, especially our own friends, have to say, I think this will be a nice new service.

The social publishing/content options suggested in this post are things that can't effectively be executed in the print world.  Up to now, ebooks have mostly been nothing more than quick-and-dirty conversions of the print product.  I look forward to a future where social options and other features more fully leverage the ebook medium.

My TOC Frankfurt "Ignite" Session, Part One

Picture 3 Last week was our second TOC Frankfurt conference and it was a thoroughly enjoyable day.  I had the pleasure of being one of eight Ignite speakers at the show.  If you're not familiar with Ignite presentations, they're each exactly 5 minutes long consisting of 20 slides which auto-advance every 15 seconds.  The title of my Ignite talk was "My eContent Wish List".  Not surprisingly (given the Ignite pace) I found myself rushing through my presentation so I thought I'd cover some of the slides in a short series of blog posts (where I can control the pace myself!).  The entire deck can be found here on Slideshare.

Multi-format, DRM-free

Picture 4This is one of those areas that I can't believe there's still debating.  When I buy an ebook I want it in all popular formats (EPUB, mobi, PDF) all of which have no DRM attached.  Yes, I'm biased since this is how we sell ebooks on but it works exceptionally well for us.  Unfortunately, I can't name another publisher that does this; more importantly, you won't find that option in the Kindle or iBooks stores.  Publishers, wake up and follow O'Reilly's lead.  The (current) leading retailers are trying to protect their own platforms, although those rules will change when (and if!) Google ever releases their Editions program.  Imagine how many more ebooks the industry would sell if every time a customer buys one they knew they wouldn't be locked in to a single device or platform.

Readers for All Platforms

Picture 5 If you're too stubborn to follow my format/DRM advice, at least be sure the content purchased works on all the popular platforms.  This is one area where Amazon truly shines.  Even though they're largely selling DRM'd mobi files, they've got a reader for each and every platform.  That's why I buy my ebooks from them and not Apple.  I know that I can read my Kindle books on my iPad, my Mac, my iPhone, and, if I ever want to go retro, even on my first-gen Kindle.  There's also a Kindle reader app for the Android platform, which is good to know since I'm seriously thinking of switching from iPhone to Android next year.  Do you suppose Apple will ever offer an iBooks reader app for the Android?  Yeah, I don't think so either, so I'll continue buying Kindle editions instead.

Social Networks, Please?

Picture 6 This is another head-scratcher to me.  If I've just read a great sentence or two in an ebook, why can't I tweet it from within the reader app?  "Tweet this" buttons are everywhere except ebooks.  I'm looking for a bit more though.  I want an e-reader app that lets me not only tweet my enthusiasm but also link to the actual content in the ebook.  After all, how many meaningful excerpts can be stated in 140 characters, not to mention the need to include the title of the book?!  Amazon has a chance to take the lead here.  As I mentioned in last week's post, their "Kindle for the Web" service has a share feature but they need to extend it so that readers can tweet links to specific locations within the book.  Facebook proved long ago that recommendations are much more valuable when they come from your friends rather than strangers; e-reader apps could drive more e-book sales using the same philosophy.  They also need to incorporate their affiliate program to further incent readers to tweet these excerpt links.