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.