Books are like the news — it’s better when they are social


We’ve written a lot at GigaOM about the future of the book, including the rise of self-publishing and what that means for authors, as well as how Amazon is disrupting the traditional industry. One of the consistent themes is how social books are becoming, in much the same way that the news business is: authors find success in part because they connect with an audience even before their books are published, and the debate around a book like the most recent one from Jeff Jarvis continues online long after it is printed. Whether we like it or not, all of this is helping to reshape what the book is becoming in a digital age.

Megan Garber wrote a post at the Nieman Journalism Lab recently that looked at the ongoing debate between Jarvis and fellow author and foreign-policy writer Evgeny Morozov over the relative merits of Jarvis’s new book Public Parts, which deals with the clash between privacy and the web. Although the back-and-forth between the two degenerated at some points into ad hominem attacks that had little to do with the ideas in the book, Garber notes that the emotion and the energy of the debate was refreshing in some ways, since book publishing usually doesn’t have much time for that kind of thing.

Books are packages — how do you make a package social?

As Garber points out, one of the flaws of the traditional non-fiction book, and even of most e-books, is that they are closed systems — they exist primarily as discrete packages of ideas, which readers are encouraged to buy and then read, without any further interaction with either the author or a discussion of the ideas advanced in the book. Says Garber:

Books don’t go viral. And that’s largely because the thing that makes books lucrative to authors and publishers — their ability to restrain ideas, to wall them off from the non-book-buying world — is antithetical to virality. How can books be expected to share ideas when the very point of their existence is containment?

Jarvis admits that this is one of the issues he struggled with when writing his book, since he believes in the open exchange of ideas, and sees most books as too closed off from their audience, and not interactive enough. In many ways, these are the same criticisms that Jarvis and others make about the news industry: that it doesn’t engage enough with its customers — the ones that fellow journalism professor Jay Rosen has called “the people formerly known as the audience” — and that it consists primarily of individuals who see themselves as information gatekeepers preaching to a small group. Says Jarvis:

Garber is right. I’ve confessed my hypocrisy in writing both my books on other grounds: I didn’t make them digital, clickable, correctable, linkable…. I did it to get paid, edited, promoted, and distributed.

So what is to be done about the closed nature of the book? Should it just be seen as a “physical souvenir of an idea,” as Seth Godin has described it, or a necessary evil in the marketing plan that most authors have to conform to? Jarvis says in his post that he would like to start with the conversation around some ideas and then turn that into a book — so that the book becomes a snapshot of the discussion within a community. Books, he says, “can memorialize the ideas and research [and] can bring the discipline that the form — and a good editor, like mine — can demand,” and can also spread ideas farther.

How do authors connect with readers?

Amazon, which has disrupted the publishing end of the book business, is also trying to help promote the social end as well, by launching what it calls the @author program — a way for writers to connect with their readers directly about their books. It’s not clear how many authors are interested in doing this (some prominent writers such as Tim Ferriss and J.A. Konrath have signed on to the beta), but it is clear that some relish the interaction with readers, as Canadian writer Margaret Atwood does: she is not only a voracious user of Twitter, but has also taken part in experiments like the Twitter book-reading project 1book140 that Crowdsourcing author Jeff Howe created.

Other efforts to socialize books include services like Subtext, which launched on Tuesday and adds “gamification”-style rewards to certain books, by giving readers points they can use to unlock extra features (Conde Nast tried something similar with its Glamour magazine iPad app). It remains to be seen how much uptake the service will get from readers, however — or from authors and publishers for that matter. A new book-focused social network called Findings, meanwhile, helps readers share quotes and highlights from books, something Amazon also tries to do with the Kindle.

And Harry Potter writer J.K. Rowling, of course, has created her own online world called Pottermore to promote not just her books but interaction with her legions of fans, all in an environment controlled by her. Is that the future of the book? It’s certainly part of it, and so are Facebook and Twitter and YouTube and other social tools. Not all authors are going to embrace this social future, obviously, but those who do will be helping to make books more social than they have been for centuries.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Jeremy Mates and Marya

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