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The idea of social reading is not new: Reading, much like music, has always been a very social behavior. But with the advent of digital publishing and, more recently, the ability to create socialized platforms online, the concept of what exactly constitutes social reading is growing.
This week saw the news of mega-author J.K. Rowling’s Pottermore. While much of the functionality is unclear, Pottermore looks like it could be equal parts virtual world, e-book marketplace and social network. Now you have to wonder if the world of social reading just took another step forward.
But before we move into the future, let’s look at five categories of social reading and books.
The most widely used forms of social reading today are book social network sites. Goodreads, which is currently the biggest site, was one of the first social networking sites to allow users to create social bookshelves through listing their favorite books and following other reader suggestions. It also allows them to participate in online book discussion groups.
Groupsourced highlights of passages in Kindle are certainly widely available to consumers, but more-active in-book features such as social notes and conversations are just beginning to be offered by the likes of BookGlutton, Copia and Inkling. Much of the eventual interest here will be from book clubs and study groups, where in-book social makes a lot of sense.
Social publishing and writing aren’t necessarily the same as social reading, but they’re not exactly mutually exclusive. Early work on collaborative writing was done by folks like those at the Institute for the Future of the Book with Gamer Theory and other projects, and now social media–derived crowdsourced books are becoming more common. On the social publishing front, Scribd has taken the early lead, allowing easy publishing and distribution in a social context.
Which brings us to Rowling’s new efforts with Pottermore. Creating online worlds around media properties is not new. But has there ever been one centered around a book series that incorporates new work from the author, e-book downloads and social elements? Not that I can think of.
In a way, a new virtual world with significant e-book elements — both in-world reading elements as well as downloadable new forms of content — brings us firmly back to the ongoing discussion about the evolving nature of books themselves. As tablets have fueled an enhanced e-book market, books are becoming increasingly appified and are integrating gamelike elements. Rowling’s new efforts take things in a potentially new direction, by putting books within a game in itself.
What does this mean? The features for Potterville have only been outlined at a high level; but by making 18 thousand words of new Harry Potter–centric content available within a new social online environment, it does potentially create entirely fresh reading experiences. As Daniel Nester points out, we’re seeing the “playdate” generation come of age now, and this is a demographic that likes to consume, learn and experience things at the same time. Books are no doubt one of those types of content, even in the context of a social/virtual world.
The natural question that spills out of this is, What does Pottermore mean for the industry? After all, as many have discussed this week, only someone like Rowling could create this ambitious of a project. That might be true. But if Pottermore proves popular with fans of the series, it might very well show the book industry a new way to engage readers. While not everyone can build their own social network and virtual world for their books, someone — a publisher, collective of publishers or collective of authors themselves — could create a more general-purpose (shall we call it white label?) virtual world/social network platform to offer book-centric social experiences.
No matter what happens, it will be fascinating to watch as Pottermore brings readers online to read, socialize and read some more. Whether it is a sign of things to come or nothing more than an elaborate online bookstore and casual game center will become clear in short order.