Here’s How Social Reading Might Actually Work

Many community-based reading apps rely on the readers to get the conversation started. That’s great if your Facebook friends are sparkling literary conversationalists who also happen to be reading the same book as you but doesn’t work so well otherwise.

Taking the idea that book-based conversations are best prompted by the people who actually have something smart to say about the books, a startup, Subtext, is today releasing a free iPad app that collaborates with big-six publishers and authors to add commentary to and start discussions around books like A Game of Thrones and The Magician King.

Subtext is working with Hachette Book Group, Penguin Group, Random House, Simon & Schuster (NYSE: CBS), Byliner, Algonquin and other publishers and offering enhanced titles like A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin, The Chairs Are Where the People Go by Misha Glouberman and Sheila Heti, and The Magician King by Lev Grossman. The company’s CEO is Andrew Goldman, who sold video game developer Pandemic Studios to EA in 2007.

Subtext received $3 million in seed funding from Google (NSDQ: GOOG) Ventures, Mayfield, New Enterprise Associates and Omidyar. The platform is integrated with Google Books, but readers can add any e-books in the Adobe (NSDQ: ADBE) DRM format to their Subtext shelves–i.e., not Kindle books. “We’re the first app that does technically support open reading,” Rachel Thomas, VP of marketing and strategic partnerships, told me. “We have people now reading a dozen editions of A Game of Thrones and we’ve figured out how they can have conversations around different sources and editions.”

Subtext worked directly with publishers and authors to add enhanced content to their books. Amy Stewart, author of Algonquin’s Wicked Bugs, added notes and video links to show some of the grossest things that bugs do in action. George R.R. Martin’s editor, Anne Groell, and researcher Elio Garcia added hundreds of notes about life in Westeros. Frances Mayes added updates about all of her characters in Under the Tuscan Sun and wrote about how Tuscany has changed since the book was published. Lisa See’s Snow Flower and the Secret Fan includes scenes from the upcoming Searchlight film. Most authors have “overdelivered,” Rachel Thomas, VP of marketing and strategic partnerships, told me. They found they had a lot to say at the passage level and the sentence level and could also answer many of the questions that they are repeatedly asked by readers.

The notes are readable by clicking links in the text. “We’re trying to keep the margins very precious” so as not to overwhelm the screen or reading experience, Thomas said.

Users earn points for participating, and use them to unlock the author and expert content in the text. They can download free previews of the books, with enhanced content, from Google; once they buy the books, they use their points to subscribe to the additional content. (Content created by other readers is free.) “Paying” with points for extra content is a way to accustom users to the fact that there may eventually be a transaction around some of the enhancements, Thomas said. “Everyone’s got a book they’d pay extra for the notes for. We believe there is a market for this,” she said.

Publishers have been trying to sell more expensive enhanced versions of e-books, including extras like reading group guides or author interviews, for awhile now, and for the most part it hasn’t worked. “These are not enhancements. These are marketing materials,” Kassia Krozser of Booksquare wrote last year. Subtext gives users a chance to try better enhancements for free and lets publishers see the types of additional content they are interested in.

The app’s virtual bookshelves provide another opportunity for monetization. The company is thinking of them as the “modern version of the staff picks table,” Thomas said. The app may eventually include bookshelves sponsored by, for example, NPR, the New York Times (NYSE: NYT) or independent bookstores–selections of books curated by those publications. Subtext is in discussions with possible partners but was not ready to announce anything yet.