Social reading, discoverability and other unsolved problems at BEA 2012

Social reading and discoverability are not the same thing, but they have something in common: They’re the things everyone is talking about at BookExpo America this week but nobody has solved.

Publishers don’t control engagement

Start off by assuming that social reading means being able to interact with a book through social media or with social features inside the book, and discoverability is the challenge of finding new authors and books.

Part of the challenge comes from the fact that many of the parties trying to come up with solutions are startups or retailers rather than the publishers themselves. Tony O’Donoghue, UX (user experience) lead of mobile applications at Kobo, noted in a social reading panel that “at the moment it’s retailers like us” adding additional features into e-books, but “eventually publishers could add them directly to their EPUBs. I do see us moving toward the publisher having control over this type of engagement in the book.”

O’Donoghue also claims that readers are going to want e-books “to be like the rest of the web that they use every day, with Google integration, Wikipedia, all the social networks.” But those may actually be things that Kobo wants readers to want.

Bookstores are going down and taking discovery with them

Social tools haven’t taken the place of brick-and-mortar bookstores, which are declining as a source of discoverability for books, industry consultant and analyst Peter Hildick-Smith noted in a Publishers Launch BEA panel on Monday. His company, Codex Group, tracks discoverability by asking readers where they bought the last book they read. Two years ago, 31 percent of respondents found the book in a bookstore. As of the end of May 2012, that number has decreased by 45 percent — down to 17 percent.

That’s bad for book sales, Hildick-Smith said, because bookstores prompt a lot of spontaneous purchases. The Codex Group asked book buyers if they had a specific book in mind to buy the last time they went to a brick-and-mortar bookstore. Only one in three had a specific title in mind; the rest were going to browse and buy. Kindle owners are even more likely to browse in bookstores — 76 percent go in spontaneously — suggesting that online solutions (like Amazon’s algorithms) aren’t yet doing the trick for discoverability.

The future of fiction on Twitter

In a 7x20x21 panel, where authors have seven minutes to give a twenty-slide presentation (each slide appears for 21 seconds), writer Robin Sloan (whose novel will be published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in October) said “interesting, identifiable formats are going to be the future of fiction on Twitter.” Sloan thinks author Teju Cole has mastered this more than anyone else with his “small fates” tweets — all drawn from hundred-year-old newspaper reports. “Just the language, something about the structure, the rhythm, the tone, [you see one of these tweets and] know immediately it’s one of his ‘small fates,'” Sloan said.

“A Supposedly Fun Book I’ll Never Read Again”

Author, comedian and Brooklyn bookseller Dan Wilbur does his part to spread the word about literature at @betterbooktitles and, as he explained in his 7x20x21 presentation. A few rewritten titles: “Hamlet” becomes “Ghost Dad,” “Mrs. Dalloway” becomes “A Quaint, Midafternoon Panic Attack,” “James and the Giant Peach” becomes “It’s Ok if giant fruit kills your aunts so long as they were bitches,” and David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest” becomes “A Supposedly Fun Book I’ll Never Read Again.” Penguin’s Perigee will publish Wilbur’s own book, “How Not to Read: Harnessing the Power of a Literature-Free Life,” this September. Wilbur promised, “It’ll be the last book you’ll ever read.”

Illustrations from Hamlet; Animal Farm; The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo