Social Reading Networked Readers

Many readers now use e-books to exchange of views; © Frankfurter Buchmesse
Many readers now use e-books to exchange of views | Photo (detail): © Frankfurter Buchmesse

Reading is no longer a solitary pleasure. In the internet readers can talk about books, evaluate and recommend them. Yet behind the trend towards “social reading” also lurk sales strategies.

That readers talk about books is nothing new. What is new is that they do this in the books themselves. Sobooks, a small German start-up company, makes this possible. At the 2013 Frankfurt Book Fair the site’s founder, the author Sascha Lobo, presented his platform: at Sobooks you can not only buy e-books, you can also write in these e-books. Comments can be left directly in the margins. It looks a bit as if you had borrowed a book from the library in which a previous reader had eagerly scribbled his remarks. “We want to bring the discussion of books into the book”, says Lobo, explaining the principle. Especially controversial non-fiction lends itself to this treatment: readers can adduce counter-arguments, supplement facts, expose the author’s inaccuracies.

Sobooks is still in its pilot phase; only a few books are available on its website. Nonetheless the interest in it during and after the Book Fair was considerable. Because anything that has somehow to do with interaction is regarded in the publishing industry as the trend. “Social reading will be one of the biggest drivers of the industry”, predicted Otis Chandler, founder and CEO of the book recommendation platform Goodreads.com, in an interview in October 2013. He should know: the number of members of his website, founded in 2006, doubled in 2013 alone. In early 2014 more than 20 million users from around world disported themselves there; Germany is the second-largest (after Great Britain) Goodreads community in Europe.

Tweeting quotations from e-books

The internet has developed into a huge playground for bookworms. But what exactly is meant by “social reading”? The term covers everything that has to do with the exchange of opinion among readers, in the broadest sense. This can include reading blogs and websites specially addressed to fans of a particular novel or thriller series. Portals such as Goodreads.com and its German counterpart Lovelybooks.de, where users can rate and review books, are part of the trend. They are supplemented by e-book functions that make it possible to circulate comments or quotations taken directly out of a book – for example, via Facebook and Twitter.

From the point of view of publishers, social reading is a splendid new form of marketing, because there is nothing more effective than the genuine enthusiasm of readers. From the point of view of the reader, social reading is rather a new form of reception. While reading, he can already include the public. Debates spark up around books, but also discursive bubbles. People not personally acquainted with one another, but who have similar tastes, come into conversation, ardently discuss characters and sequels. An algorithm converts the exchanges into reading tips: “You may also like this”.

The downside is the transparent reader

The downside of social reading is the transparent reader. For centuries, reading was a silent, withdrawn activity. Readers inspired by books recommended them to their friends by word of mouth. It was a process that no one could monitor, control or evaluate. Authoritarian regimes therefore often regarded reading as a subversive activity, a suspicious pastime. This has changed in the era of the internet. Who read and recommended what when can now be tracked by many others. Online booksellers save records of book purchases; you can log in to many review platforms only with a Facebook profile: all of which leaves data tracks. For publishers and authors these huge quantities of data are of the highest interest. They would like most of all to track their customers even in e-books themselves – that is, track exactly how the reader moves through a text. Where did he break off, what fascinated him, what bored him?

Sobooks too wants to analyse data. Whether the young enterprise will prosper against the global competition on the booming social reading market remains to be seen. In 2013 the mail order company Amazon, which is by far the market leader in e-book sales also in Germany, bought up Goodreads. Certainly a good investment, because thanks to Goodread’s data, Amazon will be able to analyse the preferences of its customers even better.