In the run up to BookMachine New York, we’re running a set of interviews with publishing professionals connected to the City, with an interesting story to tell.
Travis Alber runs a startup called ReadSocial, a service that offers content owners a way to add conversations inside their content. She also co-founded BookGlutton, a cross between a book community and an ebook reader. Travis currently lives in New York and has over 15 years of user experience creation.
1) With ReadSocial, you’ve created an API that connects readers inside and across systems. For non-techies, could you please explain what that means for publishers?
To put it simply, ReadSocial puts book group discussions inside the books themselves. Publishers add a small amount of ReadSocial code wherever they distribute content: a website, an app, or an ebook file, and then readers can leave paragraph-level comments in the text. Comments can be images, links or text, and readers can respond to each other, adding a contextual, social layer.
Groups are also part of ReadSocial, and we worked hard to make them simple to use across devices. At ReadSocial, groups are created with hashtags. A hashtag can be a topic ( #economics), name ( #mrs-browns-class), organization (#ows), author (#dickens), theme (#technology), publisher, title, etc. Changing the hashtag changes the conversation overlay.
Our goal is to help publishers offer a social experience that they can manage directly and integrate in an hour. For users, our goal is to help them break out of the silos we see today, help them log in via different social networks and on different platforms and still discuss books together. Here’s an example: imagine your friend reads a chapter excerpt on the web, then logs in with her Facebook account and leaves a comment. Later, you, reading the same book in the iBookstore, log in via Twitter and leave a reply. Since you both read with the same hashtag, you always see her comments. With ReadSocial, readers can respond to each other’s comments, no matter where they read them, no matter what network they log in with.
In short, ReadSocial is a way for publishers to add flexible discussion layers to their books, without the tremendous amount of work it would take build a system internally.
“Social” means different things to different people. For some, “social” is posting a book review on a website. For others, “social” is tweeting the title of a book. For me, “social” is contextual discussion of what you’re reading, while you’re reading it. It’s important to explain what type of “social” you’re talking about from the beginning.
I also learned APIs are difficult for potential customers to conceptualize. Most of what an API does can’t be seen. The only visible part is the interface. To make the concept clearer to publishers, it helps to position an API as a customizable service. Providing embeddable videos or examples that show what can be DONE with the API are very helpful.
Blog promotion was a significant part of our growth; I spent a lot of time reaching out to influencers in the market. Bloggers are always looking for something interesting to write about, and I felt like BookGlutton (a place for groups to read and discuss books together via a website, in real time), was a unique concept. I also reached out to people who I knew would have an immediate understanding of the potential: book club owners, librarians, teachers, etc.
4) How important a concept, would you say, design has been in the projects you are working on?
Design is extremely important. It is often undervalued, but as the world moves online, it’s design that gives a product its identity. It drives trust and user engagement. Design, more than anything else, distinguishes one project from another.
Design is especially important for publishing projects. Reading is always an experience; it’s incredibly important to pay attention to how it feelsto read something in a particular interface. The same applies to adding social features. Usually it’s better to follow mobile design conventions of simplicity: limit the number of features, make the interface so clean it almost disappears, keep things lightweight and fast.
The future of publishing will be social, mobile and DRM-free. All of these conventions are in play now, but the reason they will eventually dominate the landscape is that they mirror how people live their lives online. Using the web as as a guide (it sets the standard by which we consume most digital content), we’ve grown accustomed to social, mobile, shareable content, with interoperability between systems, and worldwide, instant access to content in multiple formats. Those expectations will carry over to how we read our books.