With Apple’s Novel Acquisition, A Chance To Reinvent The Book

Apple’s acquisition of BookLamp, a Boise, Idaho-based startup billed as a “Pandora for Books,” is a key move in the battle over the future of our printed-and-bound friends. When we combine this information with the rumors swirling around a potential smartwatch product from Apple, we can start to gaze into the future of publishing.

Well, okay, maybe not.

But these sorts of analytical tools are indeed the first step in an attempt to rebuild the concept of the book. BookLamp’s goal through its Book Genome Project was to categorize every single line of text on a host of different dimensions, from level of sexual content to the types of themes and motifs an author used in his or her writing.

Once all of that data was compiled and analyzed, the company could use its algorithm to definitively recommend an enjoyable book to read. Apple’s acquisition of the startup dovetails with similar initiatives undertaken by Amazon and its use of data flowing in from its Kindle devices. With both companies offering extensive online stores for ebooks, such technology has the potential to greatly improve the consumer shopping experience.

That is certainly interesting, but to me, the far more fundamental change that such data unlocks is around the publishing loop, not the retail one. Publishing a book today still feels antiquated, despite the incredible progress made with the internet. There isn’t the same level of immediacy with readers that is offered by other types of entertainment, nor is feedback between authors and readers particularly close.

That feedback loop is critical, because books face incredible competition from other media for our attention. It’s easy to spend the afternoon watching videos on YouTube or Netflix, or zone out listening to music from Spotify and Pandora. Using algorithms and simple user interfaces, these sites actively encourage us to move from one piece of content to the next, never giving us a reason to stop consuming.

But books have been a far harder medium to stream, and for good reason. They have many qualities that make them difficult to assemble together on a consumption platform. Each one is lengthy, creating an immediate burden on the part of the reader before even the first page is opened. And they often start slow, since exposition of a world generally leads. There is no equivalent to a seven-second video that can provide an immediate payoff in the first moments of interaction.

That’s the format as it has been in the past, but who says that the format has to remain stagnant? Let me give two imagined examples of what we could do. One option may be to borrow the old concept of serial fiction. Many of the most popular works in fiction today come from authors who pump out reams of pages. Given the nearly constant production of this material, why can’t we provide a channel so that these writers can write an on-going series in a serialized format? It’s sort of the textual equivalent of a soap opera, which is ironic since many of these popular novels are romantic or criminal.

We don’t have to stop there though. Imagine opening up an invented world to multiple writers, who could write within this common environment. Readers could follow the stories that interest them, providing them the freedom to roam within a fictional world and craft their own journey through the text. It’s sort of like fan fiction with better production values, and it has the potential to turn a staid reading experience into one far more immersive.

These changes to books don’t just have to affect fiction though. Imagine taking the same sort of nonlinear thinking to areas like textbooks or historical works. A math textbook could adapt to a reader over time, providing more or less proofs and solutions as it understood a reader’s needs. A history book could allow us to dive deeper on certain subjects that engaged us, while summarizing those that we are less interested in.

In all of these cases, we are removing the strict linear rigidity of books. That’s where the importance of data like BookLamp’s comes from. With better data informing our user interface, we no longer have to see books as static, but rather as a canvas for readers to engage with.

Frankly, that’s been the most disappointing part of all of the launched unlimited book services, whether from startups or from large companies. There has been a real hesitation to innovate around the concept of books despite the immersive nature of text. Medium does something in this direction, and to a certain degree, so does Quora. But neither startup targets fiction, or even full-length nonfiction.

Part of that hesitation certainly comes from writers, who are used to the contours of a novel or nonfiction work and are not yearning to change. One of the great values of writing books is the extensive monopoly an author has over his or her subject, and few authors want to give up that power.

While books may indeed be immersive, such control over a reader is far less pronounced in reality. Readers don’t read books for hours at a time, and they are already reading them in places less akin to solitude like the subway or office break room. Distractions are ever-present, since many of us read on devices where notifications can interrupt our experience at any time.

While some purists may hate this “immersive” or “entertaining” approach to books, we don’t need to worry that these new experiences are going to somehow eliminate great literature. Rather, we are starting to see the creation of a new modality for users, who can have the freedom to interact with text in ways that are impossible with music or videos. While there will always be a place for the linear book, we shouldn’t forget that some of the most celebrated works of literature from Dickens and Dostoevsky were written as serial fiction.

Ultimately, what I expect to see is a convergence between long-form narratives and books. The idea of length will start to erode as we build our experience based on our own goals and motivations. Maybe we want to read a thousand pages about Facebook or the Middle East, or maybe we want a much narrower engagement. Better data will allow publishers to finally be able to target both customers with the same work — changing the publishing loop forever.

While all of this may not be good for books as we have traditionally known them, we have a real opportunity to make the written word competitive again with videos and music. Rather than rueing its end, we should be embracing the bright future of books instead.

Leonid Pasternak 001“. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.