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Publishing needs a social strategy

Social recommendations and remixes can benefit the publishing industry.

TOC 2011This post originally appeared on Joe Wikert’s Publishing 2020 Blog (“Publishing in the Social World“). It’s republished with permission.

I spent most of last week at the Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco. If you missed it, you’ll find all of the video for it here.

I came away from it with two things in mind. First, Google is under attack from every angle. Sure, they’ve felt competitive pressures before, but whether it’s from Facebook, Bing or some startup in a garage, I get the impression it’s more intense now than ever before. No wonder they’re giving all employees a 10 percent pay raise! Seriously, search is getting more social every day and tomorrow’s recommendations from people you know via Facebook are infinitely more valuable than search results from yesterday’s algorithm.

That brings me to my second key takeaway from Web 2.0: The importance of a social strategy for every industry, including publishing. I can already hear the skeptics saying, “reading is a time of solitude, not something that’s done socially.” That’s mostly right, but it ignores at least two key areas where a social strategy can have a profound impact on the publishing industry: recommendations and remixes.

Amazon pretty much pioneered the online recommendation aspect of book publishing. Everyone wants 5-star reviews of their book, but I’m pretty sure we could also agree that a trusted friend’s recommendation is even more powerful than a stranger’s. Almost every ebook purchase I make these days is because a friend suggested it. There are just too many options (and too little time!) to risk buying a dud, even if it’s only $9.99.

What’s missing in the recommendation area though is a fast and easy way to share excerpts. If I come across a terrific sentence or paragraph I want to share from Drew Brees’ ebook, “Coming Back Stronger” (a terrific read so far, btw), what are my options? The Kindle reader on my iPad doesn’t offer a way for me to even tweet/email from within the app, let alone share an excerpt.

Even though I mentioned Google could face challenging times ahead I think they’re on to a solution for this particular problem. Google Books lets you share links right into the book’s content. For example, I love it when Brees says, “Anyone can see the adversity in a difficult situation, but it takes a stronger person to see the opportunity.” I could tweet that sentence but it wouldn’t leave much room for an attribution. I prefer to share a link, like this one, which takes you right to that page in the book (the quote starts at the bottom of the previous page and runs through the top of the one linked to).

Since Google Books already offers this service it seems likely the much-anticipated Google Editions will too. If it does, that’s one reason I’ll seriously consider switching from Amazon to Google for all my future ebook purchases. I want to be able to not only share excerpts but also give my friends more context though a service that lets them dive right into the book I’m talking about.

Even though Google lets publishers determine what percentage of a book visitors can view for free in their Books service, it’s clear many publishers aren’t participating. For example, I’ve queued up Bill Bryson’s “At Home” to read soon but all you’ll find about it on Google Books is this content-free catalog page.


The merging of publishing and digital tools will be addressed at the next Tools of Change for Publishing conference (Feb. 14-16, 2011). Save 15% on registration with the code TOC11RAD.


Any publishers who are skittish about sharing content previews today are likely to choke on the idea of content remix in the future. Remix isn’t great for all types of content but it lends itself to formats like how-to, for example. The author may have one way of solving a problem but a reader might find an even better approach. Why not make that reader’s solution available to other readers, even if it’s just a small change to one of the steps originally provided by the author? Some readers will offer their approach for free and others might want some form of compensation; we need to come up with a model that supports both. And remember, nobody’s trying to jam these remixes down anyone else’s throat. I envision an ereader app that lets you hide all other reader comments and content. But for those of us who are curious to see what other readers, especially our own friends, have to say, I think this will be a nice new service.

The social publishing/content options suggested in this post are things that can’t effectively be executed upon in the print world. Up to now, ebooks have mostly been nothing more than quick-and-dirty conversions of the print product. I look forward to a future where social options and other features more fully leverage the ebook medium.

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  • Canuck

    “search is getting more social every day and tomorrow’s recommendations from people you know via Facebook are infinitely more valuable than search results from yesterday’s algorithm.”

    I don’t think that comparison makes sense, because they serve two different purposes.

    Facebook or Twitter tell me what my family and friends find funny or interesting — it’s an information *push* feed.

    Google tells me where I can find information I’ve gone looking for — it’s an information *pull* feed.

  • http://www.joewikert.com Joe Wikert

    You’re right to point out the push vs. pull distinction here. Both scenarios involve discovery though. It’s more intentional via Google but discovery happens either way. And ultimately, isn’t discovery the goal of search?

    My point is that the discovery happening via Facebook is likely to be much more valuable since it’s based on recommendations from your friends, not Google’s algorithm.

  • http://www.cali.org/elangdell John Mayer

    And no where is publishing more social than in education. The “social” is built in with (1) students in the course, (2) all courses that use the same book, (3) all faculty who teach the same course, (4) all students who take the same course, (5) study groups – formal or ad hoc.

    The ebook is the springboard to interactive education between/among the learners. but this isn’t going to be pretty if every publisher creates/uses their own silo’ed social network. The user must “own” the social.

  • Canuck

    “My point is that the discovery happening via Facebook is likely to be much more valuable since it’s based on recommendations from your friends, not Google’s algorithm.”

    My point is that they’re almost perfectly orthogonal, so you can’t compare their usefulness.

    If I need to know something specific (how to use a PHP function, driving directions to Berkeley, connecting PVC pipes) it’s extremely unlikely that anyone I know on Twitter or Facebook will just *happen* to have posted that information in the last couple of days. I can ask, of course, but then I have to wait for an answer. With a search engine, I can have the information in seconds. This is where pull makes sense.

    On the other hand, I don’t know what I don’t know. I don’t go searching on Google every 30 minutes to see if Oracle has done something else stupid, someone has posted an interesting YouTube video, or Google has pushed out a new Android release. For that stuff, I find out from my family and friends who share similar interests and put the information up on Facebook, Twitter, blogs, etc. This is where push (and social) makes sense.

  • http://www.joewikert.com Joe Wikert

    I totally agree with your description of how things work…today. I’m just suggesting that Facebook will evolve over time and add new functionality.

    For example, today when you use Facebook’s search feature you not only get a list of members but you also get Bing search results for that name/phrase. The results I see through Facebook seem to match the results I’d get from Bing directly, so it doesn’t look like Facebook is working with Microsoft to refine the results based on friends, their recommendations, etc.

    At this point you might as well just search directly with Bing rather than going through Facebook. But what if Facebook ultimately were to use your preferences (and those of your friends) to influence the search results from within? That’s how they can distinguish themselves from Google and you could search within Facebook itself, not open up a separate tab/browser.

  • http://floatingbones.com Phil Eanrhardt

    I have a friend who got a great book, A Fuller Explanation, back into print on lulu.com. He and Amy Edmondson, Harvard Business School professor and author of the book, decided to offer 100% of its content for viewing on Google Books:
    http://books.google.com/books?id=F6n2dZJ1POwC

    I think this is a great solution for self-published books. People can chase as much as they want and not worry about hitting some artificial excerpt-quota. Books could be read in their entirety, but I think that would get awfully cumbersome. The publisher offers a PDF edition for less than $10 — a low enough threshold for any serious readers to buy.

    I think self-publishers should seriously consider this option.

    I realize this is a bit off-topic to your point, but I hadn’t seen this discussed any yet.

  • Jim G

    >Books could be read in their entirety, but I think that would get awfully cumbersome.
    >The publisher offers a PDF edition for less than $10 — a low enough threshold
    >for any serious readers to buy.

    Why would it get cumbersome? If a book is 100% available online for free then it would have to be a pretty bad UI experience for me to spend $10 on a PDF file. I might buy the printed book for $10 for all the advantages of a printed copy, but I would not pay $10 for a slightly different electronic format.