"I’ll give up my printed books when you pry the last one from my cold, dead hands."
That’s what I tell people when they ask me what kind of e-reader I have. As a technology journalist, author, and novelist, they expect me to own the latest Kindle or be an iBooks aficionado, and most seem genuinely shocked when I tell them I like my books on paper.
The reasons I give for preferring paper books are probably no different than what others have said: It’s the smell, the feel, and the way books become decorative items on your shelf when you are done absorbing all the wonderful words they contain.
But as a technology journalist, I also know that one day I will be dragged into the digital book future whether I like it or not—or be left behind with no new stories to read. That’s why I decided to sit down with Henrik Berggren, CEO of a small but growing app called Readmill that seems to have its pulse on the future of reading.
Talking with him, I discovered that compared to what Readmill is planning, today’s e-books might as well be dusty scrolls of parchment. In the future, e-books are going to explode beyond just containing stories, becoming niche social networks where we discuss our favorite passages with other readers and even authors and publishers buy our data to make more informed decisions. So hold on tight, book lovers. Reading as we know it will soon change, forever.
I start my conversation with Berggren, a man who is staking his future on creating the great reading app, by telling him I’m not a fan of any of today’s e-readers, like Kindle or iBooks on iOS devices, or any type of e-reading software in general. You’d think this would make him nervous, even hostile.
Instead, he smiles and agrees with me.
"The reason why I and my my cofounder David Kjelkerud started Readmill back in 2011 is because we thought that a lot of the people who were building these reading platforms were doing it in the wrong way," he explains. "When we started, there were basically iBooks and Kindle that were leading the game. Both of them were building their own vertical. But their vertically integrated systems were lacking a lot of things."
Both Apple and Amazon were designing e-book readers by copying the 2,500-year-old idea of books as self-contained collections of words, completely missing how readers share and discuss content online today. While most e-readers allow you to share passages or links to the book you are reading, and sites like Goodreads let you share what you’ve read, their implementations treat the book and the discussions around them as separate collections. Worse, these apps force users to venture into the distracting world of the open Internet when they want to share, making it hard to stay focused on reading.
This didn’t sit well with Berggren, so he came up with an ingenious solution: Make each and every book its own self-contained social network.
"We thought that there was a huge potential in taking what Goodreads had done on social on the web for books, but doing that for a mobile integrated reading experience," says Berggren. "So instead of having to read your book and then think, ‘Okay, now I have to go to Goodreads, find it there, add it to my profile, and write my review,’ we just wanted to let you share and review from inside of the book."
The result is stunning. Berggren and his team designed the Readmill app so that words—and only words—are the focus point of every page. But if you find a passage you like or a sentence that irks you, you can highlight it on the page and then comment on it right from within the book. Other Readmill users reading the same book will then see these comments and can choose add their own thoughts. This starts a discussion—indeed, a bona fide social network—within the book, without ever having to leave it. The social network-in-a-book format also allows authors to take part in discussions with their readers, right inside the margins of their own book—something Berggren has found both readers and authors love. And of course, if a reader doesn’t want to see other people’s comments, they can just disable them and stick to the words at hand.
"The problem with companies like Apple and Amazon is that they are retailers," says Berggren. "They are not a reading service, and there is a big difference. It’s the difference between the kind of focus you have and what kind of experience you want to bring to your users. We have detached ourselves from the selling of the book to be able to focus on the social experience one hundred percent."
Because Berggren decided to focus on helping people read books instead of buy them, Readmill doesn’t operate its own e-book store. Instead, it makes it easy for users to import their e-books from other sources, including ePub files, PDFs, and DRM’d Adobe books (Amazon Kindle and Apple iBook files aren’t compatible because they lock their digital books to specific platforms). The app itself is free, so the company makes money by selling anonymized data it collects about its users' consumption habits to publishers.
"Authors and publishers get access to a dashboard where they can see the engagement matrix of a specific book and see how many people that start reading the book actually finish it, how long it takes, if they recommended it to friends, and how much they shared throughout that experience," explains Berggren.
According to Berggren, modern publishers miss a lot of marketing opportunities for their authors because they don’t know where or when to target their marketing efforts. For example, most U.K. publishers tell him that they only hold book readings and signings in London, because they get delayed sales statistics in each country and don’t know where else to go until it’s too late. London’s always the safe bet.
"That is just for me a huge flaw in how we track and analyze how and where people actually spend time reading books and where those readers are and how engaged they are," Berggren argues. "What if it turns out that this author has a highly engaged group of readers in Edinburgh or Liverpool or some other place throughout the U.K., not to mention the U.S. obviously, which is a very, very big country? So there are lots of those kind of things where data can really have input in how to bring authors closer to their readers."
Berggren makes a good point, but as a journalist, I know that focusing so intently on analytics often influences what articles publishers cover, or even how they cover them. That begs the question: If a publisher can see a lot of readers are pausing at a certain chapter in a book, or even rushing through it, couldn’t they use this data to dictate the author’s writing style or pace in his next book? In which case, wouldn’t the reader’s past habits dictate the creation of the author’s next work?
"I think it will to some extent," Berggren says, not beating around the bush, "and I think in some cases that is really good. Some good-use cases would be in nonfiction where it could reveal areas in a book that can be explained better, or that people don't really understand, or they lose interest because it gets too complex, too fast."
Nonfiction is one thing, but as a lover of stories, this makes me uneasy. After all, would a masterpiece like The Master and Margarita have been written if analytics data were telling the publisher parts of it were a little slow?
"Obviously fiction is a different story," Berggren adds, perhaps sensing my apprehension. "You can paint a very dystopian future where publishers say, ‘Oh, people are just skipping this chapter. You can't write like this anymore.’ However, I think that’s unlikely to happen. But I do think learning about how people consume books and what they like and don't like is a key to making publishing a better industry."
To understand other applications of the data he collects from Readmill, I ask Berggren about the surprising results of an experiment he presented to the Media Evolution conference in Malmö, Sweden earlier this month. By collecting data from various versions of the Readmill app and other sources, Berggren found that the most popular type of e-reader is not a dedicated device like the Kindle, or a tablet like the iPad. It’s the smartphone.
Berggren says he never believed that single-purpose devices like the original Kindle would become widespread, a prediction that seems to be playing out. But he did believe that multi-purpose tablets like the iPad would become most people’s primary e-reading devices, not phones. According to Readmill’s data, however, phones are not only the most popular e-reading device, they’re the best at keeping readers engaged, too.
"It is not only that they are spending more time reading the books because the screen is smaller. Even taking into account screen size, smartphone users read more often, they finish more books in general, they start more books, they share more quotes, and they write more comments," says Berggren. "This paints a very clear picture that the people that are most engaged with their books are the people who read on their phones."
As a paper book lover, all I can think is, "Come on, phones? Phones? Like a Kindle or an iPad weren’t bad enough." So I ask what would account for the increased reading on smartphones. Is it just because they are easy to pull out of our pocket when we are on a train or waiting for a meeting to begin? Berggren says he still has more data to sift through, but for the moment, that’s his guess.
"We have so many distractions throughout a day nowadays with everything that is going on," he says, "so I think a good way of keeping in the loop with the story that you are reading or keeping interested in the nonfiction book that you are reading is having it with you all the time and grabbing all of those micro-moments that we have to continue reading that story. I think that keeps you highly engaged and will definitely make it easier for you to finish the book because you have more time to read it and more opportunities to sit down and read it."
I’m not entirely sure Berggren knows how much I’m doubting that phones can possibly be a decent reading experience as the interview wraps, but before it ends, he hits one more nail into the coffin of print books.
"At the end of the day, I really think that convenience is the winner," he says. "I really think that the best e-reader is the e-reader that you have with you all the time—and that e-reader is the phone for a lot of people in the world."
This is the same idea that runs throughout the Readmill app. In today’s busy world, reading, reflecting on, and sharing the written word need to be as convenient as possible if we’re going to read at all. The smartphone can be incredibly distracting, but if you design the right reading experience for it, you can embrace reading virtually anywhere and at any moment.
On my way home on the packed train that evening, the ride is long and there’s a delay on the tracks. After 10 minutes, I’ve already read the evening’s free newspaper from cover to cover, and there’s still no sign of movement from the train. So I take out my iPhone and open up a copy of The Master and Margarita. And as I’m whisked off to the incredible world of a long-forgotten Russia, suddenly being stuck on the tracks isn’t that bad. Maybe the future of reading isn’t so scary after all.
[Image: Flickr user Mark Probst]