Neither the pouring rain nor unseasonably chilly weather can put a damper on the opening of this year’s SXSW Interactive festival, which is being held from March 9-13 in Austin, Tex. Throngs of T-shirt-wearing techie attendees, digital entrepreneurs and exhibitors jammed the walkways of the Austin Convention Center for the first day’s panels, while a few blocks away O’Reilly Media held a kind of kick-off event for SXSW: a “Mini” Tools of Change Conference, featuring the kind of presentations seen at the full-size TOC, but on a much more relaxed and informal basis.
Held at St. David’s Episcopal Church, Mini TOC offered a series of short, half-hour discussions for an audience of about 200, mostly by local Austinite technology and book social media personalities. Mini TOC was highlighted by BookShout, a new social reading/book venture and its founder Jason Illian, a venture capitalist turned social e-reading entrepreneur, and an engaging presentation by app developer Josh Clark’s on designing content and interfaces for mobile devices.
In light of the increasing conflict between Amazon.com and publishers—Bryce Milligan, publisher of San Antonio house WingsPress and an IPG client told PW he’s lost a third of his e-book revenue in the Amazon/IPG dispute—Illian’s BookShout looks to offer both a sophistiscated social reading application married to an independent—i.e. not Amazon-- bookselling venture. (Milligan says he completely supports IPG’s stand.)
Illian, who has worked on social reading applications aimed at religious publishing, is launching BookShout in April with agreements from all the major publishers as well as religious houses. Indeed BookShout's promotional Web site emphasizes its utility for shared Bible study. But the service is being pitched for any kind of reading and allows readers to set up virtual book clubs, invite friends to follow them—it will import a user's Facebook friends—and readers/friends can read e-books on the app in concert, sharing notes and comments on passages in the book being read.
Illian said his BookShout venture is a “a group interaction reading platform,” and not simply about algorithms. He called the current focus on discoverability a “symptom—you don’t need a bigger bookstore, you need a more focused bookstore. Friends are more important than algorithms.” He continued, “The value of Facebook is the people and the data, the ability to access relationships. You buy books because your friends tell you about them.” Indeed Illian even called out Amazon. “When will Amazon stop? When they win,” he said, emphasizing, however, that there is an opportunity for authors and publishers to compete against the online retailer. “Amazon is big, they sell everything, but they aren’t based around people. It's based around selling you stuff."
While BookShout users can read anyone’s notes about books, they can’t actually read the book under discussion unless they’ve purchased and own it. Illian told PW, that while BookShout is based around social reading, it will make money through book sales and he said he has agreements with all the publishers to sell e-books. Ingram chairman John Ingram provided some of the seed money investment for the startup, Illian said, and former Thomas Nelson CEO Michael Hyatt is on the BookShout board.
BookShout offers a kind of Facebook for reading: users can invite friends, build “reading circles,” essentially online book clubs, make their book discussions public or not; post comments to facebook and Twitter. Once on BookShout, users can make their personal e-libraries available to friends or keep them private, highlight passages and lots more. Whether he’ll succeed, we’ll have to see, but BookShout is certainly a timely venture that offers social connectivity, easy access to digital books, and a new retail outlet at a time publishers are certainly looking for one.
Clark’s presentation offered what you expect from a TOC speaker: a timely topic animated by accessible technical detail and an animated and engaging personality. Clark, the author of Tapworthy: Designing Great iPhone Apps and Best iPhone Apps, discussed the importance of design and metadata in shaping the presentation of content on mobile devices. His presentation, The Seven Deadly Myths of Mobile, shot down a lot of the presumptions about content on smartphones and tablet devices. For instance: mobile content consumers are “rushed and distracted.” Not so, says Clark. “People use their phones on the couch and we’ve all had the three-hour layover in airports.” 80% of shoppers expect mobile interfaces to be as good as desktop interface, he said, 25% of U.S. adults use mobile devices exclusively. “Everyone doesn’t have a desktop,” he pointed out.
Indeed Clark emphasized that mobile devices “can do things desktops can’t do—they have superpowers—mobile offers geo-tagging, facial recognition, kinnect-gestural recognition. Mobile can offer a richer information experience.” While he emphasized that presentation on a mobile devices “should be different,” he’s against separate mobile-optimized sites and also emphasized another myth—that mobile is all about apps. Indeed this brought him to his central theme: it's all about content.
“There’s too much emphasis on a single content container,” he said. “An app is not a strategy. It's not about offering a book, or a magazine. it's about content and content is like water—it can take many forms.”
Look for more PW coverage of SXSW 2012 over the next three days.