In August 2014, I presided over a meeting of some of the brightest minds in the e-book business to address the following proposition: If we had no budget or other constraints, what would the perfect e-bookstore look like? Over two days, we filled several whiteboards with ideas. Since then, I’ve worked every day to turn that vision (hashtag #altbookstore) into reality.
I wrote about the experience in Publishers Weekly, and have continued to develop the idea since then. I hope to one day cut the e-ribbon on the earth’s best e-bookstore, but, more than that, I long to see the growing social web combine with the love of reading in ways that we have not yet achieved. From my perspective, the book business has so far been too content to put the future of reading in the hands of others. I’d like to change that. And, I’d like your help.
The guts of my vision are here:
1. Think Like a Non-Profit
Many of you will scoff at this. How can authors, editors, agents survive without making a profit? But if we focus on reading, first and always, profit will follow. The thousands of oral storytellers represented by the composite Homer didn’t do it for profit. They used their imaginations to explain their world. Only later did we invent the economics that would commoditize culture into things like books. Obviously, the world has changed. But so far, the online reading experience is focused more on commerce than the reading experience. The perfect e-bookstore experience would strip out all unnecessary clicks, walls, and distractions, and put the reading experience front-and-center.
2. Foster Communities
There have been limited, small-scale efforts over the years to create reader-writer communities online—Fictionaut, Book Country and Red Lemonade to name a few. But I dream of an e-bookstore where the connections between readers, writers, and publishers are open, transparent, and direct: where writers can speak directly to readers. Where readers have absolute control of the information they share with others; where the feedback loop is immediate, where publishers and authors can maintain their own communities and email lists; and where everyone that’s part of a book can engage with others as little or as much as they’d like to with no one throttling or filtering them. In the spirit of industry-upheaving companies such as Uber, AirBnB and Square, democratization is key—maybe we can make the perfect e-bookstore by empowering readers to become bookstores?
3. Embrace the Human
Companies like Netflix and Amazon have boiled movie and book recommendations down to a science. But humans read books. Humans write books. And books and readers are connected to one another in ways algorithms will never understand fully. To me, in this age of the online sharing and the social Web, taking the humanity out of book discovery is silly. The perfect e-bookstore would enable readers, as well as authors, librarians, whomever, to recommend books directly to readers, whether a big bestseller, or a self-published gem. How can we encourage readers to create “reading rivers” where they lay out the inexplicable ways in which one book led them to the next?
4. Offer Every Option
In today’s world, you can “buy” a book at one site (though of course you are only really “licensing” it); You can “rent” books on another site; lend books at another (but only if you follow certain cumbersome, confusing rules). You can listen to a book over here, but only in this app. Or, you can read “unlimited” books over there, except in the many ways that you are limited. The perfect e-bookstore would offer all options in one place. It would offer free books; Books you can buy outright; Books you can really own, lend, or resell; All-you-can-read plans; library checkouts; Audiobooks. The perfect e-bookstore would never allow the question “Can I have this book or not?” to form in the reader’s head. Rather, it would always present them with the choice: “How would I like to enjoy this book?”
5. Demand Openness
By now it’s obvious—DRM doesn’t prevent people from pirating e-books. What DRM does do is limit what your legitimate customers can do with the books they’ve paid for, and lock customers into vendor platforms. The perfect e-bookstore would strive for openness. It would embrace open standards that might stand the test of time or at least be easily converted to the next, greater e-book format. The perfect e-bookstore would never ask readers to convert, download or sideload their books. Reading should be effortless from one device or app or site to another, as opposed to the current market of incompatible, proprietary platforms. Readers should be able to buy a book in any place they choose, and have it always available, anyplace, on any device.
6. Free Data
Amazon will always be a data-driven business. Data is their most important and valuable asset, and its competitive edge—Amazon will thus never free its data. But you can, and should. The perfect e-bookstore would find a way to protect reader privacy, but would also let everyone see who is reading what (anonymized, of course), and offer real, objective, precise sales numbers and ranks. Let publishers and authors know everything they can about readers. Let anyone have access to the data on what we read, how we read, what we find engaging, popular, or of high quality. Not only would this help blunt the data-driven advantage of companies like Amazon, it would expand the ability to mine data, and help us discover profound new things about ourselves.
7. Reinvent Reading
It’s 2015 but, for the most part, all we have is set-in-stone, solid-object e-books that basically mimic their analog counterparts. I am astounded. Where are the never-ending cookbooks? Where are Massively Multi-Author Online Novels (MMAONs)? Where are digital car manuals with built-in recall alerts and tips from mechanics and the collective wisdom and maker-hacks of thousands of owners? Where is a library book that can be checked out by dozens of patrons at the same time? Sure, there have been experiments, but we need more, always. Every day. The perfect e-bookstore would encourage readers and authors to always be looking toward the next generation of reading, whatever form that might take.
8. An Elegant API
With all the above in place, we’ll need to build the interfaces necessary to share the reading experience—the content, annotations, reader/writer/publisher interactions, metadata, or the web of relationships among all of the above—with the world. What programming wizardry can bring this to life—and, what might that clever coding mojo add? Surely, we haven’t thought of everything in our perfect e-bookstore. When it comes to e-reading, let’s think human; let’s think reader. Wanna? Tweet your ideas to #altbookstore.
Chris Kubica is editor of Letters to J. D. Salinger and Associate Producer of Salinger, the Weinstein Company feature-length documentary film. He is co-founder of the Book2 unconference in New York and the Read Ahead unconference which premiered in London last year.