Every now and then, we manage to free ourselves from our day jobs and put ideas into practice. We wanted to share our thinking on one that we’re currently half-way through and have started to test with some friendly people.
The idea of a book is something you could define as a finished product. It’s not something that you feel is going to be replaced by something new tomorrow (as a newspaper may be), nor is it something as changeable as a Wikipedia entry – with its ever-changing contributors. The book as we understand it, is something that’s decided upon and it’s words carry weight from having been given the privilege of publication. Or, as Kevin Kelly would argue in this snippet from his very smartly written article:
“In the past a book was defined as anything printed between two covers. A list of telephone numbers was called a book, even though it had no logical beginning, middle, or end. A pile of blank pages bound with a spine was called a sketchbook. It was unabashedly empty, but it did have two covers, and was thus called a book.”
Although, with the Kindle and iPad widely accepted as streamline and trustworthy forms of reading, it might mean that the traditional idea of what a book is may change for future generations. So, with that in mind, we’ve been playing with how we could combine elements of new and old in the future. Particularly as some of us in FLNM are big fans of owning our own books and browsing through them in our bookcase whenever it suits. Enjoying that lovely feeling of pulling an old book out and remembering what you were doing and what it felt like at the time of reading. You automatically embody your own emotions and thoughts in an object such as a book. So not only can they be great pieces of work in their own right, but they also act as a physical signpost for much more. That’s why we’ve been thinking about how you can extend the joy of owning a book and what it means to build upon that experience. This is something that was spawned from a post written by James Birdle, which we’ll quote a bit of below:
“This is what social reading is about. It’s about the reading experience, and the reading experience is really what publishing is all about.
Publishers are concerned—desperately concerned—about the loss of perceived value in what they do. Well, the value of books lies in the time we spend with them, and the time spent creating them. Publishing needs to recognise this, and share our passion for it with readers, not least because we are readers too.”
In short, one blindingly obvious answer is to encourage the idea of a book club, and so we’ve been playing around with an experiment that we’ve named Book Club Everywhere (BCE).
Book clubs have a lovely social and human feel to them. It’s the sense of social togetherness that’s so compelling, particularly when you think about a physical book being owned by an individual, yet with commentary from a group sharing the experience (a closed group, or a public one). We wanted to merge the thinking of the ‘internet of things’ with the idea that people enjoy having a chat about what they’ve read in a physical dog-eared book that in itself, is part of many stories and memories. And, if you combine that with the digital ability to post comments throughout the book, then you have the makings of something rich in emotion and inspiration.
We wanted this to be able to happen without the need to arrange a physical meeting for a book club; so that you could share this experience with anyone around the World. This way, all you’d need to do is choose a book between friends and then start reading it (or to read a book on your own and join the discussion with other fans). So we set about testing our thinking with existing technology.
What to use & format testing
We considered using QR codes, Bit.ly links, a page-relevant texting service, and more. Yet, none of them could quite be used in the way we wanted to do things. Handily, one us had previous experience with the Stickybits app/ platform. It allows for scanning of barcodes (that can be created to be unique for each chapter of a book), comments, profiles, and other features that seemed perfect for this little experiment. It does mean downloading the app in advance, but for the purpose of our personal trial it’s obviously an experience issue that can be left for another time. Alongside this, is the issue that Stickybits requires Internet to post media to a barcode and it doesn’t allow you to save and auto-post when you gain a connection. Something that would be an issue if you suddenly want to post media when reading on the Tube. Yet, as we’re using an existing piece of technology, these issues can be ignored.
Using the app for our purpose would mostly happen like this:
Read book & want to post > Pick-up phone > Check for 3G/ WiFi > Open app > scan code > add media > post.
(You cannot post to barcode without Internet)
By using barcodes to store all the data (and as an indicator for interaction with the Stickybits app), it’s just a question of how to use the barcodes with what we wanted to do. As this was a trial, we wanted to find the most cost effective method of producing the barcodes for our first book; we discovered that the printers used in Fruit & Veg section’s in supermarkets could provide us with the free barcodes we wanted that came in the form of stickers.
Sadly, some books have more chapters than a supermarket can stock fruit in their isles. Plus, venturing to the supermarket to create codes again and again, eventually took its toll. So, we turned to the Stickybits barcode engine to create barcodes for test book and stuck them in ourselves.
Function of the codes
The most obvious barcode to use is that on the back cover of the book. This allows for reviews of the book as a whole but we wanted to provide something more in-depth, and so it felt like this didn’t provide enough of a prompt. The next thought was to create bookmarks for each book, so you could have the codes with you at any point when you felt compelled to post. But, we thought that it would be easy to lose the bookmark resulting in you losing your history of comments. The most relevant solution was to have barcodes on the pages themselves, at the end of each chapter so you could give thoughts after each development. That way, even if the book was passed on, you would still be able to see posts that added context to it’s history and kept the conversation going. It would be handy to design books with the codes printed on the pages – there’s something natural about just having them on the page so they have a natural place in the development on conversation around the book. Rather than having to stick the printed barcodes into the book yourself like we did (yes, it’s very time-consuming).
With a physical book you’re cut off from the world around you and immersed in the story told in those pages, it’s a rare treat in such busy times. Yet, what we’ve tried to do with the barcodes for this BCE test, is provide a link to the digital world where connection is almost instant – allowing discussion to take place. Yet, it’s done only after a conscious decision to scan the barcode with a phone and take in or add to, the comments.
Our first test book – What The Dog Saw
When we thought about what style of book would be best for our first test and suitable for the kind of interaction we wanted to examine, it was decided a thought provoking piece would be best. So, we used Malcolm Gladwell’s latest release, What The Dog Saw. We’re all into reading his work, and the structure of the book (articles compiled into a book as a whole) lends itself to commenting at the end of each chapter and enables us to test as much as possible. What’s more, we thought that some of his fans might be interested in this test or even get involved. Below are some photos of what comments were made and the way we customised some copies of his book for use.
Above you can see the locations that we scanned the front-cover page in, each time we picked up the book (as you can tell, most of us live around London). This kind of data could be quite interesting for telling the story of an individual’s time when reading the book – adding extra content to the emotion stored in it’s pages. Or, you could display the information about where all readers of the book, spend their time.
We placed our barcodes in the space at the end of each chapter. Fortunately, the book was designed with a bit of space in those areas, yet not all books are. It obviously wouldn’t be too much trouble to change the design so that a barcode sits at the end of a chapter, as part of the actual design of a book. It actually feels like a nice little extra to symbolise the end of the chapter.
At the end of each chapter, we added our thoughts and discussed the main themes in each chapter. This is obviously where the magic can happen, with ongoing discussion for as long as your ground, or a wider audience, is reading the book.
You’ve also got the ability to post photos, something that means you can add extra context to your discussion, or (as shown above) add imagery that shows what you were doing at the time.
Having read through the Gladwell’s book, we thought we’d see if anyone else wants to join us in discussing the book, through the barcodes. Below you can download a PDF that has the barcodes for each chapter, so you can stick them in and join-in.
NOTE: The barcode for chapter 21 is being used as the barcode for the front cover. Scan that each time you read the book.
Firstly, the biggest issue of using Stickybits is the lack of an auto-save feature (as mentioned earlier). It can cause you to pass on posting your thoughts on a chapter, particularly if you don’t have a connection (such as on the Underground). It’s something you’d obviously try to solve if building your own version.
Secondly, the scanning with the Stickybits app can sometimes be rather tedious and if it takes a while to recognise the barcode, then you just don’t bother.
You can’t post videos, which obviously leaves a bit of space for extra context to be added. Although, you can post links to youtube, etc.
The Stickybits interface doesn’t move into landscape when you hold the iPhone in that way. Which means writing a review can sometimes lead to those annoying errors, as you can see below.
For the future
In its current form (with us using the Stickybits app & sticking the barcodes in), it doesn’t have much appeal to anyone but those with a niche interest for a particular book or interesting media-use. The genre and content of the book is pretty key too – Gladwell’s factual and broken down book lent itself marvellously to this project. Yet, maybe it could work as a subscription service – we could charge a small amount a year and post out four or five books (with the barcodes already attached to the pages) a year, that a small group could then read as their own book club. It’d be niche but maybe quite fun to do for a while.
The format of printing barcodes as part of the design of a book could be interesting for a publisher. If they developed an app (and gave it away for free) that then had a commenting system and other such features in a similar way to Stickybits (but maybe with the suggested additions), then it could be that there is an increase in sales of the books through people wanting to use this digital book club. It could be interesting if rewards were also offered to the first in-depth posts and reviews through the publisher’s app and system.
It may well be a tool for education. Schools could use a similar structure to test their students at the end of each chapter and create an on-going debate about certain points.
Testing with others
Having played around with the concept ourselves, we’re now underway with a second book. This time we’ve asked a random selection of twitter followers and those that we admire, to experience reading a book with the Book Club Everywhere interaction. Hopefully they can see a point in it and provide some interesting feedback to work with.
We’ve picked Grimms’ Fairy Tales, by the brothers Grim, as our the book. Mainly due to the varied nature and length of the stories – which means an increased amount of barcode scanning (sorry test-group), yet it also allows for short burst’s of reading and posting.
Hopefully our next post will provide some thoughts on the experience, from those not as close-up to the initial idea.
In the meantime, we’ve discovered Openmargin, which looks like an interesting addition to digital reading. Yet, something that sticks in our mind, is that it feels like we’re currently conditioned to switch off ‘some’ emotion when consuming through a computer screen (of course this is changing, look at how we watch films) – in particular, we may not be quite ready to change our perception of reading a physical ‘book’ to be richer than on a computer. Secondly, most of the FLNM members are happy to own music only in a digital form. Yet, we find ourselves enjoying physical books much more than their digital versions. Is this because you can listen to music in many ways, but reading a novel is still a physical activity and more kinetically engaging, unlike music which can largely be passive? Creating new forms of storytelling online or on digital devices, will no doubt slowly change this but for now, let’s not stop experimenting.