Bob Stein: "Build conversations around books"

With much talk in the industry about innovation, Bob Stein, leading innovator in the book space for three decades, has some advice for publishers. Make books social, build the conversation around books, hire some bright people and lock them in a room.

If they do that, they just might have a chance, he insists. "The current system of publishing doesn't really support the shape publishing is taking on as it develops," says Stein, who founded The Voyager Company in 1985, the first commercial multimedia CD-ROM publisher. But publishers are chronically slow at recognising what is happening to them and grasping the opportunities before they emerge. Stein argues that the real innovation is happening left-of-centre in sectors such as gaming, where collaborative narratives have already taken root. "The future is being born outside their field of vision," he says.

Stein is listed on Wikipedia as a "computer pioneer", but he would call himself a publisher. "The idea of publishing is to move ideas around time and space," is how he sees it. He has been described as "the publisher born before his time, born before the printing presses were good enough to do the things he wanted to do". His email address begins with "future of the book".

He has been demonstrating and talking about what publishers should do before they get rolled over by the digital revolution for three decades. He recounts how he would travel to publisher conferences and attempt to demonstrate how we might read in the future, with a PowerBook. "Publishers looked at me, and said: ‘That is for geeks.' That was a deadly error. Their businesses are now owned by Amazon and Google."

Stein believes the industry is similarly poised as it was back then, with publishers rightly focused on their plain-vanilla e-book business, but unaware about how things will develop. His big idea now is "social reading", the concept that in the future texts will become one part of a much larger conversation that happens around them, with notes and context shared on a collaborative platform.

He says electronic publishing will not "really take off until you see audio and pictures in a social platform", and then the market will develop in a similar way to how games have morphed into social environments, citing "World of Warcraft" as an example of how narratives might then be transformed with reader interaction.

Stein is currently working on SocialBook—a reading platform that allows users to interact with texts, leave notes, and begin conversations around those books. The site will have free and paid-for areas, though the commercial model is not yet finalised. "It begins as YouTube for social documents in the free space, but then we'll build Amazon for publishing," says Stein.

Stein believes that in the future editors will use the platform to curate lists on SocialBook, while readers will engage with them publicly. The site, he says, could charge a subscription for access to those texts (and the conversation). "I'd adopt a free to read, pay to engage model. It may not work for all titles. But in essence, we will redefine the value of content to include engagement with the content."

Stein says he has 15 people working on the platform, but says he will need finance to take it to the next stage. "I was hoping publishers would invest, but I don't know now." In fact, he says the reaction of publishers has been worryingly familiar. "This time when we talk about social, I think publishers look at that and say, ‘yeh, yeh, that's not important right now', but if they do that they are more wrong this time than they were last time. It took 16 years for the Kindle to emerge—it won't take 16 years for social reading to emerge."

Stein cites himself as an example. He says that when he bought Hunger Games, he bought it only from Amazon because they would save his notes. In the future, he says, kids won't know of texts that don't have a commmentary. "They won't understand why you wouldn't want to do things in the open and in public."

Stein believes social will increase the value around content, and also help to address the issue of piracy. "Publishers are in for a huge shock when piracy hits," he says. Stein believes you cannot protect those files, but if you provide the right platform and context on which to interact socially with digital texts, you can charge for that.

"If they'd embrace social, once people start saving the mark-ups, the notes around novels, and then saving that in the cloud, piracy falls away. Once it becomes social, then having a commercial platform becomes important, because you want to interact with other people and you want to save those notes for the future."

Stein, like many among the digerati, is clearly irked by the big publishers' unwillingness to disrupt their own business models and invest in real innovation. But he is clear-eyed about how to make it happen. "This is not a money problem. You take the very best and brightest young kids you can hire, put them in an office, do not connect them to the legacy business, and let them do something exciting. But don't give them any money. The reason it won't happen is that publishers want the smart people to buy the next big book."

Will publishers heed his advice this time around? "People think I'm nuts," he says. But he was right before, and he might be right again.

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