Report from the Future of Reading: The Books in Browsers Conference

October 29, 2010 | 8 6 min read

Does a reader who lists all the books he reads on the internet still care about privacy? Should an ebook be an app on its own or one of many books available through an ebookstore? Do readers also want to be writers? And what, if anything, is the publisher’s role in all of this? These and many more questions were the subject of discussion at the second annual Books in Browsers conference at the Internet Archive in San Francisco. Sponsored by O’Reilly Media and planned by the IA’s Peter Brantley, the event brought together publishing and technology professionals from around the world (presenters flew from as far as Japan, Singapore, and Australia to speak) to discuss the consequences and opportunities of books becoming digital.

The talks ranged from the highly conceptual to the very specific. Some presenters discussed the history of publishing stretching back before the industrial revolution while others more or less demonstrated their software. This kind of dual-personality is a product of the confusing landscape those of us in the book business face today.

Nowhere was this more evident than when the IA’s founder Brewster Kahle gathered those of us in attendance together to take a group photo. Wanting to take a sort of general census of attendees, he asked anyone who considered himself or herself a publisher to raise his or her hand. When someone asked for clarification of what a publisher was, he more or less said “anyone who facilitates production and distribution of the written word.” As an employee of Goodreads, I felt compelled to raise my hand. Then he asked those of us who were authors to raise our hands. As a blogger, both here and elsewhere, I felt I should raise my hand again. I also claimed the title of bookseller, as Goodreads does sell ebooks. If I’d wanted to, I might even have been able to claim I was a librarian, but I didn’t. Lastly, every one of us was, of course, a reader. Nevertheless, clearly the old lines of demarcation in the publishing industry don’t really apply anymore.

If there was an overarching theme to the conference it was “social reading,” so much so that several presenters, including Goodreads founder Otis Chandler, who was there to announce the Goodreads Social Reading API, apologized for discussing the topic yet again. Michael Tamblyn from Kobo books proudly announced that his speech was free of any and all things social. “Hell is other readers,” one of his slides proclaimed. But sharing the reading experience was clearly on many people’s minds.

In presentation after presentation, speakers discussed their vision for what a social reading experience – and in some cases, a social writing experience – might be. In Thursday’s dazzling keynote address, Brian O’Leary of Magellan Media Partners urged publishers to move beyond the “container model of publishing” and to look instead to create context first:

[B]ook, magazine and newspaper publishing is unduly governed by the physical containers we have used for centuries to transmit information.  Those containers define content in two dimensions, necessarily ignoring that which cannot or does not fit.

Worse, the process of filling the container strips out context – the critical admixture of tagged content, research, footnoted links, sources, audio and video background, even good old title-level metadata – that is a luxury in the physical world, but a critical asset in digital ones.  In our evolving, networked world – the world of “books in browsers” – we are no longer selling content, or at least not content alone.  We compete on context.

But moving from containers to something infinitely less contained creates problems, as well. Nicole Ozer of the Northern California ACLU spoke eloquently on the dangers of gathering data on what people read. “If you build it, someone will come calling, asking for information.” Other speakers, though, argued that many readers will trade some amount of privacy in exchange for more features and greater possibilities. If a website helps you find the next book you want to read, perhaps giving it your reading history or some portion thereof is a price worth paying.

Day two of the conference kicked off with back-to-back talks from two publishing iconoclasts – Bob Stein from the Institute for the Future of the Book and Richard Nash, former editor of Soft Skull Press and founder of the publishing start up Cursor. Stein presented a call to create a Taxonomy of Social Reading. Stein aims to provide a framework to discuss all the various ways in which we do read socially in the hopes that the publishers might band together to create an open platform for sharing notations and comments across all texts. It’s only through seizing the social reading moment, so to speak, that the publishers can hope to wrestle some measure of control back from the tech companies that have come to dominate their industry.

Stein’s taxonomy is well worth examining in depth, and at the risk of simplifying a complex idea, I will summarize it here. He breaks social reading into four main categories: category one: in-person informal discussion of a book; category two: discussion of a book online; category three:  formal discussion of a book in a classroom or book club; and category four: online, synchronous discussion of a book in the margins of the book itself (A few examples of this are the Commentpress platform in which Stein’s piece appears and the website BookGlutton).

This concept – of group annotation and community reading – was arguably the most controversial idea of the conference. Does the average reader even want to mark up a text, much less share their annotations with others? Would this idea apply equally to fiction and non-fiction? Or would people prefer to keep the actual reading experience private, to remain immersed in a narrative rather than constantly checking the margins of the text?

Richard Nash followed Stein’s presentation with a thought-provoking talk about the ways in which authors are also readers and, perhaps more importantly, vise versa. His new venture Cursor aims to cultivate a community of writer-readers. Whether he is successful or not will not hinge on whether many readers also fancy themselves writers — that much seems self-evident — but instead on exactly what people are willing to pay to be a part of a community of like-minded folks.

Both Stein and Nash argued that the way most of us read now – alone with the text – has only been the way we read for the past two hundred or so years, a product of the industrial revolution. Prior to that, reading was something done in a small group, typically the family, and discussion was a natural and essential component of it. Whether that desire – to experience a text as a part of a group – has been thwarted by the past couple hundred years and consequently liberated by the connectivity of the net is at the very heart of the matter.

Fittingly, the debate about the issue spilled out from the conference itself and onto the Read 2.0 email list, which discusses issues pertinent to the future of the book business. Skeptics argued that shared marginalia was innovation for innovation’s sake, or that it might be applicable to academic environments and certain kinds of book clubs, but that it had little future as a commercially viable project for commercial publishers.

While it’s easy to see why many are skeptical, one can’t help but wonder how many people knew ten years ago that they wanted to write a blog? How many could have explained their desire to connect with other readers on sites like Goodreads? And yet there are millions of bloggers and Goodreads has four million members and counting. The text has been an isolated thing for so many years and decades that it’s difficult to imagine it as something different, as one part of a community and a conversation, rather than a thing unto itself. We want to interact with some texts, it seems, but whether we want that to extend to our long-form narratives remains somewhat in doubt.

Another thing very much in doubt is the publisher’s role in this changing world. It is telling that at a conference so focused on the future of reading, there was only a single representative of any of the six major publishers in attendance. The leadership, it seems, comes not from New York, but from the startups and thinkers on the fringes of the industry proper. People like Eli James, whose website Novelr has been covering the world of online fiction for some time, and Matthew Bernius from RIT, who closed the conference with the presentation of a canon of publishing, continue to lead a vanguard that increasingly has less and less to do with what’s happening in Manhattan.

Leaving the conference, I couldn’t help but be excited for the future. Simply being at the Internet Archive – one of the few places on earth actually digitizing books – was an exhilarating experience. On the second day of the conference, the attendees all banded together to form a “box brigade” to help the Internet Archive move a few dozen boxes from the first floor of their building to the second. The boxes contained hard drives capable of storing 2.8 petabytes of data, or 2 billion books.

This is an incredible time to be a reader, even if it’s a terrifying time for traditional publishing. I will admit to getting chills thinking about what the 2020 meeting of Books in Browsers will be like. The only things I’m comfortable predicting that far in the future are that people will be writing long-form narratives, people will be reading them, and they will be dying to talk about it.

is a staff writer for The Millions. Patrick has worked in the book business for over seven years, including a two-year stint as the webmaster and blogger for Vroman's Bookstore. He is currently the Community Manager for He's written book reviews for Publishers Weekly, and he's spoken about books and the internet at the LA Times Festival of Books, the Southern California Independent Booksellers Association spring meetings, and the 140 Characters Conference. He writes the sporadically entertaining Tumblr blog The Feeling.


  1. Every time I read a report, summary or perspective on “Books in Browsers”, I get excited about the prospects for publishing. Yours is no exception – thanks for posting it.

    Your operative question (where were the largest publishers?) is a good one, Maybe the burden falls to us to work harder to bring them along next time. I’m not one to stand on ceremony, here or at other conferences.

  2. Thank you for your kind words (and link), Patrick! :-) I hope to live up to your recommendation.

    I agree with Brian re: his comment above, though – where were the big publishers? Also (though perhaps not so pertinent): where was Google and Apple? We had some interesting speculation on the side as to whether Editions was going to shake up/render irrelevant the work that we were doing at BiB. And it’s curious that there was no Google attendance, considering how heavily invested they are in the browser.

  3. During the conference, Peter Brantley noted (on Twitter) that Google was hosting a book-related meeting of its own at the same time as BiB. No idea about Apple.

  4. Patrick,
    Thank you for your thoughtful post. Social reading on the web is having a great impact upon education. As a higher education professor and a former elementary and middle school teacher the ability to interact with texts, and readers of those texts digitally, offers a strong foundation for educational advancement. One area that this topic branches into is Universal Design for Learning (equal access to learning for everyone) -the idea of a digital forum for reading and the shared experience of readers via the Internet offers a more level playing field disseminating information globally. The sticky problem to me is that unless large educational institutions who use large publishing companies to supply books for don’t jump on this bandwagon of rapid change a greater digital divide will continue between those who have access to technology and those who do not. The wonderful thing about the thoughts presented in your post is that online sharing of thoughts about books and digital interaction with the books themselves opens up great possibilities for connections between people with diverse ideas and from diverse cultural backgrounds- It opens up, as you point out, greater possibilities for putting books into their broader contexts. The publishers will jump on board when they realize that digital reading and expansion of books through annotation, linked connections and reader reviews and comments offers them a stronger bottom line. While the book publishers are trying to figure this out it gives the current digital participants a chance to experiment in creating worthwhile foundations and pathways for digital sharing and reading- it is an exciting time and we should embrace it, and, weigh in! You might enjoy my latest entry Parents and Teachers Need to Embrace Digital Reading and New Technology on my blog Educating for the Unknown. Thanks again Patrick for sharing your thoughts and experience, it opens up an important topic!

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