The Relative Innovative Dimension of Social Reading – transcript
“The Relative Innovative Dimension of Social Reading”, Innovations in Publishing – Symposium, London College of Communication, 16/09/21
First of all, I would like to thank Anna Klamet and Frania Hall for their invitation.
My name is Laura Bousquet, and I am a PhD Candidate at the universities Lyon 2 Lumière in France and Johannes-Gutenberg Mainz in Germany. My dissertation is focused on Social Reading platforms as players of the book industry in France, Germany and the US.
When I got invited to the symposium, I wondered if the platforms are work on are innovations.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, when uncountable, an innovation is “the introduction of new things, ideas or ways of doing something.” When countable, it is “a new idea, way of doing something, etc. that has been introduced or discovered.” As Social Reading platforms are both “book-based social navigation [social network sites]” [Thelwall and Kousha, 2016] and intermediaries in the book industry, their potential innovative aspect needs to be analysed on two levels. Therefore, I will today first discuss their social dimension and then describe them as intermediaries. Or, to put it in other words, I will focus first on Social Reading, and then on the “platform” part.
I/ The Lonely Reader and Web 2.0
Most previous works on Social Reading described it as online activities around reading that contribute to the development of exchanges and to the building of a community [Pleimling, 2012; Cordón García et al., 2013]. Among said activities are sharing reviews, annotations, reading lists, discussing books or receiving recommendations for instance.
Social Reading can take many forms, from a social network such as Goodreads or applications that enable sharing annotations on eBooks, to forums or groups on social networks such as Facebook. These websites and applications can furthermore belong to publishers, booksellers, or third parties as such is the case for the French platform Lecteurs.com, a property of telecommunications corporation Orange. They can also be independent or managed by readers. In this presentation, I will focus more on the ones with a social function, and which make a profit by selling their services to professionals of the book industry, but many of my remarks apply to Social Reading tools in general.
Although the scale digital technologies give Social Reading is indeed an innovation, saying that Social Reading itself is innovative would be an overstatement [Kuhn, 2015]. The assumption that reading is a lonely activity has been supported by the marketing discourse promoting Social Reading tools. Readers are presented as “lonely bookworms”, to whom the possibility of a community of fellow avid readers is offered. Two myths are here referenced: The lonely reader on the one hand, and the participatory culture of Web 2.0 on the other.
This discourse however tends to minimise the already established social dimension of the book [Kuhn, 2015]. Book clubs have long existed, and readers have always discussed their readings. Social Reading is therefore nothing new and, when it comes to reading being a vector of social exchanges, cannot be considered an innovation. One could argue that Social Reading results in the creation of a public identity for the reader, but this phenomenon had already been observed in private spaces with analyses of the curation taking place while organising bookshelves at home [Robine, 2000]. The innovative social dimension of Social Reading platforms is thus part of a discourse promoting Social Reading and presenting it as a response to a need for sociability readers are supposed to have [Candel, 2007, p. 83; Jahjah, 2014].
II/ The Innovative Dimension of Intermediation
The innovative aspect of Social Readings is more to be found in the intermediation and <business models Social Reading platforms put in place. Indeed, although Social Reading platforms developed in the 90s as forums created by readers who wanted to discuss their readings and launched non-profit projects [Wiart, 2015], the end of the 2000s and the beginning of the 2010s saw a growing interest from the industry. While publishers and booksellers such as Simon & Schuster, Hachette and Penguin with Bookish launched their own platforms, independent ones such as the French leader Babelio or the American one Goodreads, now an Amazon property, launched and gained popularity.
Contrary to their predecessors, their financial objective was very clear. These platforms’ business model is based on marketing services they sell publishers such as sending press releases to targeted users, the presence of banners on their homepage all the publication of sponsored articles.
These platforms play thus multiple roles. Aside from being ways for the readers of expressing their opinion and being part of a network around books [Thelwall and Kousha, 2016], they help them selecting the next books they’re going to spend time and money on. This curation function is crucial in an industry where the issue of discoverability is central. Thanks to data about their favourite genres and books, Social Reading platforms can give their users recommendations. For the readers, Social Reading platforms are then tools for “taming” the abundant literary production [Leonstini and Leveratto, 2005; Janello, 2010, p. 125-126].
For publishers, these platforms are both promotional supports incorporated in their discoverability strategies and tools to collect data about their readers. Social Reading platforms are therefore intermediaries in multi-sided markets, in which they coordinate network effects [van Dijck, 2013; Langley and Leyshon, 2017]. Their function as intermediary can be described through what Pierre Moeglin defines as the “information brokerage model” [2005; 2015]. In this model, the intermediary matches the data given by the advertisers, here publishers, about the product with the data it collected about the user and their tastes and practices.
Social Reading platforms’ innovative aspect doesn’t lie in new practices they would create but rather in their digitalisation and consequent datafication of pre-existing ones such as cataloguing and word-of-mouth. This results in their dependency on the data they collect about the readers and consequently on readers’ participation, which is also new for the book industry. The readers’ involvement is here more important and determining since without their participation, no data can be generated.
Nevertheless, this innovative aspect needs to be minimised. As a matter of fact, my observation of these platforms and the interviews I conduct with people working for publishers led me to the conclusion that these platforms are, for now at least, digital versions of pre-existing models and practices and more specifically of media outlets. Publishers mostly use them as promotional supports and don’t see the importance the data they collect could have for the industry. So far, publishers’ use of these platforms is almost identical to their use of any media. Moreover, these platforms developed through time a strong resemblance to traditional literary media, with an increasing amount of editorial content such as articles. Some of them don’t even have social functionalities anymore.
The specificity of platforms belonging to publishers needs however to be highlighted. When I interview employees of publishers with a platform, they never mention any use of the data collected. On the contrary, they complain about their lack of skills and software to analyse these data. Nonetheless, a future and even current use, be it only for marketing purposes or also integrated in the production process, cannot be excluded. It must be noted though that most French and American publishers’ platforms failed. Their German counterparts are much more successful, but the sale of the German leader LovelyBooks to bookstore chain Thalia by the Holtzbrinck Group this year could be a sign of the group’s dissatisfaction with the platform or of its disinterest in it.
The answer to the question “Are Social Reading platforms innovations?” can thus neither be positive nor negative. To get back to the definition of “innovation”, Social Reading platforms do introduce a book-based digital sociability, but this sociability pre-existed them. What is innovative is the intermediation they propose and the business models they developed. The innovation lies then mostly in their commercial function and not, contrary to what the discourse surrounding them pretends, in Social Reading itself.
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