Writers and Readers: Tools for Deeper Understanding

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When I was working on We the Media (2004), I published an early outline in my blog. Then I published chapter drafts. I got incredibly useful feedback.

But when the book was published, I had no idea how people were using it. Did they stumble over certain passages? Did they skip entire sections? What was going on? I wish I knew.

I never did a second edition of that book (though I should have, mea culpa). If I had, I’d certainly have looked for a way to learn from the readers in much deeper ways than we do today.

As we ponder the future of books and reading, some of us are thinking about the emerging relationship between writers and readers, and how we can enhance that for both. I’m looking at it in this exercise from an author’s point of view—one author’s, of course, because writers have so many different styles and needs.

The features I want—many of which exist already, though not as part of standard authoring and publishing tools—include:

  • Collaboration with prospective readers as I work on a new book. I can do this easily now by creating a forum, wiki, Google Doc, blog post/comments, and any number of other ways.
  • Feedback. I can buy my book on Kindle and see what people have highlighted, or what they’ve written in the digital margins. But that’s just Kindle, and I want much more. I’d like to do semantic analysis on their notes, and get data on what they think matters, and why. I’d also want granular data showing how, in detail, people are reading the book. None of that is available, at least to the author, on any of the major platforms. (Others in this group will talk about how we can provide readers a vastly better, or at least different, experience.)
  • Corrections/additions. As I fix the current work and plan a new edition, I’d like to see, in context and in an easy to use format, the errors readers have spotted, as well as suggestions for improvements.
  • Conversation. Again, this is easy if I don’t mind creating a new space online, or using existing social media. Combining it with the above features in a more seamless way would have a fantastic value to me as an author.

These disparate features need to be part of a framework, not a monolithic product. They should be modular pieces we can fit together as part of the authoring/editing/publishing platform — and the reading platform. We need to have ways to reward the most active readers—perhaps by offering discounts or other benefits, including direct conversations (if they want them) with authors. And we need these features to be available not only as proprietary tools, but in open-source versions. If it’s a modular framework, with APIs, we can create a marketplace around the tool sets, too.

Audiences are members of communities in many genres. I see these features as enhancements not just to accuracy and thoroughness, but more fundamentally to enhancing the communities that are discussing these ideas.

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