How We Read Now

The following blog is an adaptation of a talk given by our Founder and Publisher, Anna Jean Hughes, at the 2016 Schilling Conference in Copenhagen.

LOOK, it’s a cat reading:

What do you do while reading a book these days? This may seem like a bit of a facile question. You’re reading, right? But are there other things that you do? Highlight a particularly meaningful line and punctuate it with a “How Apposite” in the margins, or scrawl the words into your notebook for future reflection. Do you Google what in the hell ‘apposite’ means, then tap out the quote into Twitter (!!! #apposite) and underline the word in your marginalia for extra emphasis. OR look up the author, read their Q&A and find out that they, like you, also munch many a peanut butter jelly sandwich. Then check out a video of them reading said meaningful line on Youtube (through a mouthful of PBJ).

I do these things. I even Googled apposite once. So it seemed sensible to create a reading device that allows you to do all this, in one place, on your phone. But it would be a lie to suggest that this was the original plan. That’s just where we are now and plans change an awful lot in three years of start up land.

The Pigeonhole actually started one drunken, starry night in Soho. After many moony conversations about the future of publishing, my business partner Jacob gave me a pen and a napkin (and a negroni) and this materialised.

Initially, all we were trying to do was create a risk-free publishing model, showcasing books via digital serialisations with a comment section. If a book did particularly well, we’d then publish an eBook and, if that were successful, move on to physical. We launched to a web reader and subscribers could get their stories online or ask for each instalment to be sent to their Kindle. It was cute and clunky and not terribly interactive.

Now, we look like this.

Because very early on we made the decision to build an app, one that would reimagine the book for modern and mobile generations. Technology has changed the way we consume content, and the idea of being able to read instalments on one’s phone was just too good an opportunity to miss. So we set about building the tech and over a hundred iterations later, we Pigeons take our books and MOBILIZE them, serialising stories direct to both Android and iOS. There, we offer readers a space to meet real-time inside the book; to add their thoughts to the social media, to give writers an opportunity to discuss themes with their audience, readers time to chat about a title amongst themselves, or even to just write ‘How apposite’ in the margins . . .

In this day and age, our concentration spans last around 8 seconds. So really, I lost you at the cat. 52% of us check our phone every half-hour. I’d say the rest of us probably do it more often. We are presented with more content IN ONE DAY than our forefathers would have seen in a lifetime. And accessibility is the driving force. It took 67 years to get one billion viewers on TV, but it took smartphones 5 to get to the same audience. Smartphones are an extension of us, I wrote this speech on my phone. They even monitor us while we sleep. By 2020 there will be 50 billion connected devices. So, clearly this was where we were going to put our books.

Books were the first mass-communication method. Now it is your phone. And we, well, we’re like a FitBit for your book.

But we quickly discovered that publishing to an app isn’t about sticking a book in the backend (fnar) and hoping for the best. Not all books will work on a phone. This is a completely different format. We couldn’t expect our readers to flick their way through titles without offering all that digital has to offer. We  quickly learnt that our mobile launches needed to be mapped and structured.

Putting a book into a phone means it has to compete with Candy Crush, the latest YouTube sensation sitting on a cake, emails and Slack and filth on WhatsApp, Taylor Swift’s tweets, bizarre crap on Facebook, Barbie drinking coffee on Instagram and Miley Cyrus twerking her little chicken butt.

We are a world so constantly connected, so utterly together in our communications, but are we actually listening? Reading however, reading makes you a happier, nicer person; it increases empathy and emotional intelligence. And I’m not convinced these other apps do. But how to beat the competition?

We are living in a world of digital natives, a world in which babies try to make calls with their feet.

Yet few can predict the long-term effect this technology will have on reading habits. All I know is that our readers love the interaction, the serialisation, and the access to their authors. They are time-pressured, over-loaded and discerning, yet they want stories. We had to find a way keep up. So we started playing with the format, curating the conversation with thematic questions and mixed-media extras, then we started launching books with disappearing chapters and tasks to complete alongside the reading – gamifying the whole process.

And we’re not the only digitizers out there. There are others doing exciting things through the medium of the mobile phone. When we first launched there were many more than there are today. The likes of Glose and Scribd are still holding their own in an ever-shrinking pool of subscription service platforms, especially considering the demise of Blloon and Oyster. Companies such as these offer a huge variety of content for a monthly fee. Though both Glose and Scribd have worked hard to provide other things alongside the books on offer, music scores for example, and legal papers.

But some are, like us, truly redefining the way we read books and even the book itself.

Alexi is the brainchild of Andrew Kidd and Ayesha Karim and comes from a place of curation. Theirs is a platform offering over 400 titles chosen by great writers, it’s a prefect way to map your reading list. And they’re all backlist. “What we’re interested in is helping readers to discover books,” says Andrew Kidd. “Eighty per cent of books don’t work — they literally lose money.” So what Alexi does is give them a second lease of life, beyond that brief moment in the sun as granted in the traditional model.

And Oolipo, Oolipo is one of the most innovative storytelling apps I’ve seen so far. Founder Ryan Mullins thought hard about just how different digital can be, and the books they launch on their platform are fully integrated into the mobile mechanism. Theirs is a narrative built around the technology, rather than simply using the technology to present the narrative. Stories come with ambient sounds as an aural backdrop and the text appears within carefully constructed settings, for example, as texts on an image of a phone screen. Within a phone screen. It’s quite meta.

But there is so much more to digital reading and the key thing that a mobile launch can lend to your publication is Big Data Analytics. Data is everywhere. Our every step is tracked, our every search. There are companies out there that use algorithms to predict the next bestseller to within an 80% success rate. We wanted to do something different, something beyond the standard method of getting words into faces. Content is king, but unless you can understand why certain books are regal, then why bother crowning anything?

So we can use our mobile launches to tell you how people are reading and when. How quickly they swipe through the screens and their behaviour within the text: tweeted quotes, time spent on extra content, text highlighted and comments made. To beta test the validity of a title before any money is spent on its publication.

We are now working with universities to help them understand the reading habits of their students. As well as large corporate companies to get books into their Health and Well-being programmes, bringing teams together through a love of words or a desire to learn. Think of the trickle down effect! We might end up turning Nestlé into Marxists with the Communist Manifesto, or get Shell reading Little House on the Prairie . . . And each of these experiments hones our product.

So we went from being a publisher to a service provider, one that is now working with some of the best names in the business. The key to any start up is flexibility and the key to mobile technology is tractability. And it is this that sets them apart, and makes them interesting to those big corporates. It is this factor that we made the most use of in our early days. Moulding our model to the demand. More and more, publishers are coming to us and asking how they could discover about their books by serialising them to an app. They want a mobile edition, to plug into a market of people who are increasingly reading on their phones. And why not? We are a tech start up with little more governing our future than the demands of our customers.

We have worked with The Kingston University Big Read programme and Canongate to Pigeonhole Matt Haig’s The Humans to their whole student body and faculty. We’ve launched our first pilot book with Pan Macmillan, running experiments to limited cohorts to establish the perfect method for their extensive list. By partnering with publishers, we get our clammy little claws on some of the best books out there, while they can learn about the life of their book; how their readers are engaging with text; give their authors a wider online presence, introducing them to their audience. We can study the community chatter, the location, age, sex and gender of the users, what they loved and hated, all in one place. But it took us two years of wearing many other guises.

But the key to what we do has long been communication. We are a global bookclub that instantly connects thousands of readers via the plot of an historical joy-ride, offering a place for people to argue over who the killer might be in a grisly crime thriller, or offer help and support to the author during their account of their transition from man to woman. We then drive these fizzing and excited vox boxes to Amazon and Goodreads to leave reviews, thereby closing the validation loop and getting added support for our partners.

When we started we had big BIG plans to use mobile reading to flip the lid on publishing, blow out the stuffy, backward system and gouge the industry a new one. We talked a lot about ‘disruption’ and ‘rewriting reading’. It’s all a bit embarrassing. Because in reality we were only ever going to be supplementary to physical books, ours is a totally different reading experience, one that should run alongside the hardback on your bedside table, something to dive into when bored, or out and about. A story to have with you always, a connection at your fingertips. And The Pigeonhole can reach a global audience at the touch of a button.

I could sit here and tell you that mobile reading’s where it’s at. It is certainly where you should be looking to when considering a digital campaign. With eReaders on the decline (because, let’s face it, they don’t have much on a physical book) and Kindle sales down 19%, all publishers should be looking towards the thing that is no more than 5 inches from everyone reading this article. But mobile publishing is so much more than a book on a screen. Content can always be presented in new and better ways. Ours isn’t a line in creation, but curation. For us, it was simply to ensure as much exposure and discoverability as Pigeonly possible for our authors. For now, all I can tell you is that our future is collaborative, we want to work with others to help them build on their book-business. For this is the age of social reading.

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