Readmill goes public: is the future of books social?

Berlin-based social reading app Readmill has been getting a lot of attention since starting up a year ago. That’s partly because of the team (founder Henrik Berggren was formerly with another hot web company, Soundcloud) but it’s also because the company is trying to do something interesting for the increasingly important and sometimes controversial e-book market.

That means plenty of eyes will be on it today as it graduates from being an invite-only beta into an open-to-the-public service. So what are you going to see?

Essentially, Readmill is two things — a reading platform and a social service. You can use it to read books on the web or your iPad, you can take notes, you can share them with your friends, see what other people are reading and find new books to read through the recommendations of others.

So far, so simple. None of these concepts are necessarily new: the consume-and-share idea exists around all sorts of other media formats, and there are already services that allow people to share what they read and recommend books to each other, such as Goodreads and Amazon-owned Shelfari. Kindle owners will be familiar with the idea of shared highlights, too, of course.

But I think it’s worth noting that Readmill differs from these other services in a couple of important ways.

Most importantly, it’s based around reading inside the app itself, which means the team has focused on a service that’s really based around the core reading activity, making it generally really easy to use and well constructed.

This also means its features are not a layer on top of your reading, but an extension of it. Taking your reading social is easy, since users can sign in through Facebook and Twitter but conduct their activity in the same place.

And unlike some other book-based social services, this isn’t about building up a library of everything you’ve ever read: it’s about what you do from the time you start using the service. That makes it more active, and perhaps a little less performative than others.

CEO Berggren told me that he sees the highlighting and sharing elements as a way for readers to annotate books for themselves and “a way for users to spread their literary self”.

But the highlights don’t have to be just about readers sharing information with themselves or each other, though. Authors, too, can drop in and talk about their books: here’s an example from Aaron Gustafsson, author of Adaptive Web Design who essentially uses the highlight function to give a director’s commentary on his own material.

(“All of the authors we’ve been talking too, they’re very interested in annotating their own books,” says Berggren. “It’s an extra thing they can offer readers in a way that has not been done before.”)

Overall it’s a really interesting service that is well put together and gives a strong indication of where books can go in the digital realm. I haven’t been a heavy user of the beta for reasons that may become apparent, but have watched it develop smartly and rapidly.

Despite this, there are crucial elements to think about, however, that need improvement — including some fairly crucial ones.

One major is example is the question of what books you can read via Readmill. Right now the service supports any digital, open, ePub file that you’ve already acquired. That’s great if you want to read public domain books (which you can pick up from, say, Project Gutenberg or Feedbooks) or titles from forward-thinking publishers like O’Reilly or A Book Apart, or some titles bought through Google Books.

But the e-book market is complicated, and Readmill is a long way from supporting everything. Most notable is the absence of Kindle books, which are wrapped in DRM that outsiders can’t penetrate. While Readmill realizes this is problematic (“We’re working on ways to import Kindle stuff,” says Berggren) it’s really stuck right now: Kindle and iBooks aren’t open because Amazon and Apple don’t really want outside apps like Readmill to take away any control over the reading experience — even if they are better.

“It’s a process,” he told me recently. “We’re not going to announce next week that we’ve integrated with Kindle, but there’s a lot going on.”

At the same time, while users can discover books through Readmill, there is no easy route for users to acquire the things they find. No doubt that’s partly to circumvent Apple’s controversial sales rules, but it also means that the process can become quite disjointed — and a long way from providing a cradle-to-grave reading experience.

The best you get is a link off site or blog posts recommending sources, but ultimately users first have to buy elsewhere and then synchronize back into Readmill.

The company has made some interesting tweaks to ease this process, like integrating with Dropbox so that you can synchronize a cloud-based folder of books, but it’s still not simple enough.

The beta service launched in June, and I’ve had several long conversations with Berggren over the past few months to track the progress. It’s clear that he recognizes that today’s launch is really the start of the journey for a service that is still very much a work in progress.

“We’re closing in on 10,000 beta users, and it’s growing steadily,” he told me recently. “It’s definitely going forward — but it’s a lot of work, and we still need to prove ourselves.”

This is important, because the idea of what a digital book actually is remains in flux. This piece on O’Reilly Radar explores some of the issues, and we’ve covered plenty of them too.

The question is whether Readmill can help find some of the answers. And while there may never be a single future for books, Readmill is at least a step along the path to finding one.

“The book as a social object is very complicated,” says Berggren. “It’s high gravity but low frequency: people who have read a book have a lot to talk about, but not many people read. There’s a lot of noise, but that’s what makes this space interesting.”

This is Readmill from Readmill on Vimeo.