Exploding the margins

There was a time some years ago when I burned with annoyance when, upon opening a library book, I would discover that a previous reader – or readers – had marked up all of the salient points, underlining key words and phrases with scribbles in pen. Little did I know that I was experiencing ‘social reading’ in one of its earliest forms. Travis Alber and Aaron Miller describe social reading as, ‘the act of reading while connected to other people, or the philosophy of reading as a connected activity, not an isolated one.’ It’s a subject Charlotte Harper (Editia) will be covering in the paper she’s presenting to next week’s Independent Publishing Conference (titled Social Reading, Long form Journalism and the Connected Ebook). I confess that my early ‘social reading’ in the library made me feel frustrated. The mark-ups denied me my earnest pursuit to form my own conclusions, to find the salient points on my own merit, and to have an unencumbered ‘first read’. Yet recently I was drawn to a library book for research and on taking the tome from the shelf I discovered that my old foe (underlined texts and comments in the margin) had become a friend. The underliner had done me a service – enabling me to more efficiently establish the relevance of the book to my research.

Enable social reading on a Kindle to see what others have highlighted and commented on.
Enable social reading on a Kindle to see what others have highlighted and commented on.

Electronic publishing has taken social reading to a far deeper level than the (often anonymous) scribblings in the margins of a book. Readers can now use their devices (such as Kindles, Kobos or apps like Readmill) to share and read in-book annotations with everyone else (functions that can thankfully be turned on or off). The geographical breadth of this electronic exchange encourages a wide spectrum of social reading perspectives. Damien Walter, writing for the Guardian, sees the benefits of social reading in a longitudinal context, ‘[I]magine reading a book published in 2013 in the year 2063. In the 50 years between now and then, dozens of critical texts, hundreds of articles, thousands of reviews and hundreds of thousands of comments will have been made on the text.’ Harper says that social reading extends to discussions about texts on social media and sites like Goodreads. ‘The readers’ discussions can form part of the book and enhance it that way,’ she says.

Harper agrees that when it comes to in-book annotations social reading can interrupt the flow and give spoilers – but social reading in the electronic space is particularly salient to non-fiction, she says. ‘[Readers get engaged and want] to continue the conversation about stories that don’t end… When they’re reading a work of non-fiction on a topic that they’re passionate about (or intrigued by) they’ll want to know what happened next – how the story continues.’ Social reading doesn’t just benefit and engage readers says Harper, it can also help writers and publishers. ‘Some of the conversations that have taken place around the book can be taken into consideration or can inspire content for new editions,’ she says.

As well as the social reading elements Harper sees great potential for long form non-fiction in the electronic realm. She cites commentators like J Max Robbins, who recently wrote that, ‘E-book singles – non-fiction and fiction pieces between 5,000 and 30,000 words – are on the cusp of becoming a significant business and may well propel a renaissance in deep-dive journalism.’ Harper also points to the success story of Long Play, a Finnish publisher of long form non-fiction e-singles that is close to making a profit within a year of its launch.

Along with perspectives on social reading, Harper hopes to provide attendees at next week’s conference with some insight into the burgeoning market for long form journalism in e-book format. She’ll cover the impact of recent events (like the acquisition of Goodreads by Amazon) and likely developments for the book industry and journalists.

Harper sees a healthy future for long form non-fiction in electronic format. ‘There are more and more publishers specialising in long form non-fiction. As the number of publishers specialising and the number of books grows, then readers will become more aware of the genre and become used to factoring it into their purchasing patterns,’ she says.

Charlotte Harper will present as part of the Authors, Genre and Publishing session (1.15pm, Thursday 14 November) at the Independent Publishing Conference.

Tablet effects: opportunities with Editia

In late 2009 Charlotte Harper became obsessed with Twitter. ‘I was just sitting on Twitter on my iPhone for hours on end,’ she says. 140-character quips, thoughts and headlines streamed down her screen. Then she noticed a hashtag #appletablet. ‘People [were] talking about how this apple device was coming, and [that] it was going to change everything. I thought, “It is. That’s true. If Apple release an e-reader it will change everything and here’s my chance,”’ she says. The hashtag begat Editia, ‘a new digital first publishing business devoted to long form journalism and non-fiction shorts.’ (Editia website) Harper admits to being an early adaptor. ‘I’m ridiculous. I’m one of those people who queues up outside Apple stores from the early hours of the morning, [who] takes my small children so they have to wait with me,’ she quips. But this enthusiasm has been pivotal to the launch of Editia, and to the vision and skills that Harper brings as founder and publisher.


She’s worked as an editor, a journalist, a Walkley Award-winning digital producer and a teacher of journalism. Her first book about technology was published in 1999. She’s working on a Masters in Communications by Research at the University of Canberra about, ‘Social reading, long form journalism and the connected ebook’. After reading those early tweets on the #appletablet she found her way to the launch of the iPad in Australia. Her blog about the technology, ebookish.com.au went live from her hotel room the very night of the launch.

Thus it’s not surprising that Editia is a digital first publishing house. And while the pending list covers a broad range of topics – including the arts, food, the environment and literature Harper says that, ‘in each case there’s a bit of a connection back to technology.’

In short, Editia is interested in good non-fiction writing, and is open to established and emerging writers (provided you have a letter of endorsement from an editor or lecturer). Alliteration is the key to remembering ‘Six till Seven Submission Sundays’ (that’s two short windows each Sunday, not one long one). Detailed submission guidelines are available on the website.

Editia is a pioneering digital-first publishing house for long form non-fiction in Australia. Being an early adaptor involves vision, nimbleness, risk and a bit of experimentation. To help mitigate risk, Harper has established a Corporate Advisory Board of digital publishing experts. As far as experimentation goes, well, that’s all part of the fun. ‘We’re all experimenting – mainstream publishers small start ups, indie authors, bookshops… It’s a really exciting time to be involved in the industry because nobody really knows what’s going to happen next,’ she says.

In lieu of advances, Editia offers writers a digital consulting package to help them better build their brand. ‘It’s really hard to cut through unless you have something to distinguish yourself from the rest of the people out there. If you just set up a blog and say, “I’ve written this book and it’s really good and you should buy it,” why is anyone going to bother coming there?’ she asks. Harper recommends that writers establish a niche. ‘Build your profile by providing content that’s really useful for people rather than just [being] about self promotion,’ she says.

Tablets and digital technology have shaken-up the traditional publishing industry, but a side effect is opportunities for writers and independent publishers like Editia. ‘Hopefully the future of long form non-fiction is going to be hugely successful, and grow in popularity as more and more readers in Australia and internationally become owners of tablets and e-readers,’ says Harper. With the technology in their hands, readers will realise the potential for consuming non-fiction pieces outside of traditional formats.

Harper recognises that many writers – both established an emerging – are pondering the future of their long form work. What she sees, ‘is an opportunity for [writers] to build up their own profile and write the stories that they want to write (rather than the stories that editors in media organisations tell them to write).’ For this writer at least, that’s a liberating thought. But to Harper, the benefit of this is not just for writers. ‘When writers are writing the stories they want to write, the stories are so much better aren’t they?’ she says, ‘I think the future is very bright.’