Can Bookship turn reading into a social experience?

Can Bookship turn reading into a social experience?

If you believe that "reading is better with friends", there's an app for that.

The pitch

Bookship is a mobile app that allows users to share their reading experiences with family, friends and colleagues. Bookship users can invite people to read along with them - via print book, e-book or audiobook - and then post and react to comments, thoughts, photos/videos, quotes, links and questions through a chat-style interface.

The team

Mark Watkins is the founder of The Hawaii Project, a personalized book recommendation engine and the company behind Bookship. He is also the co-creator of Books & Spirits, the award-winning book and cocktails event series in Hawaii.

Previously Watkins was c.e.o. of goby, the mobile recommendation engine. Before that he was the v.p. of engineering at Endeca, a search company that was acquired by Oracle for $1B in 2011. He is on the board of directors at Firecracker, a medical edtech startup, and he speaks and writes on startups, search, travel and digital media.

What's the gap in the market?

Social media is awash in book-related content - Goodreads reviews, Instagram book cover snapshots, #fridayreads on Twitter - but Watkins believes there’s an opportunity to create a platform for sociable bookworms who want to share the experience of reading while they’re doing the act itself.

"Sure, I can write a review on Goodreads after I’m done with the book  — but by the time I’m done reading, I’ve forgotten most of my special moments or insights," he explains. "Worse, my review will be lost in the ocean of reviews already there. Yes, I can post on Facebook — but nobody has any context for why I’m posting, and it’ll be lost in the sea of noise that is Facebook. I may not even be Facebook friends with the people I want to share with. I can share a quote from my Kindle app - but it’s not in any social context, and over time those interactions disappear."

Watkins belives that social reading needs a purpose-built, mobile-first experience, tailored to a new generation of readers with a short attention span, who are versed in the language of SMS, snaps, grams and emojis. 

"The few previous attempts at social reading have either required a proprietary e-reader that required me to buy the e-book from them, or were primarily calendaring apps," he says. "A social reading platform must be format and source agnostic, less about meeting reminders and more about the reading experience itself. We’re one of the first reading apps to bridge the gap between physical books and the digital experience, through our unique application of OCR and mobile phone technology. It’s not hard to imagine an augmented reality or VR style app that lets readers essentially overlay a digital experience onto their physical book through their phone’s camera."

Success so far?

Bookship has just launched so it’s early days. "But the initial enthusiasm is very encouraging," Watkins insists. "Because it’s a social product, it naturally grows from person to person." 

Biggest challenges?

At this early stage, awareness and unfamiliarity are Bookship's main stumbling blocks. "This is a new kind of social experience, and getting users to engage with a book and their fellow readers in this way may require education," Watkins admits. "Alternatively, we may need to find routes to market that naturally lead to the kind of readers and books that benefit from this kind of engagement, like book clubs at libraries, bookstores, or businesses."

Ultimate ambition?

The Bookship team say their goal goes beyond simple book chat "to get more people reading more books, and getting more out of them." They plan to introduce more features such as social book discovery, a service to connect likeminded strangers who might become reading buddies - and maybe even a dating app.

With a mission statement of 'Books Change Lives', the Bookship team also donates 10% of their revenue to literacy non-profits. "Recently I had the chance to jointly read Dune with my son, Evicted with my daughter, and (gulp) Thucydides with a dear friend in Utah and one of my nephews on Bookship," Watkins relates. "I reconnected with people I care about in a really meaningful way. I read books I wouldn’t have otherwise read and got more out of the books I would have read anyway. If we can accomplish that for everyone else, we’ve done our job."

Advice to other publishing entrepreneurs?

"The product is usually the easy part of a startup, but it’s where first time entrepreneurs often focus. Spend as much time, or more, thinking about how people are going to find out about your product, and how they’ll adopt it. The competition for people’s attention is fierce, and 'if you build it, they will come' is usually a recipe for failure. Understand the emotional or financial drivers that will convince people to try your product."