Dispatches from the Digital Revolution
The dictionary says that riffle means to flip hastily through pages or to take a cursory look at a book. The new book discovery website, Riffle, does offer users a quick look at recommended titles, but the experience is anything but superficial. Encouraging users to build and share lists, participate in book labs, and answer questions, Riffle offers a fun new way for readers to interact with books—and a great new platform for authors and bloggers to reach their audiences.
From a user’s first look at her Riffle homepage, it’s clear this site is up to something different. Riffle’s been in beta testing since we heard about the site a few months ago, but the site adds new users daily and is getting ready to open up to the public. I recently spoke on the phone with Neil Baptista (CEO of Riffle’s parent company Odyl) and Alexandra Israel (Odyl account manager) about starting the new website, online readers, and—one of Appazoogle‘s favorite topics—book covers.
Authors, publishers, and readers on Facebook may already be familiar with Riffle’s parent company Odyl, a social-media driven platform for publishers and authors to grow their audiences on Facebook. Odyl creates new ways for readers to interact with publishers and authors that the book creators might not have had with a standard Facebook timeline; in Odyl’s appified Quirk Books page, for instance, readers can enter contests, take polls and quizzes, and access exclusive book content.
Still, Baptista says, after publishers and authors created these pages, “a common chorus emerged: Now we have these great promotions and interfaces that we’ve published, but how do we now connect and find the readers and deal with this issue of discoverability? So we decided to take one step closer to the reader.” That’s where Riffle comes in, to forge a more direct connection between authors, readers, and books.
Of course, there are already many book sharing, book review, and book discovery websites out there. With the slow decline of physical bookstores and the rise of online stores, we’ve been talking a lot about discoverability lately; existing websites like Goodreads and Jellybooks have offered their own approaches to encouraging readers to share and interact with books online. However, Riffle positions itself differently from existing websites in a some key ways.
First, Riffle was designed to work within existing social media sites; currently, Riffle is a Facebook app, but there will soon be an external website, RiffleBooks.com, as well as Riffle for Tumblr and Twitter. “Fundamentally, we want avid readers in Riffle to be able to inspire their friends to read more and to discover books,” says Baptista. After many interviews with readers all across the spectrum—from avid readers, who read more than fifteen books a year, down to the “latent readers” who hardly read at all—a pattern seemed to emerge. One of the biggest factors that would lead a reader to choose a book was a personal recommendation from someone else. Riffle’s answer to this was to provide a way to incorporate book recommendations into the Facebook news feed.
That’s one of the biggest differences between app-like Riffle and more closed systems like Goodreads: “If your friends aren’t using [that site], they’re not too involved in what’s going on with you and Goodreads.” Baptista says that there’s been a fundamental shift in the Internet, and operating within existing sites was Riffle’s answer to this change. “There’s a lot less of what we refer to as ‘destination sites,’ where you go to [one site] and spend a lot of time there…. Things have evolved to be much more vertical around social communication systems like Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr, so we’re looking more toward direct integrations with those.” So if you’re a Facebook user, Baptista explains, you don’t have to log out and go somewhere else to use Riffle; it’s folded into your Facebook time.
One other notable feature is Riffle’s unique way of sharing users’ book recommendations. You can follow your friends, your favorite authors, and experts in the field; their book lists and recommended titles are displayed on your home page. The lists are just one part of how a user can interact with books on Riffle; in the book labs, there’s also a Twenty Questions section, and an opportunity to check books off of curated lists like books that became movies, bestseller lists, and so on. But the user-created recommendation lists are how Riffle users begin to establish their authority on the site.
Like Twitter, Riffle presents an opportunity for users to build a following; there’s a measure of authority and expert opinion involved in recommending books. Users can see on their individual profiles how many followers they’ve gathered and (a more humbling measure) their measure of influence. Says Baptista, “‘Expert’ is always relative—an expert to one person is not an expert to another. We’re looking at ‘expert’ being not some arbitrary designation, but actually being a measure in the system of how people are relating to your recommendations and the lists that you create. You won’t just be given the designation, it’s sort of earned. We think it’s going to be a fun measure within Riffle.”
Although Riffle operates off of users’ lists and recommended titles, there isn’t currently a book review system on Riffle. Although the company isn’t ruling it out if a demand for reviews should arise, Baptista says that at this point it wasn’t part of their book discovery solution: “If you look across the Web 2.0 landscape at user-generated review systems, it’s an extremely big task to keep individual reviews relevant and high quality for a new user or somebody who’s just landed on the page.” Riffle’s solution is simple recommendation by a user adding the book to a list. When you look at a book on Riffle, you can see how many lists it has been added to, creating a measure of popularity that doesn’t need a starred rating system.
Perhaps the biggest difference between Riffle and other book websites is its design. Baptista explained that the visually rich isotope layout (a design behind well-known sites like Pinterest and Netflix) is an easy way to display lots of image-type information. Because Riffle’s content lies not in reviews but in the creation of lists, the site lent itself to an image-heavy layout. Users are familiar with this sort of presentation, which is one advantage of the isotope layout, but being able to use book covers themselves is another great strength.
Unlike many who question if book covers are necessary in an ereading age, Baptista thinks they may be actually more important in the digital landscape. Drawing a comparison between music and books, he says that album or cover art on music started to fade when the iPod first came out. But now that our mp3 players have high-resolution screens, cover art is an important aspect of any music app we use. Baptista thinks the same goes for digital books: “Because digital books are always front-faced, you’re not even just seeing the spines, cover art is more prominent in many ways. Images can get distributed more widely and in different sizes. And the cover is the first thing that’ll catch someone’s eye.”
Alexandra Israel says that the book cover can play a huge role in book discoverability; even with the rising popularity of ereaders, books are still incredibly visual, and covers can be inextricably tied to a reader’s connection with a book. “I really do think that book covers will never go out of fashion even with the rise of ereaders and digital devices. Book covers…drum up certain memories,” Israel says, citing her associations with the cover of The Catcher in the Rye.
With its visually pleasing layout and easy integration into the social media sites you already use, Riffle has offered an original and fun way to find and share books. The list-centered approach is a refreshing alternative to starred reviews, and it provides a new way for users to establish an online following or just recommend a good book to their friends.
As part of our goal to provide full disclosure to our readers, note that the Appazoogle team participated in Riffle’s beta development.