Go to a café in a college town, and you’ll see bands of laptop-toting young people, hooked up with WiFi and engrossed in face-to-face talk on books, movies, politics, you name it.

Now, what if the same friends could also read books together simultaneously online and comment on them chapter by chapter?

Book reading, as many have observed, is an increasingly social experience among young people who do read. And a novel new startup, run by two seasoned dotcom vets holding masters degrees in interactive multimedia, may carry this trend to a new level if it’s successful.

Book Glutton won’t just let you annotate books at your convenience for others to read your comments at theirs; it also will let you chat by text in real time with people who are reading the same chapters you are. Check out the video—including a screen shot of dialogue on Notes from the Underground.

Just with friends—or, if you want, the whole world

You’ll be able to submit your own manuscript or a public domain work and let your friends or the whole world view it on screen and also download it in the IDPF‘s new .epub format, now readable via Adobe Digital Editions and FBReader, among others. And some months from now if server capacity permits, Book Glutton might even try audio chatting.

While Book Glutton isn’t open right now, a public test starts next month. I’ll be paying close attention because:

1. The time is right or soon could be. Book annotation by itself is nothing new, but this is the era of instant messages, and Book Glutton has a nice twist: letting people focus on the chapters they are reading at the time. If you’re on page 21, you needn’t see comments from the page-600 crowd giving away the plot.

2. As savvy publishers such as Baen have found out, the best way to market books online is to build communities of fans or at least encourage authors to do the same. A side effect of community is less piracy since people find it harder to steal from someone they know and like. Who the devil needs DRM with such a setup?

3. The number of self-published authors is huge, as is the amount of dreck. Wouldn’t their works be better if they could hook up with other writers for intensive critiques?

4. Millions listen to talk shows, and here’s a chance to make a book-radio connection. Imagine a host encouraging fans to read books together, with the best comments being quoted or even played on the air. Hello, NPR? Hello, Rush Limbaugh? Hello, Randi Rhodes? And what about TV? Hello, Oprah?

5. Baby boomers will be retiring over the next few decades and many will suffer health problems that make it harder to get to the library or book club. Book Glutton can bring the club to them, and it hopes to make itself grandma-friendly—no small feat but certainly something worth pursuing.

6. Obviously the technology could have uses beyond books, such as business ones, even though the people behind it want to focus on books and other literary efforts, such as short stories.

7. The founders of Book Glutton, Aaron Miller and his wife, the very female Travis Alber, despite her first name, hold masters degrees in interactivity and seem to be going about their enterprise in a low-key, frugal way—the best approach to take. While they’d love to be in New York, near publishers, they’re keeping their expenses down in the Champaign-Urban area of Illinois.

Biz models

I asked Travis about business models. She says Book Glutton will start out by accepting advertising but not place it within books—just within such locations as the search-pages where you can seek out like-minded readers. That way, the ads will be less intrusive.

Book Glutton is now limiting itself public domain books for the sake of simplicity, but the service hopes to approach publishers about offering their wares for sales—with accompanying interactivity, I’d hope. Not just from authors but also paid moderators. Book publishers would do well to steal a page from IBM and start thinking services, not merely tangible products such as ink and cardboard.

Of course, despite Book Gutton’s promising beginnings, it’s far from a sure shot. But if Travis and Aaron (also holder of an MFA in creative writing from UC-Irvine and author of a novel in search of an agent) don’t succeed at this, I can well imagine others doing so in time.

Publishers may want to study what their Book Glutton is up to, and maybe try out the company’s services when available.

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