The Nook changes the game with the first built-in social experience

The official announcements about the Nook went out yesterday and much has been said about the device, such as whether it trounces the Kindle (it does not) and whether the delay in shipping (units you buy today, for example, are expected to ship January 15) will permanently keep the Nook out of the running (it will not).

Because so much has already been said, we paid attention to what hasn't yet been said -- as far as we can tell, by anyone. It's this: the Nook is the first eReader to hit the market that has any kind of social connectivity built in to it. I'm referring to the "loan a book" feature the Nook offers. Read reviews like the one at CNET and you'd think that the book loaning feature is a flop because: a) it only applies to select books (at the publishers' whim) and b) it only lasts for 14 days.

I'm gonna tell you a secret: it doesn't matter how limited today's loan a book feature is, it's a huge step in an increasingly important direction for eReaders.

People share books. They share them, and then they talk about them. A lot. This fact is so critical to the way people read books that it is amazing that none of the eReaders yet offered to the market have any meaningful book sharing built into them. So even though the Nook is shipping late (folks, this is the eReader market, demand has been outstripping supply for the past two years now, stop acting surprised that Barnes and Noble and Sony are experiencing delays), we applaud its arrival because it opens Pandora's social box in this space. Once it's open, this box will set free all kinds of goodies that we are excited to have, including:

 

  1. Embedding favorite paragraphs across the Web. Hulu was the first to teach us that if we really wanted to share the funniest or most heart-wrenching two minutes of a TV show episode, we could simply clip that part of it and share it on our blogs or in Facebook. Why can't we do the same with books? We soon will: You'll be able to clip up to a page of text for instant sharing on Facebook. You share, friends enjoy, authors get promoted, and publishers are happy. Makes instant sense.
  2. Sending gifts to friends' eReaders. Anyone knows that the way to a serious reader's heart is a new book, usually in elaborate hardback. How can you replace that thoughtfulness in the digital space? eReader gift editions will come with bonus features, personalized well wishes from the author, any number of ways to make that book -- and its recipient -- special. In fact, your friend will be able to send you such a gift from barnesandnoble.com, not just from their own reader, opening this giving scenario up to millions of buyers who can actively place books into other people's readers (with permission, of course).
  3. Making eBook recommendations. The Kindle got off to a great start by letting people download sample chapters for free which they can later upgrade to a full copy once they've been ensnared. The Nook has a similar feature. So now the race is on to see which device will allow your friends to put the sample chapters in your eReader for free for you to taste. The reverse is also an easy next step: when are you most likely to want to let a friend know you've found the ideal book for them? When you're in the middle of its virtual pages, obviously. The first eReader that lets you "share this book with a friend," automatically delivering the free sample version to a friend's eReader, will earn my respect. Oh, and by the way, unlike option 1 and 2, this option requires no assistance or permission from publishers. Go forth and make it so.

There's a lot to do to make this happen beyond just persuading publishers that their content -- once shackled to the printed page -- should now be set free. First, eReaders have to become addressable objects, like social network accounts, that people can join, manage friends with, and control access to. Then, some social interface needs to be added to the eReader firmware to make all of this sharing, friending, and controlling possible on what is still a low-interactivity, slow-response device (this is one area where the Nook LED touch screen might make a significant difference). 

So our advice to the industry is simple: you want to win here? Go social.