22 May 2012 11 am eastern

Readlists: behind the scenes

FROM THE HOME PAGE of today’s newly announced, totally disruptive, completely free product powered by Readability: “What’s a Readlist? A group of web pages—articles, recipes, course materials, anything—bundled into an e-book you can send to your Kindle, iPad, or iPhone.”

For some time now, people who miss the point have seen Readability as an app that competes in the read-it-later space. That’s like viewing Andy Warhol as a failed advertising art director. Readability is a platform that radically rethinks how we consume, and who pays for, web content. It monetizes content for authors and its technology is available to all via the API. It scares designers, angers some advertisers. Its transformative potential is huge. Readlists are the latest free product to manifest some of that potential.

With Readlist, anyone can create ebooks out of existing web content. It’s easy. Sign in with your Readability account or sign up for one, and start making books of your favorite web articles.

There are still some bugs being worked out, but hey.

I was honored to beta test the product and create one of the first Readlists, along with Erin Kissane, Anil Dash, Aaron Lammer, David Sleight, and Chris Dary.

Disclaimer: I am on the advisory board of Readability and cofounded The Deck advertising network with Jim Coudal and Jason Fried. Readability removes clutter (including ads) from the reading experience; The Deck sells ads. Conflict of interest? Here’s another: I design content websites so as to make Readability unnecessary (because I design for readers); yet I strongly support Readability as a platform and above all as a web idea that is at least 15 years overdue. Either designers will design for their end-users, or third-party apps will remove designers from the transaction. As a designer, I’m not afraid of that. Rather, it inspires me.

Enjoy Readlists.

Filed under: Design, Platforms, Products, Publications, Publishing, Real type on the web, Respect, Responsibility, Startups, State of the Web, The Essentials, The Profession, This never happens to Gruber

24 Responses to “Readlists: behind the scenes”

  1. Richard said on

    Do you really think this is disruptive? Honestly, your unequivocal praise of Readability seems to border on marketing sometimes. (I don’t say this to troll, I say this because it’s how it appears.) Your role as advisor is to appear enthusiastic, I know, but do you really find Readlists “disruptive”?

    It’s certainly a neat thing, but Instapaper has been able to send a selection of articles to a Kindle for a long time. So has Readability, even, and many others I’m sure. The only practical difference is that your Readlist list is social, and that’s about as disruptive as smoking weed on 4/20. A more cynical observer might suggest that Readlists is intended only as a thing that will bring Readability more exposure (which I don’t suggest is bad, but it’s hardly disruptive) and users. If you really think user-generated reading lists are disruptive in this industry, I would suggest not only that you’re barking up the wrong tree, but that you’re not even barking at a tree.

    Which brings me to the second part of this I don’t really agree with: “It monetizes content for authors while refusing to monetize itself.” In my timeline, it tried to monetize itself and failed, which, from all outward appearances, is how monetizing authors is going too. Their business can’t be successful if they don’t compete with Instapaper, because the business revolves around reading, which is a market Instapaper leads. Solution: cost no money.

    I hope Readability appreciates your evangelizing, but this crap is so disingenuously, insufferably positive. Do you have anything critical to say about Readability? I generally find you a careful and intelligent writer, but your Readability coverage wreaks of hyperbole.

    By the way, what about Readability is open source? I didn’t think any of it was.

  2. Terry Eaton said on

    I think I just saw the future… now I will just sit back and wait for people to start bitching about it.

  3. Jeffrey Zeldman said on

    By the way, what about Readability is open source? I didn’t think any of it was.

    Everything about it is. And has been since it was introduced two years ago. Apple’s “Reader” functionality in the Safari browser? That’s just Readability. Apple grabbed an early version of Readability, made some design changes (they are Apple, after all), and released it. Which was fine with the creators of Readability. It’s what they wanted. They make their money doing client services work for frighteningly large accounts. They then experiment in their Labs, trying to create technologies that make the web (or some aspect of it) better.

  4. Casey said on

    How do you get from “Readability’s text parser is open-source” to “Everything about [Readability] is [open-source]“? That doesn’t make any sense.

    Can someone point me to the source code for their new Iris engine (http://blog.readability.com/2012/04/introducing-iris/)? I’d love to take a look.

  5. Terry Eaton said on

    That didn’t take long…

  6. Keith Calder said on

    Readability is certainly neat, but I’m confused how you can be on their advisory board and still get basic facts about the system/company wrong.

    1) Readability 1.0 was open-source and Readability 2.0 (which was launched over a year ago) is not. It’s very misleading to say that Readability is open-source, and even worse to say “everything about it is” open-source when someone asks you to clarify. The truth is that the current incarnation of Readability is not open-source.

    2) “It monetizes content for authors while refusing to monetize itself.” This statement is simply wrong. Readability collects the full contributions from its users. The company keeps 30% for itself and earmarks 70% for content authors. I think that’s a fair split, but it’s certainly not “refusing to monetize itself.” It’s openly monetizing itself. The more controversial aspect is that from what I understand after twelve months Readability will keep any portion of the 70% that isn’t claimed by a registered publisher.

    I understand being a fan of Readability and wanting to be enthusiastic about their product, but when you have an official relationship with the company I believe that you should be held to a higher standard for accuracy. If I have access to this information as a normal person, then you certainly should as an official advisor.

  7. Richard said on

    Everything about it is.

    The old parser is, sure, but that’s not even in use anymore, per its Google Code page. How does that equate to “everything.”

    Also, I think you missed about 90% of my comment, or chose to ignore it. I would genuinely love a response. I want to know—I value your opinion—but I couldn’t see any kind of testimonial or review through the marketing and hyperbole. I’d really love to know why you think it’s so disruptive, because I don’t see it. What am I missing?

  8. Jeffrey Zeldman said on

    I understand being a fan of Readability and wanting to be enthusiastic about their product, but when you have an official relationship with the company I believe that you should be held to a higher standard for accuracy. If I have access to this information as a normal person, then you certainly should as an official advisor.

    You are right. I had a couple of facts wrong. Thank you, I’ll correct the post.

    As to how I can be an advisor while getting some facts about the company wrong, it’s because I advise on the creative side … not the business side or the technical side.

    I would probably get some facts wrong about Happy Cog, An Event Apart, and A Book Apart, if it came right down to it — and those are companies in which I have a fairly large ownership stake. I’d get the facts wrong simply because I don’t focus my energy on the business side of any companies, including my own. I do what I’m good at and let others do what I can’t do (or choose not to do). Make sense?

    Thanks again.

  9. Richard Ziade said on

    If I may chime in here, I’m obviously biased as all hell so take it with a healthy grain of salt:

    To your point about Readability and Instapaper being able to do this for months, this is a very different animal. Curation and creating specialized lists that live on the web is a very different animal.

    The greatest publishing platform known to man today is the web. In literally 2 minutes, you can spin up a Tumblr page, start writing and publish to the whole world. That is awesome.

    Except we still think about books. Digital books. Paper books. Distribution methods. eReaders. All of these new ways to consume are materializing and yet the amazing creative power of the web – from WordPress to Tumblr to your shitty CMS – wasn’t connected to them.

    The ability to take content originally intended to live and die in your web browser and allow it to live on and thrive in all these new places is – in our opinion – transformative. It is early days. We’re redefining the book, the article, the author and the publisher. By “we” I don’t mean Readability or Readlists. I mean we all are.

    We (Readability and Readlists) strive to build tools that embrace these changes and in some cases accelerate them. Change is happening whether any of us like it or not.

  10. Jeffrey Zeldman said on

    I’d really love to know why you think it’s so disruptive, because I don’t see it. What am I missing?

    For 15 years, we’ve put everything but content and the reader first. Readability subverts that. It puts the reader back in charge of the reading experience, the way Tim Berners-Lee always envisioned she would be. Design on the web has been at war with users and their preferences since the invention of the FONT tag. I know. I was there. I was one of the designers who, for a long time, was at war with what the reader wanted.

    Apps like Instapaper and Readability not only remove all our sacred branding and precious 9pt Arial type from the equation, they also subvert the source and time paradigms.

    Read Orbital Content by Cameron Koczon if you haven’t already done so:

    “Bookmarklet apps like Instapaper, Svpply, and Readability are pointing us toward a future in which content is no longer entrenched in websites, but floats in orbit around users. This transformation of our relationship with content will force us to rethink existing reputation, distribution, and monetization models—and all for the better.”

    There’s lots more of course; it’s in the article.

    Readability also gave away their basic technology from the beginning. Apple’s Reader is based on their Open Source code. So are parts of Treesaver. You can plug Readability’s API into anything you care to invent. From that perspective it is a framework much more than a product.

    That’s some of what I think and why I’m excited to participate in the development and future of Readability. Make sense?

  11. Richard said on

    I should clarify. I am largely on board with what Readability is trying to do. I’m familiar with all of this and an interested observer. I just don’t feel like I’m getting the information I really want to see.

    Five years ago we called this content scraping, not paradigm subversion. The publishing industry, amateur and professional, for better or worse, built itself on advertising and an understanding that this stuff is free but not free to distribute. And thus far, the only thing Readability does is cannibalize that if the publisher doesn’t sign up.

    I see very little from anyone outside Readability’s advisors and employees talking about Readability talking about the things I want to know. Why aren’t publishers and writers so excited? Most of the writers, editors, and publishers I follow on Twitter that have mentioned Readability appear to be deeply pessimistic, and even insulted in some cases.

    My initial comment was a little meandering. I’m frustrated because I want to know things that Readability doesn’t want to tell me. All we really get is an endless barrage of breathlessly positive coverage talking about ideas and disruptions, the usual party lines about paradigms and curation, but nothing—nothing at all!—about how it’s actually working out. If this is an experiment, where are the results? The impression I get is a company throwing things at a wall and seeing what works. Which is a fine strategy as far as I’m concerned. But various Readability features have shuffled around over the last few years (the publisher payouts have been heavily de-emphasised, the subscription requirement removed entirely, as far as I can tell the company refuses to comment on the 70% cuts and what is being done with it, the free iOS app obviously positioned as an Instapaper competitor, the shifted focus to being a framework, and so on), which looks like a company refining and working on its ideas, but we get no honest communication about what does and doesn’t work, and what the people that actually matter think about it. Just slick PR. Everything seems to be designed to amass users, not publisher support, which is probably where the conflict comes from in the circles that are usually dismissed as Instapaper loyalists, or fools that think this is about reading later who are “missing the point”.

    What I didn’t understand was what’s so disruptive about Readlists, because you didn’t say. As far as I can tell, the answer is still nothing. My primary objection is to the breathless hyperbole that infects all of its advisors.

  12. Régis Kuckaertz said on

    I discovered Readlist today and the value proposition was enough to convert. It simply is a brilliant idea and could be used in many ways:

    * scrapbooking content to showcase successful copywriting to clients during content strategy meetings
    * gathering articles focused on a topic into “101 series” that you can share with anyone
    * social bookmarking with the added benefit of a consistent reading experience
    * …

    All this, no matter where content is coming from. It’s like taking your favorite pages from books you read and making a book out of it. So yes, this is disruptive from my point of view.

    On a side note, there is something really paradoxical about Readability that isn’t talked about that much—if at all—and I’d be curious to hear your opinion as a design advisor: it is that Readability rewards crappy designs.

    When I read on zeldman.com or jasonsantamaria.com, I don’t want to use Readability: I like to enjoy the content in situ. These are personal blogs, but I could expand on commercial sites which provide outstanding reading experience (TBH I have no example). These are people I would love to reward for the time and care they put into their content; but thanks to—because of—their efforts in providing a readable experience, I simple prefer not to use Readability.

    On the contrary, when I reach a page filled with noise, or that is badly typeset, my first reflex is click the Readability bookmark. Someone, who does not take its content seriously, who doesn’t care what it feels like to experience her site, is rewarded because I was frustrated.

    This is unfair. How could we make sure our money goes to people whose values we share? Or who put enough effort in their online work? There are two features I would like to see added to Readability:

    1. Clicking the “Read” bookmarklet does not automatically mean I want to reward the publisher: I think this needs to be an opt-out feature
    2. A new bookmarklet to tip content publishers: the scenario in which I want to read the content in its original context but would like to reward the publisher happens everyday, Readability should offer a third option to do just that (It’s not “Read it later” since I read it just now)

    I don’t know if all of this makes sense but I’d be happy to see it covered.

  13. Jeffrey Zeldman said on

    Régis Kuckaertz:

    Indeed, the pay aspect of Readability rewards those who place good content in ugly, noisy (or otherwise hard-to-read) pages, while sites with good design *and* good content can go unrewarded, because there is no need to invoke the Readability bookmarklet/plug-in. The creators of Readability been aware of this problem for some time (it’s one of the first things I objected to!) and are working on it. Thanks! :)

  14. Jeffrey Zeldman said on

    Five years ago we called this content scraping, not paradigm subversion.

    Ten years ago we called it RSS, and said that RSS changed everything. Remember?

    The impression I get is a company throwing things at a wall and seeing what works.

    There’s a lot more strategy than that, but every startup tries things and backs off on things that aren’t working. Twitter was quite famously a side project. It ended up taking over the company — and the product they’d initially built the company to create was dumped.

    nothing—nothing at all!—about how it’s actually working out. If this is an experiment, where are the results?

    You want white papers, published statistics, and so on. That’s logical enough. I don’t know where the company stands on those kinds of disclosures.

    My primary objection is to the breathless hyperbole that infects all of its advisors.

    Honestly and sincerely, I just love this platform. I feel it and its fellows shaking up my industry in the same way that mobile is doing. I understand that you don’t feel that. Maybe it’s because we do different things for a living? Maybe I’ve been doing web design a long time and see mobile and Readability both forcing designers to put content (and users) first.

    I say many of the same things about mobile, and I’m not on its board. ;) My being on a board or not is almost irrelevant to my excitement about the product. I’m excited about the product because I’m excited about it. I’m thrilled to play a tiny role in its direction. I tell people about it for the same reason I once told people about CSS. (And I wasn’t on an advisory board for that, either.)

    You may deem my opinions hyperbolic, but please don’t think it’s because I’m on some board. Being on a board is uninteresting to me except to the extent that I get to contribute my opinion, sometimes, on the direction Readability takes. I don’t stand to gain millions from my position; I don’t get a salary from it; I don’t get a kickback when someone uses Readability. I’m just pleased when they do, and equally pleased when my fellow designers question paradigms like “web page” as a result of Readability and what it represents.

    I’m sorry my rationale doesn’t move you and my fervor doesn’t inflame you, but that’s what makes horse racing. :)

  15. Richard said on

    I don’t find your rationale wholly moving, no, but we seem to be coming at this from different places, and your point is well made regardless. And I do appreciate your willingness to be engaged on it by somebody you don’t know from Jack. It’s a little disheartening to see the derision squared at people (“trolls,” I keep seeing them called) who are told they’re missing the point when the “point” is something that Readability invented. (Like our friend Terry further up this page.) I believe the onus is on Readability to prove this stuff works and is a great idea, and I look forward to them doing that.

  16. Terry said on

    Richard:

    I am unsure of the context in which I am being mentioned in your comment. I read the post, I checked out the functionality that was mentioned and I felt that is was something genuinely different and, for the first time, something I could actually start to use in a variety of ways. My other comments were really generally directed at the beating Jeffrey usually takes for mentioning anything at all about Readability–more for levity than anything else.

  17. Jeffrey Zeldman said on

    Love ya, Terry! :)

  18. Jeffrey Zeldman said on

    I do appreciate your willingness to be engaged on it by somebody you don’t know from Jack.

    It’s my pleasure, sir. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and for formulating them so clearly. :)

  19. Joseph Rooks said on

    Should ReadLists really be compared to RSS, when RSS is something on an author’s site that the author controls, and ReadLists is accessing web content, altering it and redistributing it publicly without the author’s consent?

  20. bowerbird said on

    zeldman said:
    > For 15 years, we’ve put everything
    > but content and the reader first.
    > Readability subverts that.
    > It puts the reader back in charge of
    > the reading experience, the way Tim
    > Berners-Lee always envisioned she would be.
    > Design on the web has been at war with users
    > and their preferences since the invention of
    > the FONT tag. I know. I was there.
    > I was one of the designers who, for a long time,
    > was at war with what the reader wanted.

    wow again.

    for the second time, within just four days,
    you’ve said something very intelligent here.

    not only that, but you’ve made an admission
    about your past attitudes that makes it clear
    why i find this new development so refreshing.

    thank you for ending your war on the readers.

    you’ve always been a good writer, zeldman,
    but now i can appreciate the meaty insides,
    and not just merely the nicely-toasted buns…

    now, for people reading this on machines
    – like, for instance, an iphone and an ipad –
    where they cannot resize-and-reflow the type,
    install some buttons that will resize the font.

    if you wanna go further, include a few more
    to adjust the measure, margins, and leading.

    -bowerbird

  21. Richard Fink said on

    This veers from “Readability” the product a bit (BTW – if Readability is “open-source” where is the code repository?), but I’d like to focus in on a point that bowerbird, in his post, didn’t hammer home hard enough or obviously enough to suit me:

    >now, for people reading this on machines
    >– like, for instance, an iphone and an ipad –
    >where they cannot resize-and-reflow the type,
    >install some buttons that will resize the font.

    One of the biggest changes in web typography and accessibility over the past couple of years went largely unremarked: the universal adoption of Zoom to handle changes in Text Size, rather than a Text Size feature which changed only font -sizes independently from anything else, ensuring that the user could make text larger or smaller. And that text continued to wrap and not move out beyond the bounds of the viewport.
    This is an affordance that should exist on every page. But in the age of Zoom, the responsibility for providing this alternative has been tossed squarely to authors (using JavaScript, presumably) because browsers have now abdicated this responsibility. (At best, it’s left to makers of add-ons.)
    Zoom, Zoom, Zoom is all there is and Zoom comes up short.

    (E-Readers on the other hand, all feature Text Size controls.)

  22. Henry said on

    I love your design, especially the font-size for the article… however from a use-standpoint, it is hard to read/navigate the comments. If you’re going to keep the font-size (which I encourage, my eyes appreciate it :P), maybe threaded comments would help? I like to be able to follow the flow of the conversation without having to scroll up and down, up and down, etc.

    But hey, as you mentioned before, it’s your own damn website! And I can always inject my own CSS into my browser ;)

  23. Zoltán Dragon said on

    I would not like to talk about the Readability background (I love that product/service as well :P), but have you noticed, Readlist brings your ebook compilation to your Kindle in the beloved newspaper/magazine style? Simply astonishingly awesome! Thank you! :)

  24. caslantienne said on

    Hi Jeffrey, have you noticed that the fonts were slightly enlarged in Facebook TL recently ? I call that “influence” :)

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