Comma Press is working on a research project, in collaboration with Manchester Metropolitan University and fffunction.co, to explore disruptive (forgive me) approaches to three key issues facing the publishing industry: audiobooks, content-discovery and open-analytics.
To this end, we’re about to launch a digital self-publishing platform called MacGuffin [in pre-launch beta]. Free to use for readers and writers, it’s designed to help authors target a sample of their writing — particularly short stories and poetry — to a specific readership.
We want to learn whether self-publishing authors can be encouraged to follow the lead of amateur podcasters, who’ve shown in recent years that technological barriers to entry have fallen away. So MacGuffin hosts text and audio. Writers must upload a reading of their work along with the text, in order to publish it; end-users can read, listen, and toggle between the two (MacGuffin will be available as a website and an app for iOS and Android).
But this kind of DIY approach to audiobooks is about reader expectations, too. Does recording have to be done in a professional studio, by an actor, to be enjoyable? Lots of authors who’ve tried the MacGuffin beta have uploaded beautifully-performed readings with flawless audio. But on some of my favourites, you can hear birdsong in the background, or a dog barking in the distance, or the sound of kids playing in an adjacent room. Will readers feel the same way? We don’t yet know.
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We’re experimenting with a “broad-folksonomy” model of content curation.
In layman’s terms, this means that any user can add hashtags to anyone else’s work. Tagging is something of a blunt tool when only a few people do it, but as more content is added and tagged, we hope it’ll accrue into a huge database of really searchable literature. This opens up all kinds of functionality for users: searching for multiple tags means readers can quickly narrow down what they’re looking for, so a crime fiction fan with a 25-minute commute might search for #crime #25minutelisten.
Publishers or spoken-word nights can upload samples of content, grouped together under a tag. Readers can create lists to share (e.g. #sundaysonnets #jimsslipstreamstories). Kind of like in the old days, when you’d make mix-tapes for your friends — on MacGuffin, you can do this with poetry and stories.
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Perhaps most controversially, MacGuffin has open-analytics. Anyone can see the “drop-out points” — where (anonymised) readers quit a story or poem before the end — plotted onto a graph. While I expect that many writers will find this unnerving, it undoubtedly has some potential as a self-editing tool – you can identify that weak scene in your story where you’re losing readers, then republish it.
It doesn’t give the whole picture, of course (the readers dropping out might have poor taste!), but at the same time, ushering readers from the start to the finish of a text is undeniably something a writer ought to be interested in.
During the beta test, we found that most stories and poems typically have a lot of drop-outs right at the start of the text or audio (sometimes over 50% during the first 10% of a story or poem). It seemed readers were scanning the first few lines of text, or listening to a few seconds of audio, then deciding it wasn’t for them. I panicked a bit at first, until I took a look at some of the public domain classics we’d uploaded, for comparison. It seems this simply reflects the way we browse literature, whether digitally, or picking up a book in a bookstore: scanning the first few lines, then deciding it’s not for us, and moving on to something else. The really useful drop-out stats for authors seem to come after that initial bedding-in phase, where you’ve won the reader’s confidence, only to loose it again with a miss-step in plotting or pacing or tone.