Monthly Archives: February 2009

How To Design For Readers

Light_5Mandy Brown (she of A Working Library) has written this fantastic piece in A List Apart Issue 278 that explains how people read on the Internet, and how designers should cater for these reading patterns. In it, she makes a very interesting distinction between browsing and reading, one that I think explains many of the design decisions I’d observed or made in the past. Some of these design decisions can be seen here on Novelr, but I’ll come back to that in a bit.

The underlying shtick in Mandy’s article is how readers evaluate before reading. She calls the first stage the browsing stage, where a reader looks for context-sensitive clues about the book/article/post at hand, to determine if it’s worth committing time and energy to. If it is, and the clues are favourable ones, then the reader moves on to the second stage – reading. The designer’s job is then to ensure the reader has enough contextual clues at the top of the page; remove all distractions at the middle, and provide further links at the end when the reader has come out of the (ooh I like this word!) reading trance and is looking for further content to consume.

Mandy also provides some suggestions on how to ‘lure’ the reader in – some of them things that I hadn’t considered within a browsing/reading dichotomy. She suggests pictures to establish context, pullquotes, or typographic tricks: the whole paragraph set to a larger font, for instance. I personally lean towards visual lures – many of my posts in Novelr used to have picture leaders, although the new redesign (the current one) has now enough visual power to draw a reader into the text, and I’ve largely dispensed with that.

There are also lures that she haven’t discussed; ones that I’d like to point out here: site identity, for instance, and strong writing. Site identity (and how to create it; a.k.a the Picture Book Effect) I’ve talked about before, and I think remains the major subconscious element in the browsing stage. People who visit well-designed websites know that the owner has taken care to present his or her work, and with such care comes the assumption that the content on such a site must be good, so buckle up and prime eyeballs for reading quick! As for the second lure: the benefit of a strong first line/paragraph should be familiar to all writers who’re reading this, so I guess I’ll spare you the monotony of listening to me drone on about something you already know well.

As an aside: I found myself identifying with these design decisions mainly because I’d included almost all of them in Novelr’s redesign – without consciously thinking about them (imagine my surprise!). Novelr’s sidebar is purposely set to grey, with text smaller than the site norm (and in sans-serif, for legibility), to ensure that reader attention remains on post content. The post content is itself presented in large Georgia. And the sidebar is purposely kept short, so that for a majority of the article length the reader is left alone with just prose. There are problems with this design, I’ll admit, and I now wonder how much more to tweak … first paragraph in caps, anyone?

How To Prepare For A Digital Shift

I’ve spent the last couple of posts at Novelr speculating on the future of web fiction – which as an activity, I must admit, was very fun to do. But it wasn’t a very useful one for the writers who read this blog. The essential questions remain unanswered: what do you do when the publishers finally wake up to the Internet? What can you do to prepare for a digital book future? 

Before I go into specifics, understand that you should take this article with a pinch of salt. These are steps that I believe aren’t too far off, and ones that I think can go a long way in preparing your writing for a more vigorous, more competitive online fiction sphere. On the flip side, however, I may also be completely wrong, and I’m obliged to warn you now that while this is a post that deals with practical steps, it’s also a post that deals with uncertainties. It is a first attempt in telling you what to do to get ahead in a place that doesn’t exist yet. If I’m wrong – and there’s a good chance that I am – then I suppose we can meet up 10 years from now and laugh at my stupidity. 

A Summary

Before we begin it’ll do to recap what exactly it is we’re preparing for. I’ve talked about this in the past, but for those of you who don’t have the time to dig into Novelr’s archives:

  1. Publishers are exploring digital alternatives to books, and are currently figuring out how to distribute, market, and deliver them to the consumer. They’re forced to do so by the current recession, which is hitting the people in the publishing industry harder than most.
  2. Printed books will not go away, but they’ll be staying on as ‘bespoke, art-directed paper packages’ – the top of a piramid of consumed fiction.
  3. Self publishing, and by extension self-funded writing efforts like blooks and web fiction are going to become ‘tryouts’ for publishing houses. Publishers will look closely at the comments surrounding a self-published piece, and if it’s mostly good, and they think they can sell it, they then pick it up and sign-on the author for a traditional book deal. Haper Collins’s has tried to centralize these efforts – they’ve started a website called Authonomy and are hoping unpublished writers come to them with their manuscripts.
  4. Writers will flock to the Internet in the sudden realization that there’re more ways to get published than just the agency/slush pile. We will be swamped with online manuscripts. Readers will go to certain filter sites, or perhaps stores, to find good things to read online.
  5. Or not. They may want to put these stories in iPhones, Kindles, or one of the many portable device options poppig up today. They will want to read, and they will want to read away from the computer.

I’m not sure of the degree to which these predictions will come true, but for the sake of this article we’ll pretend that it’s a future we’ll have to prepare for. Which leads us to the focus of this piece: what can we do, now, to prepare for it?

Blogs Are Dead

I will be approaching this article with one assumption in mind: that blogs, as a form of presenting fiction, have failed. Which is rather ironic, considering the amount of fiction blogs I’m reading today, both for pleasure and for work (I have an obligation to review for WFG); and also ironic because my usage of the term ‘blook’ may have to be revised, and for good. But I believe we’re looking at a future where blogs aren’t going to be the main form of Internet fiction consumption, and here’s why.

The first thing we have to think about is the nature of the blog. Blogs are time-intensive things, and they require constant and consistent updating to be of any attraction to the reader. I once spoke of this as a good thing: that blogs force writers to perform on-the-fly writing, and I still do believe that the form has some unparelled attractions, attractions that cannot be found in books or even in writing magazines. But let’s ask ourselves a question: if we accept that publishers are moving onto the Internet, and we accept that they’re going to be finding the best ways to present fiction online, then what are the odds that blogs will be their medium of choice? What are the odds that of the majority of novels put on the Internet would be in blog form, and that the readers will be most used to consuming their online fiction via blogs? Not much, I’d expect – publishers aren’t going to invest so much of their time and energy into a medium that requires just that – lots of time and energy. And to back that up – take a look at the experiments we’ve seen conducted by the big wigs – how many of them are in blog form? We Tell Stories and The Golden Notebook and are all beautifully designed websites; websites designed with only one purpose in mind: to be read.[1]

That is not to say that blogs are not designed to be read. But we have to admit that we’re facing a structural problem when we try to tell stories with blogs – there is a wealth of information we have to design around, and most writers don’t bother to design at all. Many of a blog’s original features were not built with storytelling in mind. When I see things like reverse-chronological archives and trackbacks and comments I think of diary writing and community, not books and paper. And while some of these blog features can be adapted to storytelling, most of them remain deadweight; obstacles that get in the way of the actual jumping into the story that we want readers to experience.

On a side note, I wonder if this is one of the reasons why online fiction has taken so long to get off the ground. A reader comes to a blog with a set of expectations in mind, expectations that they have to overcome when they’re dealing with a serialized fiction blog (not so with short stories, or flash fiction – for these, blogs are extremely well suited as a presentation form). Note that online comics are not posted in the blog format, they’re presented in specially designed websites that are built around the expected interaction between reader and comic. There are no deadweights; no obstacles. No unnecessary fluff.

The bottom line here is that readers will eventually get used to a form of digital prose presentation, and that form will probably not be blogs. And that leads us to the next question – what to change into?

Bookmarked! 12th Feb

I’ve already posted this to WFG’s forums, but here it is for those of you who’ve missed it: Writer’s Digest has a Self Published Competition going on. The grand prize is a sweet $3000 in cash, and a sweeter endorsement for reviews of the winning self-published book at 10 major reviewing establishments (ie: The New York Times, The Washington Post). And there are 10 first place winners, of $1000 each, with a collection of publishing industry-related presents like magazine subscriptions, ebooks, etc. Only one catch: each submission costs you $100, and I do suspect that it’s a crudely designed (and profit-making) filter for badly written self-published books. Still, for 10 reviews in 10 major newspapers … things like that, when they happen, usually mean a publishing deal and some form of mainstream book career further down the road. A $100 fee seems quite reasonable for a shot at stardom …

Other things to look at: 

And I guess I’ll close with this bookstore ad I found through Sharon:Anagram Bookshop ad, PragueWonder how long they took to do that!

A Series Of Unflattering Questions

I’ve spent the last couple of days working on Novelr’s first collaraborative project. What this project does is it attempts to answer the question: ‘why do you read online fiction?’ and most of it is still, I must admit, in bits and pieces. But let’s examine the answers to that question, and ask ourselves some other related, and difficult, questions about this field we’re in.

For instance, let us consider that a large amount of people reading online fiction are writers themselves. One of the main community efforts in Novelr has been about how we can get more readers (ie: non-writing, non-creating people) to the medium, to consume what we writers are publishing. We want consumers of online fiction, and we must admit that ideally, we want an audience who are not participants – who do not produce works of fiction themselves. So what does that mean? It means that we’re currently writing for other writers. What is troubling with that assumption? Does it tick you off that the only reason other writers are reading your work is because they, too, want to be read by you? I’m now talking about an I’ll read your work if you read mine policy, and indeed that very topic has been explored on Novelr before in a guest post. But what’s wrong with it? Are you, like some of us, happy that you’re been read, to hell with the writer/reader dichotomy? What does an acceptance of this situation mean?

The first thing that springs to mind when we talk about an audience of equal creators is the blogosphere. People write blogs for a small audience, and it’s highly likely that a portion of that audience are bloggers themselves, and that you read and comment on their blogs to reward them for coming to visit your blog. The more successful blogs (say, Techcrunch) have a larger reader to blogger ratio, and they return a smaller amount of comments than a less successful blog (say, your Mum’s) would. Another example of a community of equal creators is the photo sharing site Flickr. Your contacts post photos and you post photos and everyone looks and comments at each other’s photos because, like us, I’ll read yours if you read mine.

The upshot of my above paragraph is that an audience of equal creators is the accepted norm in many areas of the online world. It is Internet culture. And even if this were not true, and that your blog commands a small readership of non-bloggers, consider: what is to prevent any or all of them from starting up their own blogs? Nothing? Nothing. In a medium where the barriers to entry (or creation) are almost nil, a community of creators are quite inevitable. Taking all of the above into consideration, and also taking into consideration that by the very act of writing your blook you are inspiring your readers to start their own blooks, are we likely, as a bunch of writers, to ever find an audience of ‘just’ readers? Is it alright if we don’t? What differences are there if we compare this model to the model of the book, the publisher, and the bookstore? 

You’ll find the answers unflattering, I believe, and I’d rather not answer them for you. You can tell me your thoughts in the comments area of this post. But here’s something to chew on before I step back: there may well come a day where the amount of people who want to write books outnumber the amount of people who want to read them. Indulge me and close your eyes: imagine this book future for a little while. Now wouldn’t that be strange? Yes, I can hear your voices now: that would be strange indeed.