This is the full text of a speech I gave at Books in Browsers, a technical meeting for people currently changing the future of books. The meeting was between the 21st and the 22nd of October, and was organized and held at the Internet Archive.
Hi, my name is Eli and I’m here to talk to you about what we’re doing at Pandamian. More importantly, I want to give you an idea – or some intuition, perhaps, about the problem space in which Pandamian exists.
But before that, two things:
First, there was quite a bit of talk at BiB yesterday about how young people don’t care about their privacy. Well, I am a young person – possibly the youngest person in this room – and I care so much about my privacy that I’m speaking to you under a pseudonym. So … make of that what you will!
Second, I promised my folks back home that I’d thank the people who made it possible for me to be here. I am a second year Computer Science student at the National University of Singapore, and that means that I am on a student budget. The only reason I can be here is because of the kindness of a couple of people. So I’d like to thank Brewster Kahle, who kindly subsidized part of my flight. And my school, the School of Computing. And last, but not least, the awesome, awesome people over at the Singaporean Hackerspace, who donated to my trip – you can see their logo behind me – I promised that I’d wear their shirt and do this before my talk.
Anyway, back to what I want to speak to you about. I don’t have much time to do this, so I’m going to split my talk into three bits. First, I want to talk about the problem space to which Pandamian is a solution. Then I’ll spend 2-3 minutes on Pandamian – just a little while; I promise you that it won’t be a plug. Last, I want to talk about why I think it’s important to do what Pandamian is currently doing. And why I think more people should do it.
So here’s the context: I’m coming from this place called web fiction. What web fiction is is that it’s this simple idea – not a particularly new idea, because I know a group of writers who’ve been doing this since 1997. Also not a particularly original idea. But it is a simple idea, and that idea is that you take some fiction – a novel, for instance, and you put that online. You post one chapter a week, there are reader comments, and all this happens on a blog-like website, or a blog-powered website, or – if the writer is not a particularly good programmer or designer, which is very often – sometimes on an actual blog. Which can be bad.
Where I come from in this space is that I wrote a web fiction thing 5 years ago. And at the end of that year I realized that I really didn’t know what I was doing. Nobody knew what they were doing. There were no ‘best practices’.
And there are several interesting problems there. For instance: what’s the best way to design fiction in the browser, when the browser is an inherently distractive container? Also: where do you find readers? How should you talk to readers? How long should your chapters be? How many times a week should you update your story? These are all interesting questions, and nobody knew how to answer them.
So what I did was I started this blog called Novelr, and what Novelr does is that it collates and kind of collects the best ideas as solutions to these problems. And we’ve got four years worth of experience now on how to do this – we know, more or less, what works or doesn’t work when you’re presenting fiction on a webpage, in this interactive web format.
And it’s not just me. I sometimes do experiments myself, but these ideas aren’t just from me. Sometime over the last four years of Novelr’s existence a community of writers condensed around the blog. So now I approach these writers whenever they discover a new technique, or hack, or trick to write better web fiction, and I ask them to share it with the rest of the community. Or they come to me and say: ‘I’ve discovered this, I want to share it with everyone, may I do a guest post?’ Which is cool.
But now we come to an interesting question we must ask, don’t we? Why do these people do web fiction?
You have to remember that when I said web fiction a minute ago, most of you were probably thinking about fan fiction. Which is a stigma, and is possibly the standard of rubbish in the publishing industry. And there’s also the fact that – for the longest time – publishers would not publish anything that’s available for free on the Internet. Dominique tells me this is no longer true, but for the longest time this was the policy, and the conventional wisdom was that if you were serious about your work you wouldn’t put anything, at all, online.
So there must be some compelling reason to have these writers do web fiction. Because it would seem as if doing web fiction was equivalent to shooting their career in the proverbial foot. And the web fiction community has been growing in the past four years. And the rate of that growth has been increasing. So … why?
It turns out that a member of the community did a survey two or three months ago, and it confirmed several suspicions I had about why these writers were doing what they were doing.
There are two primary reasons to do web fiction.
The first reason is that these writers are … well, writers. They love writing. They’re already writing anyway. And it’s likely that they have paper manuscripts in their drawers, or cupboards, gathering dust, as they do what they love. What putting their fiction on the Internet does for them is that it gives them an external motivation to keep writing. I’m not sure about you, but I find that when I blog, I write more consistently and more often than if I were to write an essay on paper to figure things out. And as it is true for me, and for bloggers, so it is true for these writers.
The second reason is the more important one. What these writers experience – well I want you to imagine this. Imagine that you’re a writer, and you’ve just finished writing a chapter and you put that online. Now what happens is that a couple of hours after this – if your web fiction is good; or if it’s one of the more established ones – you get readers arguing in your comments. And they say things like: “Oh, I don’t like this character!” or “Oh, I don’t like that character” or “Oh I think this character is going to backstab that character!” and so on so forth.
Now this is incredibly fulfilling for a writer to have. Powerfully fulfilling. I’ve had traditionally published writers come to me for advice on how to do this, and I point them to multiple sources, and they tell me: “Oh no, I’m just doing this for a hobby.” And then, a couple of months later, I go to their blogs or they email me, saying “Oh my God. Oh my God. I can’t imagine doing this any other way now. Why didn’t I do this earlier?!”
And I’ve also had writers – and there are many in the web fiction community – who started this web fiction thing because they wanted to get published; they were aspiring authors. And now they no longer want to get published. Because they’re having these amazing, joyous, fulfilling writing experiences.
Now this is an indicator that writers don’t really want to get published. What they really want is these amazing, fulfilling reader interactions. The kind of interaction that’s similar to: you’re a writer, and you’re walking down a street, and a reader comes up to you and says: “Oh my God, I just read your book yesterday, it was amazing! It changed my life! Thank you!” – that’s what writers really want. And for the longest time getting published – traditionally – was a means to that end. If you give writers an alternative to this that is less painful, simpler, instantly gratifying – by gum, they will jump on it.
This is also, perhaps, a signal that web fiction – or whatever it’s going to be called – will be a significant part of the book future.
Now there’s another question to ask. If the reasons for doing web fiction are so compelling, why aren’t more writers doing it, as opposed to eBooks and such?
I have two suspicions as to why. No data here – just suspicions. The first is that eBooks are big today because of what Apple’s doing and what Amazon’s doing. So there’s a lot of attention there and that’s where writers are turning to. That’s just good PR.
But the second reason is: this technology is hard. It’s hard! Most writers are terrible programmers, terrible designers. And over the past two years, as the community’s rate of growth has increased, I began to grow sick of writers contacting me to complain, or to ask for technical help to design their blogs, their sites, to make them readable and ready for web fiction and such. I began to grow tired of being tech support.
So that’s how Pandamian got started. I’m doing it with two friends – Joash and Yipeng, and we’ve been doing it for half a year now, though we wrote code for maybe the last three months.
What Pandamian is is that it’s a WordPress.com for writers. It’s a CMS, just a CMS, but the design is done; the backend interface is simple. Essentially everything we’ve learnt over the past four years on how to make fiction readable in the browser will be incorporated into the design.
And the eventual aim for what we want is to have one-click ebook conversion to any ebook format you want; one-click ‘create an ebook store to sell books on your site’; one-click push to ebook distribution channels like the Kindle store or Smashwords, or whatever.
We really want to make this simple. And by simple I mean that not only can some 16 year old kid can use this, but also my 60 year old grandfather, if he so decides to write his memoir.
That means a couple of things. Plugins? … no. WordPress? … no. My grandfather is not going to understand WordPress’s interface. There are too many elements. Most of them aren’t needed, and it’s terribly confusing. When you log into Pandamian the first thing you see is this:
And that’s it. It’s WRITE, REVISE, RESPOND, CUSTOMIZE (and SETTINGS) and as we add features we’re going to slot it all into this. I’m sorry I can’t show you the software right now; I don’t have enough time.
So that’s Pandamian. But now I want to go into the last bit of my talk.
Make Technology Boring
Why are we so interested in making things simple? Why are we so passionate about making things simple? That’s an important question to ask.
What I believe in – and this is the crux of my talk; this is the idea that I really want to push here – what I believe is that you can only change the world if the technology is boring.
Take blogging, for instance. Blogging has changed the way we read news, it has changed the way we share ideas and opinions. But blogging the social phenomenon only happened when blogging the technology became boring, and trivial.
It is trivial today to create a blog – you go to Blogger.com or WordPress.com and you can get a blog up and running in a couple of seconds. It is equally trivial to subscribe to a blog, or to create an RSS feed from a set of blog posts. This wasn’t always true. In the early days of the Internet you had to be able to program – to write CGI scripts – if you wanted to create a dynamic website. And the permutations of blogs that exist today only happened when blogging – the technology – became boring.
And so it is with publishing. It is not easy to publish a book, online, today. It is not easy to do up an ePub. We’ve had lots of talk about new standards and such at BiB over the past day or so. But that’s useless to a 60 year old grandpa. He can’t use it because it’s too hard to use, even if it’s easy and boring for us programmers to do. But if we can make the technology to publish boring enough that anyone can write digitally, cool things will happen. Which is kind of what we’re doing at Pandamian: on one level we’re working to solve these pain points that Novelr’s community currently has. But on another level we’re trying to make the technology boring.
The end goal, of course, is to make writing online the first option for writers looking to get published. No longer is it: write, push to agent, look for publishers. No. This shouldn’t be the way to do things. It should be: write online, get a reader base around your fiction, experience this amazing, fulfilling writing experience, and then look for agent, look for publisher.
Because if that happens, and writing online becomes the norm; the first step to getting published, then all sorts of cool things can and will happen. Really I think two things will happen.
First, we’d enable the creation of newer, cooler publishing startups. Think about Twitter. Twitter as we know it today was only possible when blogging became widespread. Without blogging we wouldn’t have that model of thinking about updates that Twitter currently has; that Twitter has borrowed. And now imagine the kinds of publishing startups that will be possible if and when writing online becomes a norm.
Second, if you have writers opting to move online as a first choice, rather than as an alternative – you will enable publishers to do cool things. And by that I mean you’ll force publishers to do cool things. And I plan to do this. In fact I was probably invited to speak here on the basis of an essay I wrote, with the weird title: ‘To Change Publishing, Make Publishers Obsolete.’
What I mean by that is – when what you’re doing becomes a threat to their model, publishers would be forced to innovate in this space. To their eventual benefit, I think.
So what are some of the things publishers can do? I have several ideas. Maybe publishers may now choose which authors to publish from online filters. Either they build the filters or some third party builds the filters, but if the majority of writing is online – that’s just data, right? You can now figure out which are the most popular series, what geographical locations are certain kinds of content popular, which market segment of your audience and so on – and use that to decide which author to publish. Which is better than the arbitrary process of publishing writers from agent submissions and backwater channels.
Maybe – just maybe – you can have aggregated notes, or shared reading experiences. Because all this is in HTML, right? And it’s networked, and open. And that makes these kinds of things possible.
And maybe citations in the future will be possible – and you can link not only to an actual page, but also to actual paragraphs. Because this is a website, and it’s just HTML and anchor text.
And these are not just my ideas, by the way. These are originally Craig Mod’s ideas – and he’s sitting over there. And that thing about filters? Richard Nash is doing a filter; Cursor is essentially a filter.
Of course, some of these ideas are all pie-in-the-sky. But my point isn’t that these ideas will happen, it is that it’s only possible if we make the technology boring.
So where does this leave us? I’ll tell you where this leaves me. For the longest time we were thinking about what is it exactly that we do at Pandamian. We called ourselves a ‘Digital Publishing House.’ I realized on the way here that we’re not a digital publishing house. We’re not publishing anyone, per se. And if you’ve read the title of this talk, or if you have my card (and the tagline there – ‘Writers are The New Publishers’) you’ll see that this is true. We’re not a digital publishing house. We’re a publishing support layer. We make the technology boring, so that writers – and maybe publishers, if they want it – can take part in this shift to the web.
I should close now. And I’ll close by saying that: I am young. My two co-founders, Yipeng – from Computer Science, and Joash, our Business guy: they’re 2, 3 years older than I am. We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us.
Am I scared? Yes, I am. I’ve seen the statistics, I know that 9 out of 10 startups will fail. But I’m sick and tired of waiting for a big company to come and change this, to come and solve these pain points. I’ve been waiting for a very long time.
And so this is probably what I’m going to do for the next couple of years. We’ll have to work hard on it for quite a bit. I want to make the technology boring, and to perhaps – in this manner – change the world. Thank you very much.