Category Archives: Pandamian

Post-Launch Pandamian

It’s been a week since we launched Pandamian, and I’ve got a few quick notes on how we’ve fared.

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User Feedback

There’s this mantra in startup-land that applies to product launches: you know you’ve launched too late when you’re not embarrassed by your product.

By that metric, I suspect that we’ve taken far too long to launch. Our early users are rather happy with what we’ve built, and (surprising – to me, at least) most of them are understanding that we don’t yet have feature X or Y.

Miladysa's Tweet on Pandamian

And I’m not complaining about that. Most of them have made it clear that they’re expecting a host of new features, and every other day or so we get tweets or emails asking us about feature X, or bug Y, or how to do Z.

(I also suspect that the writers who are currently moving their work to Pandamian are doing it because we’re working to add ebook conversion. And maybe that’s a good reason to have your book on Pandamian. But at the same time I’m embarrassed to admit that it wasn’t ready for the launch. )

The Cathedral And The Bazaar Write Chapter 1298918875193The Cathedral And The Bazaar Home 1298918865970

What’s taken me most by surprise, however, are the number of requests for a directory of Pandamian books. We’d built Pandamian with the writer/publisher in mind, and so the idea of a browsing tool was a little … startling, to say the least.

I’m for building a Pandamian directory, but I also think we should delay implementing it immediately. After all, we’ve yet to complete:

  1. Adding multiple books per author
  2. Adding the ability to upload and use cover-art (which is really a nice way of saying: set up a method to handle static objects like images)
  3. Theming
  4. Feeds
  5. Complete ebook conversion

And several of these features are non-trivial to implement. (Also: remember that a directory is itself a non-trivial thing to build, if we’re to do it right). And so I think we should put up a crude, stop-gap solution to this, and come back to fix it up properly in the future. Probably better to focus on one thing at a time.

Press Coverage

We’ve not publicized Pandamian as much as we could, and that’s exactly the way I like it. Right now the really tricky thing is to build something people would use (or really: that writers would love to use), and we only need about a hundred users to source feedback from.

Which, by the way, we have.

I think it’s important to take the time to get the software right, before scaling it up for people. Quantity is easy to scale; happiness is not. And so it’s a better idea to maximize the latter at this stage, before thinking about sheer numbers.The Cathedral And The Bazaar Customize 1298918901280The Cathedral And The Bazaar Revise 1298918894599

Why We’re Doing This

I think it’s worth revisiting why we’re building Pandamian, just to put the hectic programming of the past week in perspective. I recently wrote about Amanda Hocking, this amazing 26 year old writer who’s found success on the Amazon Kindle store. What people tend to forget is that she spent a hellish amount of time researching ebooks before publishing to Amazon, that she did all the book-covers herself, and she took a significant amount of time to study J.A. Konrath’s publishing blog.

I’m encouraged by her story, but I also realize that for the majority of writers, there remains a rather formidable technical learning-curve to publish to the web. (I spoke about this challenge at the Internet Archive late last year). We’ve seen our fair share of writers struggling with blog engines, and web design, and site templates, here in the web fiction community, and it’s never nice to have to stop writing to deal with tech.

My contention, however, is that it’s necessary to make publishing easy and available to everyone, and it is the fastest, most efficient way to force publishers to change.

If we can make it possible for writers to publish without ever worrying about the underlying technology, and we can make it such that they really, truly own the distribution of their own books; then – I think – we would have accomplished something meaningful.

Saturday, 29 January, 2011

An Update on Pandamian

I received an email from a Novelr reader recently, asking what’s happened to the site. No updates for over a month, slightly more than half a year to my self-imposed New York Times deadline, and a couple other worrying things besides (like – for instance – what’s happened to the Web Fiction Writer’s Guild? Probably one thing or another … though all – regrettably – understandable.)

Speaking for myself, my ‘one thing or another’ has been splitting my time between school work and programming for Pandamian. A funny thing I’ve found out about programming: when I write code, I can’t write English. And vice versa. And I’m rather amazed at all the programmer-writers out there. How do they context-switch so easily? I’ll have to wait some more to figure that out.

Thoughts on Pandamian

We’ve been at it for close to 6 months now, and I want to be honest about what we’re currently doing. And the truth is that we’re in pretty bad shape. We were adding features and removing bugs all the way right up to December, and then Christmas happened and we all stopped working. Not a good idea – it’s the new year now, and a new semester, and everyone’s work-loads are off the charts.

But here’s the tricky thing about building a consumer-facing product: build too little features and you risk fizzling out on launch-day; build too many features and you risk wasting time and energy on the wrong things. I sometimes wish I can tell where that thin line is, so we could stop programming and just launch.

As it stands, Pandamian has only got a small core of features worth talking about. We’ve got ebook conversion, though it’s about 80% done, and with the odd bug here and there. And we’ve got simple chapter posting, editing, deleting, comments, a built-for-readability front-end design, and some basic comment moderation.

That doesn’t sound exciting now, does it?

It doesn’t, and here’s another thing I’ve discovered about software development: each and every one of those features is a little Pandora’s box of Alice’s rabbit holes in and of itself (description courtesy of Jason Kottke). It is easy to do a basic version of editing, posting, deleting and comments, but if you don’t want things to break for an average user, then you’ve got to think about a whole bunch of other problems.

For example: your user has lost a password. You’ll have to regenerate a key and store it someplace so the user can get it once he’s verified. And you have to send an email to verify aforementioned user. And when you send out an email, you have to worry about being marked as spam. Which means that you have to set up Reverse PTR records for your server, and then you have to configure DomainKeys Identified Mail in your DNS, and then you have to verify it by sending test email to either a dummy GMail account, or to a Port25 email verifier. Every single step of which may take hours, each.

And remember: all this is to make sure your users don’t ever lose their passwords, something they probably never even think about. I’m not making this up, I tell you.

Thoughts on open source

Of course, we’re not over-engineering every feature right now. Just the ones that are most important. Some things we’re leaving for later, which is supposed to be the case when you’re building a web product today – the relevant mantra being ‘build fast, launch fast, fail fast. Rinse and repeat’.

But one thing that’s come up more often than not is this idea of going open source. Why not? people say, You’ll get a whole bunch of other developers ready to contribute to your project.

And they’re right, of course. I’m a big believer in open source, not the least because there are significant advantages to the model (plus it’s very often win-win-win). So when people first began asking me about it, I was taken off-guard. I hadn’t considered the possibility. No-one in Pandamian had. And now I’m wondering if it makes sense.

The problem with releasing Pandamian as open source is that it’s all written in Python. And that means you can’t just run the software on any old host. We chose Python because Yipeng, my co-founder, wanted to learn the language. And also because it’s beautiful. (Why or how a programming language can be beautiful … let’s not go there in this post, okay?)

I’d never considered this before, but I think that if you want a successful, widely-used installable web app, it has to be written in PHP. WordPress is written in PHP, as is Drupal, and bbPress. And this makes sense, because most hosts run PHP with a MySQL backend out of the box, and it isn’t too difficult for a non-technical person to install and use a PHP app.

But I don’t like PHP. Even when I’m hacking up a WordPress theme I write all these variable names with a dollar sign in front of them and $I $feel $like $curling $up $in $a $corner $to $cry.

The one good thing Python would give us, should we go open source, is that we’d probably get more interest from fellow programmers. But ask a normal user to install and run our software and he’d probably give up. Which isn’t what we intended, of course. The whole idea of building Pandamian in the first place was to allow writers the ability to do this digital publishing thing with as minimal fuss as possible. Ideally, without having to look at a single line of code.

Would we release an open source version of Pandamian in the future? Maybe. Would we recommend that someone else do so? Oh yes, indeed. I talked to Hugh McGuire of BookOven over the Christmas holidays, and am happy to report that he and his team are currently building an open source version of what we’re doing. That makes him a competitor, but it also makes him a enabler in this field. And God knows we need as many enablers in publishing right now.

On the Upcoming Launch

We’ve decided that we’re going to launch in February, whether we like or not. And that means polishing up every interface screen in our software, perfecting that ebook conversion feature, and squashing all our bugs. I’m not sure if what we’re building is the right thing, but I hope that releasing this early, first-iteration version of Pandamian would give us some idea of what to build next. As usual, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Monday, 22 November, 2010

Makers and Money

One of the first things people ask us when we tell them about Pandamian is: “So how are these writers going to make money?”

It’s an obvious question to ask, of course. One of Pandamian’s core features (which – I’ll admit, we’re currently building, and which is turning out to be a huge pain in the ass) is the ability for writers to sell books through their own ebook store, or – if they so choose – to do some sort of automated uploading to the Kindle/Smashwords/Feedbooks stores.

Our answer is unsatisfactory to most of these people: “We’re not sure that they can make enough money to support themselves. We can’t guarantee that.”

And we can’t. But the discussion does lead to an interesting question: can writers make good money if they choose to go down this path of digital/self publishing? Can writers expect to make money?

Good Dreams

I think the short answer to that question is: yes, it’s not inconceivable that some writer, somewhere, would eventually make enough money selling books on the Internet that he or she would be able to quit his/her day job. And that writer should count himself very lucky indeed. The long answer, however, is that it really depends on the number of people who are attempting to do this.

Most writers I know that publish traditionally don’t make enough from their books to write full-time. They work day jobs instead. And they keep at it because publishing – as a field – is validated by the J. K. Rowlings and the Stephen Kings – authors who are able to command an audience large enough to do nothing but write, full-time.

Making enough to write for a living is the dream, and it is a good dream. It’s why so many people keep trying to get published. And aspiring authors know that it is possible – statistically unlikely, but possible – to live this dream through the mechanism of publishing, because there are all these success stories, the kinds you experience when you watch a Harry Potter movie, or when you buy a Twilight book. And while they don’t say this explicitly, they believe alternatives like digital publishing aren’t viable mechanisms for success because there is no proof of success.

But that doesn’t make sense, does it? Because there are so many writers jostling for publication, it becomes increasingly unlikely that none of them would ever become successful. And so when people look at self-publishing and say that it’s rubbish, what they don’t understand is that it doesn’t seem like a viable alternative – because there are comparatively few people doing it.

My contention is that the more writers move to digital publishing (that is – they publish and sell on the Internet before approaching a traditional publisher) the odds that some of them succeed increases proportionately.

Sunday, 24 October, 2010

Pandamian: A Publishing Support Layer

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.

Web Fiction

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?

Tuesday, 17 August, 2010

Codename Parsec

We’ve been working on Pandamian for three months now.

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I’d like to talk to you about what we’re doing, but I can’t. Not yet. That introductory post is still somewhere ahead in the future. Maybe next week. Or the week after.

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The funny thing is that it’s actually rather easy to build a CMS from scratch. What’s not so easy is to build it in such a way as to have any writer – and by that we mean any writer – use it, right off the bat. We don’t think writers doing web fiction should have to worry about icky things like code and servers and hacked-together blog engines. And that makes our work difficult.

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Parsec is the internal codename for our software. (We’re not sure what to call it, at the moment). It is coming soon.

Tuesday, 20 April, 2010

To Change Publishing, Make Publishers Obsolete

Publishers will die if they cannot change, but it doesn’t seem like they’re interested in change anytime soon. Why?

There’s an enlightening quote in the New Yorker article published yesterday, where Madeline McIntosh of Random House says:

“I think we, as an industry, do a lot of talking,” she said of publishers. “We expect to have open dialogue. It’s a culture of lunches. Amazon doesn’t play in that culture.” It has “an incredible discipline of answering questions by looking at the math, looking at the numbers, looking at the data. . . . That’s a pretty big culture clash with the word-and-persuasion-driven lunch culture, the author-oriented culture.”

More tellingly – Markus Dohle, the chairman and CEO of Random House, thinks “the digital transition will take five to seven years“. He believes that the argument over the iBookstore is rushed, and unneeded; accordingly, Random House is the only one of the ‘big-six’ publishers who has not signed up with the iBookstore.

The problem with publishing today seems to be that there’s not enough impetus for publishers to change. And this is rather perplexing. The way forward for publishing appears to be clear, if people like MCM and Mark Barrett and Michael Stackpole are to be believed. Go online, stay digital, jettison your legacy printing systems, and build good digital filters for popular content. More importantly: create publishing brands readers can identify with – the same way readers now cluster around authors as brand names.

But this has yet to happen. Despite all this common-sense advice, despite the many publishing roundtables and conferences that have happened recently, publishers appear to be more interested in squabbling over eBook prices than in investing for long-term change. I’ve waited four years for some of these changes to happen, and none have yet materialized. In the meantime – articles like the ones I’ve linked to above have begun appearing at increasing frequencies. Why has the publishing industry failed to act? What has gone wrong? Can no publisher see what these writers currently do?

It occurred to me recently that the problem may be deeper than just these surface recommendations. Suppose publishers are institutionally incapable of changing? All these articles by well-meaning, far-seeing writers would be of little use, because they do not address a deeper, more fundamental problem: that publishers simply cannot change, and will remain the way they are until they die, or something bigger comes their way. Are there reasons for this? I believe there are. But the answers to these questions – and what to do about them – aren’t particularly comfortable ones to answer.