There is a level of satisfaction that comes from creating a physical product such as a book. It can make your accomplishments feel much more real. It’s a lasting object. The opportunity to create something yourself is one of the things that can be a source of inspiration and motivation for many people.
A couple of years ago I met Gavin Weale from Live Magazine. It’s a free, quarterly magazine put together by emerging creative talent from across the UK, with 50,000 copies distributed nationally. The work that they do with young people is incredible – it really hits home the level of creativity and enthusiasm people have when you give them the chance to develop something original. Something tangible.
Last year Gavin became a Shuttleworth Fellow and headed over to Cape Town to set up a branch of Live Magazine for South Africa, starting in the townships.
When I was visiting South Africa last year we met up and got talking about the parallels between what we were doing: essentially offering people the chance to channel their creativity and see it embodied in a physical product. Although Live Magazine does have a digital presence, the magazine is still distributed by young people in physical form. And so we started discussing how CompletelyNovel could get down with the kids…
CompletelyNovel already has a diverse audience – we have had people on the website that are between the ages of 16 and 90! But I’d say that there is definitely a larger proportion of people in their 40s plus.
To enable someone who has already learned about the joys of reading and creative writing to publish their work is one thing, but to help fuel the enthusiasm of a young person to pursue that path is, I think, something even more exciting.
My difficulty is that from a business perspective, focusing on younger people who are less likely to be able to pay for services wasn’t necessarily a sensible option, when you are a small team, you’ve got to be fairly ruthless with your priorities.
So when Gavin suggested that there could be some funding available from the Shuttleworth Foundation – a ‘Flash Grant’ – it was the perfect opportunity to develop this idea without such tight financial constraints. The grant was based on the premise of making CompletelyNovel more accessible to young people in order to encourage them to write.
(As a side note the Shuttleworth Foundation is hands down the most incredible organisation for this – grant applications are usually associated with painful doses of bureaucracy. This one, however, is done on personal recommendation by fellows, so it’s super, super easy.)
Initially, my first idea was to consider a mobile app which would fit in with the main device used by young people. I spent some time looking into this,trying to figure out how it could work.
The difficulty was trying to boil down the system to the bare essentials – the best apps tend to be extremely simple. The recent acquisition of Instagram is a case in point. The adoption rate was phenomenal because of the simplicity.
Keeping things super simple is something that I’ve always found challenging with CompletelyNovel. CompletelyNovel creates a simple interface so non-expert users can access valuable but complicated services within the publishing industry. Even the relatively modern print-on-demand printers impose many constraints on documents and the way that they receive their files. First, an account has to be set up offline. Then the systems are set up manually to accept a new feed and finally the files have to be turned into a very specific format and delivered to their system along with a complicated print communication file format known as ‘PrintTalk’.
CompletelyNovel’s goal is to make the access to these complicated systems as painless as possible so the key question was whether creating a mobile app interface would assist in that. One immediate difficulty is that any app would be OS specific. So you’d need to construct it for iOS, Android and others distracting us from where our core value lies.
There was also a barrier in terms of how the content is uploaded to the platform. With any writing that is long-form, the standard way would be to use a word processor such as MS Word. People are far less likely to be creating these documents on a mobile device from the outset, or even transferring their documents to their phone/tablet later, which means that you are missing a vital ingredient for quick publishing.
And, in order for the files to be properly processed to make them ready for publication, you have to have access to the web and therefore our servers. So the offline support that apps optimise wouldn’t really be that beneficial in terms of publishing – only reading. So, ultimately what you need to do is create a more mobile book reading experience, rather than a more mobile book publishing experience.
So, bearing those constraints in mind, what were the best alternatives?
Even though I’d decided against making a separate app for CompletelyNovel, it was clear that if we could simplify the publishing process, it would make it much easier for young people (with limited resources and who were fresh to the world of publishing) to publish books on CompletelyNovel.
I went through the user journey and talked with the rest of the team about how we could simplify it and make it even easier to publish a book. Here’s what we came up with:
Simplify our publisher dashboard – i.e. the area where you can see the books that you have published, and edit them.
Add more help tips to the different stages of the publishing process. We can keep adding to these as we go along.
Use one manuscript file and make that available to multiple countries (rather than previously having to upload a separate manuscript depending on whether you wanted your books to be available in UK, Europe or US)
We also decided to make it clearer what you get when you upgrade to one of our premium publishing plans – quite simply, you get the option to put your book into distribution channels. This means that young people who want to just share the books with their peers can sell the books and make them available using the free service.
If they want the books to be available on Amazon they can upgrade to the Plus plan (up to two books).
If they want to make more than two books available, they can upgrade to the Pro Plan.
This also makes it easier for schools/organisations to use CompletelyNovel.
The fewer barriers that there are to people having to adhere to strict requirements, the more accessible the system for young people. We made it so that the system can now:
Resize your documents so if you upload something that is slightly the wrong size, we can automatically correct it.
Correct the colours on your cover automatically so that if you want to upload a PDF, rather than use our Cover Creator (which makes things slightly more limited) your cover will be made fully compatible for printing by us, rather than you (no need for high cost software to output the right type of file).
These updates were pushed out onto the live site in March 2012.
It’s not often that you’ll have had the time to write a novel before you’re twenty. Most young people are writing shorter pieces, and so we looked at how we could make it easier to create books that were the result of a collaboration (e.g. an anthology) or books that didn’t necessarily follow your typical novel format. It made sense to enhance our capability to offer different sizes and books with colour pages, which are often requested by younger users, but until now CompletelyNovel hasn’t able to provide them.
As a result of this, the way we build books has changed. Instead of having a few predefined size options, which made it hard for us to offer a variety of sizes and shapes the attributes that make up a book are all separated out so we effectively ‘build’ each book separately. This gives us the groundwork for much more flexible publishing options. Each individual type of book is built by you selecting your own unique combination of those attributes.
I guess it’s the difference between going to a sandwich shop and being given a few defined options, or letting you pick and choose your own ingredients. (I always find food references help with explaining stuff).
Although the internals have been updated, you can’t see the results of it on the website quite yet (that will come later this summer) but it’s going to be a hell of a lot easier to add in those extra options.
Since November I have spoken at a couple of student conferences including the Publishing Now conference at City University and the Publishing Innovation Conference at the London College of Communication.
It’s fairly obvious that most young people will already have Facebook, Twitter and other social network accounts. What’s also apparent is that they are really hungry to know how they can use these channels most effectively to share and promote their work. We’ve added Facebook, Twitter and Google Plus share links to our pages so that it is easier to do this.
We’ve also built on our ‘publishing hub’ within CompletelyNovel. The publishing hub is a place to educate people in terms of publishing processes and how to promote their book. We’ve always had some of this content on the site, but I wanted to rethink our the section and approach it more from the perspective of someone who is completely new to the publishing world.
This has now been freshly designed and is being coded up into a web page that is much more informative and links to the essentials. We’ll also be pushing up these updates to the live site later this summer.
We have also published a number of blog articles aimed at explaining to young people how they can collaborate to produce an anthology of work and have continued to support students at London Metropolitan University in doing this.
Accessibility is key and needs to come first when you’re looking at a mobile solution. There is an increasingly strong move away from developing native apps for books or eBook platforms and instead using HTML5 to create web apps that work within a standard browser, but can act like native apps on mobile devices.
My team has been looking into this and working alongside publishers we’re developing a new project which tries to rethink the way that premium content is distributed online.
I’m hoping that this will eventually integrate into CompletelyNovel – it would be a really easy way for young writers to share their books digitally amongst peers and further afield. I think this would be a great compliment to the other work we’ve done on the platform.
So as well as the remaining development work above (both in the short term and long term), we have a marketing campaign planned, targeted at young people, which will be run over the summer. The aim is to invite students and people involved in creative writing courses to submit articles that we will feature on the CompletelyNovel blog. We will then promote their articles to increase their exposure and give them the opportunity to publish their work on CompletelyNovel. We’ll be contacting writing programmes with promotion and discount codes which will help enable young people to access more of the site’s services. We’ll also be talking to more writing courses and creative writing programmes who already have links with young people. Ideally by the end of the summer I’d like to be able to pick out a few books that have been published and showcase them and their contributors as examples of what’s possible.
We also have a new bulletin that we will be sending out to all of our customers featuring writer blogs, ideas and events. We will be asking young people to put their blogs forward to feature in this newsletter, particularly over the summer.
As anyone working in it will know, the publishing industry is going through an intense period of change. Existing players are either disappearing or having to largely rethink their business models, and new methods of producing content and reaching audiences are emerging all the time.
However, there are some things that don’t change, like the value of telling stories. Creating books isn’t the only way to go about doing this, but I happen to think it is a pretty darn good one. Taking a traditional way of sharing stories, crossing it with some new technology and putting it in the hands of young people … that’s even better.
With huge thanks to the Shuttleworth Foundation.
(And I would heartily recommend that you take a look at the work of their Fellows… especially Gavin. )