Jim Hinks: Reader analytics as a self-editing tool

Jim Hinks: Reader analytics as a self-editing tool

"I expect that many writers will find this unnerving...." Comma Press' Jim Hinks' new platform is going to show everyone where people stopped reading those writers' work. And how will that go down? On Tuesday (30th June), as Hinks launches his new self-publishing platform, he'll start finding out. MacGuffin also requires that authors upload audio renditions of their work. They also must allow hashtagging by readers to create a "broad-folksonomy," by which he does not refer to your neighbours' fitness issues. But at a time when KDP Select is undertaking its own controversial changes (see Gaming the system: Amazon at home and abroad), we asked Hinks to tell us about MacGuffin's highly exploratory nature. He even tells us why MacGuffin won't be paying writers. Sit down, Taylor, and read what the man has to say. - Porter Anderson

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.

Literature in audio form is certainly on the ascent. Audiobook sales are rising; 4G coverage is improving and getting cheaper for consumers. I suspect that one of the reasons publishers, at least, are so keen on audio is it seems relatively future-proof. Consumption of digital literature is largely device-led, after all. As Amazon added more functionality to Kindles, transforming them from vanilla readers into tablets, ebook sales started to level off — why read capital-L literature when you have social media, YouTube and Netflix? But whatever wearable devices come on-stream in the next few years, it’s difficult to foresee a time when we won’t want listen to stuff while keeping our eyes free to do other stuff (even in our driverless cars).

MacGuffin's Jim Hinks will join us Friday for #FutureChat — when our topic is Amazonian adjustments to KDP Select, wear a flak jacket. Join us each Friday live on Twitter at 4:00 p.m. London (BST), 3:00 p.m. GMT, 5:00 p.m. Rome (CEST), 11:00 a.m. New York (ET), 10:00 a.m. Chicago (CT), 9:00 a.m. Denver (MT), 8:00 a.m. Los Angeles (PT), 5:00 a.m. Honolulu (HAST).

Content discovery

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.

It’s difficult to predict how readers will take to this. Just because you build a platform that allows people to tag content, that doesn’t mean they will. Our user-testing has tended to focus on pre-defined user journeys (“find a story set in Manchester. Then tag it #northwestwriters”). But will readers be sufficiently motivated to tag, out in the wild? We’ll see.

Open Analytics

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 misstep in plotting or pacing or tone.

The Elephant in the room: why is MacGuffin free to use and not paying writers?

In the week that Taylor Swift took on Apple [here's The Bookseller's Philip Jones on it], I think it’s reasonable for people to ask why MacGuffin is free to use, and why it doesn't pay writers.

Comma Press is a short story publisher, and we have no wish to disintermediate ourselves. We conceived MacGuffin as a useful place to showcase sample stories, linked back to point of sale; a marketing tool, effectively. Many other writers and publishers who’ve started using MacGuffin have done just that – uploading stories or poems that are already freely available on their websites or eBook previews (often with audio grabbed from existing YouTube videos of reading events), linked to their Amazon page, or publisher page, or wherever.

It would be great if, in future, we could do the sales part in-house. So for example, a reader gets the first chapter of a novel free, then makes an in-app purchase to unlock the rest. However, this would need lots of investment to build, complex agreements with authors and publishers, and is only really justifiable when you have a large enough user-base.

Having said all that, some authors who’ve published stories and poems on MacGuffin don't have a book to link to. They just want people to read their stories and poems. Is that wrong? I don't think so. No more so than WordPress or Blogger, or any other place that facilitates people putting the written word online. MacGuffin doesn’t make money – as a research project, it’s funded by the Digital R&D Fund for the Arts – and Comma Press itself is a non-profit, without shareholders, constituted to publish and promote the short story.

Beyond that, from an ideological point of view, I simply don't agree that no one should ever write or publish anything they aren’t paid for.

That means the market decides what we write and what we publish. I know, as both a short story publisher and fledgling short story writer myself, that the market doesn’t much value forms like short stories and poetry. And history shows it’s certainly no judge of literary quality, or longevity.

If the option is be paid or keep quiet, I welcome the availability of self-publishing platforms.

Jim Hinks is digital editor at Comma Press, an independent publisher based in Manchester, UK, and specialising in short stories. 

Images provided by Comma Press