Blog: Connecting Readers and Writers

hinks 2aJim Hinks is the Digital Editor at Comma Press and a part-time PhD candidate at Edge Hill University, where he’s researching Narratology in Short Fiction. Comma Press is an independent publisher based in Manchester, specialising in short stories. One of Arts Council England’s National Portfolio Organisations, its authors have won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, The BBC National Short Story Prize and The Frank O’Connor Short Story Award, amongst others.

Connecting readers and writers

I grew up in the cassette age, before CDs and mp3s, before digital streaming across 4G networks. I didn’t even have a proper Sony Walkman, but an Aiwa ‘personal cassette player’ from Boots, and my pockets rattled with tapes that liked to unspool themselves amongst the lint and loose change, and had to be meticulously wound back with a biro.

I loved audiobooks in particular. I loved, and still love, the peculiar intimacy of hearing an author’s voice superimposed onto the quotidian urban environment. My favourite audiobook was ‘Wild Blue Yonder’ – Simon Armitage’s mesmerizing performance of poems from his first three collections. Armitage was my invisible ally, or perhaps accessory, as a youth on the streets of West Yorkshire. I wore it out.

Press that chunky Aiwa fast-forward button; listen to it whine and rattle, then click, as we reach the present day. The prevalence of smartphones and tablets, allied with 4G coverage in more than 90% of the UK, has created the perfect storm for audiobooks. No more cassettes in the pocket; just instant streaming, wherever you are. Major publishers have recognised the potential, and are putting ever-more resources into audiobook production.

But it doesn’t have to be the sole preserve of big business, or even the published author. Digitization means that, increasingly, our laptops, phones and tablets can capture near broadcast-standard audio (iPhones, for example, have incredibly efficient microphones and come with the Garageband home-studio app installed). As amateur podcasters have discovered, with a bit of patience and practice and a quiet room of one’s own, anyone can produce high-fidelity audio content. So why haven’t self-published audiobooks taken off? The greatest challenge, as ever, is getting your work to the right audience.

At Comma Press, we’re building a big jukebox for fiction and poetry. Not a physical jukebox (though wouldn’t that be lovely?), but a website and app to host user-generated literature. It’ll be free to use, and all the content will be available in both text and audio form, so end-users can stream readings on their smartphone or tablet. Anyone can upload their work, so long as they provide an audio reading to go with the text.

It’s called MacGuffin, and it aims to solve a fundamental discoverability problem for both readers and writers: readers want to find new writing that chimes with their particular interests and tastes; writers want to find readers who’ll get their work. Matching them up is the tricky part.

To do this, we’re going to apply the ‘broad folksonomy’ end-user hash-tagging behaviours of social media platforms like Twitter, and bookmarking tools like Delicious. On MacGuffin, readers themselves will participate in the content curation by adding hashtags to other people’s work, grouping it into genres (e.g. #spec-fic), memes (e.g. #sundaysonnets), reading lists (e.g. #claireskafkaesquereads); or simply adding tags to describe the content (#bears #porridge #woods #burglary #dangerousblondes). A writer can use multiple tags to target work at readers with specific interests (e.g. #post-colonial #apocalyptic #antarctic); a writing group can use a tag to share work-in-progress (e.g. #leedsuniwritersyear3). As more content is uploaded and tagged, readers will be able to search for content using ever-more specific terms.

MacGuffin is being developed in collaboration with the Manchester Metropolitan University and fffunction, a design company specializing in user experience. You can follow the project as it happens over at our blog: www.macguffinblog.com

We’ll be beta-testing in April 2015, so if you’re a poet, short story writer or novelist, and you’d like to be one of the first to try it out, please get in touch by emailing me at jim.hinks@commapress.co.uk.

 

 

The MacGuffin project is supported by The Digital R&D fund for the Arts – a £7 million fund to support collaboration between organisations with arts projects, technology providers, and researchers. It is a partnership between Arts Council England (www.artscouncil.org.uk), Arts and Humanities Research Council (www.ahrc.ac.uk) and Nesta (www.nesta.org.uk).

 

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