Web dev at the end of the world, from Hveragerði, Iceland

For the love

It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment when I fell in love with the book as a form – a medium – but it must have happened when I was seven. That’s when I began my twice-weekly treks to the local library, maxing out my library card in each trip.

Of course, years later I discovered that some of the books I loved as a child actually sucked in other languages, that the Icelandic translator had ‘fixed’ the Hardy Boys, Tom Swift, and other series as he translated them, smoothing out inconsistencies, improving the dialogue, and generally turning them from tripe to tolerable entertainment literature. This, apparently, had been common practice among translators in Iceland. It had pretty much died down by the time I was born but the libraries were left full of these ‘improved’ books. Actually, let’s drop the quotes. Those books were superior to the originals and are now out of print.

It would be impossible to publish translations that unfaithful in today’s publishing climate so these books, which are now too old to be commonly available in libraries, are going to be unavailable for good.

It’s also hard to pinpoint the moment when I fell in love with movies as a form. My dad has always been a film buff and considered it his duty to make sure that me and my sister were au fait with the classics of film—classics being anything from Humphrey Bogart to Steve McQueen, from Looney Tunes to Blake Edwards’ slapsticks. That as well as keeping up with what’s new. Me, my sister, and my dad still go to the movies regularly. Parental indoctrination at its finest.

What makes interactive media so different is that I can pinpoint exactly the moment when I first became fascinated with the medium. I was ten and my dad had brought a new Mac from work home with him. He opened a hypercard stack for children, let me play, and I was hooked for life. This was either late 1987 or early ’88.

Of course, the DOS PC that my parents owned wasn’t nearly as fun or fascinating. But the Mac and Hypercard gave me enough of a glimpse of what could be done for me to start playing a bit around with Basic and begin a lifelong habit of messing around with computers.

The responses to me getting a job with Unbound have generally one of the following two varieties:

Yay! My son/friend/acquaintance is no longer unemployed. Congrats.


Unbound? Really? That’s interesting. Didn’t expect that.

A lot of people in the industry don’t really know what to make of Unbound. It’s both a crowdsourcing company and not. Both a publisher and not. Both a social platform and not. It’s all of those things but doing them in an unusual enough a way for people to pause and ponder.

What convinced me to join them was simple. After talking to a lot of the people involved in it I now believe that they get it. Where ‘it’ is the true point and purpose of a publisher in the digital era.

People who work with media tend to do so because they love that medium.

The few times I’ve met, for example, some of my sister’s fellow animation graduates, their love of the form, of the art of rendering motion through drawing or plasticine, is almost glaring. As with every other human being, when you switch conversation tracks onto something they love, they shine.

The same thing happens when you meet some of the Media Practice students here in Bristol and get them started on whatever mad thing they’re currently working on. You get less enthusiasm and passion from them when they are talking about their lover or their children.

That last part might well be a British thing, though.

My role at Unbound will be in digital production: I will be making ebooks and the like. That, in and of itself isn’t that interesting.

The pitch was, though. Instead of just making these books by hand, I’d try and address every problem we encounter in eproduction by creating a tool, script, or module that automates solving that problem after that. So, while this would make the first few ebooks a bit more of a slog than it would have been making it by hand, over time every new ebook production project becomes easier than the one prior to it.

Most of these tools won’t be easy enough for us to just hand them to authors and let them produce their ebooks. At least not at the start. But, hopefully, they’ll be building blocks we or others can use to build author-friendly tools in the long run.

(Yes, I really really want to open source these modules as they become ready. Thankfully, the folks at Unbound seem to like the idea.)

You can break down the role of the publisher in many ways and a certain level of breakdown and disaggregation is inevitable. Some publishers are trying to get ahead of that curve by switching to a services model, offering their tools, processes, and expertise to the constituency that used to be their others. But too often those services are exploitative, charge exorbitant rates and grab all the rights they can get away with.

What these service providers miss is a purpose for these services beyond that of squeezing money out of gullible writers (a tactic that is completely unsustainable). Having a purpose isn’t a touchy-feely, hippy-dippy thing to have but essential for any sustainable business. Your purpose is where you create value. It defines exactly the reasons why people give you money.

For a variety of reasons, I’ve been talking to a lot of publishers over the last few weeks. I see the same pattern of love for the medium there. Almost everybody involved has a bright burning passion for books—bibliophiles to a tee.

As it turns out, people who work in publishing tend to love books. That shouldn’t have been a revelation, but coming from the software industry, which is full of people who actually dislike software or, at best, have no love for software, good or bad, it took me a bit by surprise.

It didn’t matter whether the books they made then sold under a thousand copies or close to a million, the people working on them love the medium.

The reader is a stranger to most publishers. This is a holdover from the era when the only way to sell to readers was through bookstores. And, honestly, it marks the publishing industry as a relic of the past.

Of course, some publishers are going through heroic motions to build up a vivid picture of the reader, buying into analytics, doing surveys, and using every method they can to pile up data that they’ll never be able to pull apart or understand.

Most publishers know that having a direct relationship with their readers ties directly into their purpose somehow and they can clearly articulate the financial benefits of having that relationship. Of course, they can’t list a single thing the reader might gain from it beyond vague ‘social’ and ‘community’ handwaving. So, they dive in and gather data.

I’ll need to write at some point about how limited ebook analytics really are and how the picture they paint is a misrepresentation at best, but even if we assume that analytics work perfectly (they don’t) then they still wouldn’t solve the publishing industry’s reader estrangement problem.

Publishers don’t know their readers because they treat the reader as an abstraction. Editors and others involved have pictures in their head of what their readers are like, platonic ideals that drive their decisions and affect their priorities. Publishers think, a lot, about this abstract reader, which is why many of them think they know their readers when they don’t.

The only thing analytics do is sharpen the detail in this abstract image. Your readers are still strangers; they’re just strangers you’re spying on. A reader stops being a stranger when they’ve given you their name. They stop being a stranger when they have a direct relationship with your writer. You have a relationship with people you talk to directly, not to people whose conversations you listen in on.

It’d be tempting here to point to the list of paying supporters in the back of every book Unbound publishes and say that, yes, Unbound does get that and, unlike most other publishers, has an actual relationship with their readers.

But, no, that would be missing the point.

As an outsider wandering through the publishing industry, there were two things that struck me. The first one was that even though almost everybody there loved books, they didn’t all love text. Of course the editor-types, wannabe writers, and authors all love writing, specifically the act of writing and the act of messing around with text – more specifically, they love being seen messing around with text – but the people that love the output, love text no matter where it is to be found or what form it takes, are a lot rarer animals.

Of course, you’re still going to find more text-lovers in publishing than in most other industries, but this love of the image and social role of writing does explain why so many people in the industry are capable of releasing tripe in glorious packaging.

The second striking observation was that a lot of people in publishing don’t see interactive media as a form to be loved by anybody.

None of them would hire an impersonal design firm to lay out their books where they shovel in the text in one end and get a workmanlike but uninspired PDF out the other. No, even when they hire out they hire people, specific individuals with a love for the medium.

None of them would outsource the entire production of a book, every stage from editorial to design to print, to a firm in India, but that’s what they do when they commission apps. A lot of the firms the publishing industry today is hiring to create apps and ebooks are simply in the business of capitalising on the industry’s fear of investing in a new medium—leveraging that lack of commitment into a profit margin. That profit margin also more than nullifies whatever savings the publishing industry thinks it’s getting.

A company that hires a firm to do a by-the-numbers app or ebook shouldn’t be surprised when what they get back is unimaginative and dull.

You know that list of subscribers in the back of Unbound’s books? That isn’t a list of people with a relationship with Unbound. It’s a list of readers with a direct connection to the author.

Huge difference.

And that’s the point that I discovered the people at Unbound really get: The greatest service a publisher can contribute is to help authors connect directly with their readers.

A lot of the money can and will be made from other stuff. Providing services is always going to be lucrative. But the value is created through the author’s direct connection to a reader. That connection is the reason why readers invest in writers, both financially and emotionally. That connection lets authors experiment with a variety of formats and merchandising. That connection transforms the author’s body of work into a cityscape that the reader can inhabit and be a part of. That connection gives both author and reader a security to experiment, spread their wings, and make things simply for the love of the medium.

How to create great works is a dark art probably dominated as much by random chance as it is by skill. What isn’t a secret is who creates them. Great works are created by people who love the medium. And interactive media – apps, websites, and interactive ebooks – is definitely a medium. A data centre full of bored programmers writing a corporate database app one week and an ebook app the next week will not result in a great app.

Great works are collaborations. They are not created through outsourcing. A great app will not happen unless everybody involved is both invested in the app and owns a part of the app. The developer is a co-author of the app they make, not just a construction worker erecting somebody else’s design.

The publishing industry has very few great works in interactive media and most of those it does have are produced by relative outsiders. There’s a simple reason for this. For publishers, interactive media is just a financial imperative. They do not know, love, or care for the medium, which in turn undermines their ability to make money from it.

Unbound isn’t the first to realise the importance of a direct connection with readers. Others have been talking about it for years; their words usually falling on deaf ears. Mike Masnick is one of the most persistent articulator of this idea and he has presented it in the form of this very simple formula:

Connect with Fans (CwF) + Reason to Buy (RtB) = The Business Model

The formula makes it clear that it isn’t about just dumping free stuff into the market and hoping for the money to roll in (a key mistake many in self-publishing are making at the moment, myself included). The value is created first, by establishing a direct connection with the fans. That value is turned into money later, once the fans are given a reason to buy. The RtB can be anything ranging from t-shirts to books to apps to donations. As long as the connection is healthy, the fans will be flexible in how they support the artist.

By establishing the CwF + RtB model as Unbound’s primary focus it lets us (Unbound and its Authors) experiment more. We have a freedom to try a variety of projects others won’t touch. We can try experiments that might have no immediate financial value but do strengthen the connection the authors have with their readers. The entire playground of modern publishing is open to us. Where others are held back by business model concerns we can experiment and mess around knowing that it will feed back into the business by keeping the connection with readers healthy.

Because Unbound can experiment, they are more likely to stumble onto something new that nobody else is publishing but readers end up wanting.

Of course, since Unbound is a startup there’s a good chance that all of this will crash and burn, but for that risk to be worth it there has to be an upside—a potential for big things. I think it has that potential upside in spades.

The risks of joining Unbound are obvious and non-trivial. But I like the vision well enough to see if we can pull it off.

One of the many things I like about the English word ‘love’ is how watered-down it is compared to similar words in other languages. The verb ‘elska’ in Icelandic implies a much greater intensity of emotion than ‘love’ does. When you ‘elska’ something you’re saying that it’s either a cause you’d risk your life for or a person you’d like to boink.

Or, conversely, it’s a person you’d risk your life for or a cause you’d like to boink. Either way it’s intense.

‘Love’, however, is a nicely diluted emotion. It does the job of stating that you more than like something, care for it, but it has enough of a range of intensity for that more-than-like to be anything from a primal torrent of sex and sticky hole-poking to a staid and virtual poke on facebook.

Which means that ‘Love’ as a word has the connotations of passion while still being utterly staid and dispassionate, making it a very English word.

The English themselves are a bit like that. They get all of their sexual exertions out of the way in their twenties before retiring in their thirties into the bedroom with a book, only occasionally having a dry fumble with their partner to make sure the birth control is still working.

The staid but heartfelt nature of the word make it ideal for describing exactly what is going on in the CwF + RtB formula. Love for the author’s work drives the readers’ willingness to invest in the author. Love for the readers drives the author’s generosity which is the foundation for the bond. As is appropriate for art and culture, CwF+RtB is a business model that is fundamentally built on emotions.

As are a lot of good business models. Anything that is labelled ‘aspirational’ might as well be tagged ‘emotional’ as well. A bottle of good whiskey is as emotional a purchase as can be. There is no stigma in building a business on emotion.

And it’s probably the only real way to build a business around art or literature.

You can also find me on Mastodon and Bluesky