Prerna Gupta thinks she knows why most attempts to bring fiction to our phones have, more or less, failed.
She says they were usually overdesigned, and tried to create some gorgeous interface that took advantage of what pixels could do. They were beautifully useless and didn’t focus on what phones could actually bring to fiction: data.
Gupta’s new app, Hooked, aims to solve that problem with stories that are told in bite-sized chunks and built for your phone.
Hooked has just closed a funding round of $US1.2 million with investors like 500 Startups, Greylock, Foundation Capital, and Gil Penchina — a raise which brings its total funding to $US1.9 million.
Gupta is an industry veteran whose app-building startup in the amateur music space, Khu.sh, sold to competitor Smule in 2011. She and her husband, who are business partners, are now trying to bring a developer’s perspective to literature in the same way they brought it to music.
After the pair sold Khu.sh, they decided to take a break from Silicon Valley, and embarked on writing a science fiction fantasy trilogy together. The series, which is unfinished, takes place in a dystopian Silicon Valley 100 years in the future, when the world has split harshly into have and have-nots.
As they were writing, Gupta began to think about the business of fiction, and how books were distributed and monetized. She felt there had been little innovation in the market, even with the inventions of gadgets like tablets and e-readers.
Phones, especially, struck her as a wasted opportunity. And the market she became focused on was the “young adult” one.
“Most young adult novels are 50,000 to 100,000 words long, and reading them on your phone is definitely not a native experience,” she says.
To Gupta, it wasn’t just the size of the screen that was wrong. It was the entire way we use phones. “More than size it’s about behaviour, the way we live our lives,” she says. “Traditional books need continuity. When you’re on your phone, you only have 5-10 minute chunks and it’s hard to get into the flow.” And no matter how big a phone screen gets, it won’t fix that.
That’s when Gupta hit upon the idea of stories told in small messages, primarily in dialogue. She took her inspiration from classic novels like “Dracula,” which is written entirely in letters. At launch, the way stories appear on Hooked is in text (or multimedia) messages told between two characters.
This type of storytelling has another advantage, one that Gupta thinks is a key to Hooked’s success. Breaking down stories into text messages means they are easy to analyse. You can look at your audience and see exactly where your story begins to lose people. Then you can fix it.
With Hooked, Gupta wants to bring the ideas that have been floating around the tech world into the fiction one. You get a beta product out there, and collect user data. You observe your readers’ behaviour. You see what they like and what they don’t.
And then you refine your story to make it better.
Of course this ethos comes with its own set of questions about art versus commerce, and whether an author should let the audience dictate his or her plot — or change a sad ending to a happy one. Gupta acknowledges this, but doesn’t let it discourage her from trying to build something that might put authors in better touch with their audiences. There are tradeoffs, but in her opi non, not overwhelming ones.
To create content for the app launch, Gupta reached out to the top MFA programs (Master of Fine Arts) in fiction around the country. She put out the word she was going to pay authors for fiction and, not unsurprisingly, her inbox was flooded.
Hooked currently has 200 stories, but Gupta wants to get that up to 1,000 by the end of the year.
Many of the stories are from genres like thrillers, or mysteries — ones that lend themselves to cliff hangers. But Hooked also includes romance, science fiction, and comedy, which are popular with young adult audiences.
Right now, the app is running on a “freemium” model, where users can read a certain number of messages a day before they have to wait (or upgrade).
Gupta sees her biggest competitor as Wattpad
, a mobile-focused social platform that sees thousands of free stories uploaded every day. What she says sets Hooked apart is that it is focused more on creating the optimal user experience for a particular story, rather than aspiring to be a sprawling social network.
And that is what is at the heart Hooked: the idea that fiction on the phone is a form that is still undecided, the idea that no one has quite got it right.
Starting today, Hooked will play its hand.
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