As a follow-up to my Foreworld: The Mongoliad feature, I had the privilege of interviewing Jeremy Bornstein for an in-depth Q&A about the process of working on a project like Foreworld and the team behind its creation.
Jeremy, you are the President and CTO of Subutai and a member of the creative team called The Cabal. Can you please further introduce yourself and tell me what you, The Cabal and Subutai have to do with this project?
Professionally speaking, I’m mostly an entrepreneur at this point, so part of my normal thinking process is to notice when something seems like it could be an interesting and fun business. It seemed as if lots of factors were coming together to transform publishing, and what we were thinking about doing with The Mongoliad was a great candidate for exploring that space.
At that point, my focus became putting the project together from an organizational, technical, and financial perspective. Subutai Corporation is the entity that we started so that the Cabal could create The Mongoliad. Because we’re primarily using electronic devices to mediate the experience, instead of shipping paper from one place to another, we are free from the constraints of physicality and can try to build a new kind of experience for people who are involved—it turns out that the dichotomy of author-reader is not so clear-cut once you start to do that, which is exciting. And because of the way computers often make it as easy to do something a thousand times as to do it twice, we’ve built The Mongoliad on top of a publishing platform (“PULP”) which enables other individuals and groups to do some of the same things for their own projects that we’re doing with ours.
Being that Foreworld: The Mongliad is a serial fiction, and many publishers and writers are concerned about the success of serial fiction, how would you rate the retention and growth of your audience? Any hurdles in this regard, or challenges while writing?
We love to mention Charles Dickens because he’s probably the most famous author of serial fiction, and he did okay. When you experience a serial narrative, […] it is uniquely pleasurable in that you can enjoy the suspense and the process of having the events drawn out for a bit more than they would be if you could just barrel through. […] To up the ante even more, we’re not just a serial, because online we don’t have to be. Our audience directly participates in the authorship in a way that was impossible with pre-internet serials. Our narrative has a plan, but the journey that the audience and the authors take together is uncharted, and is itself an integral part of the aesthetic experience.
Like anything, the conventions of the form pretty much come out of the medium itself. With a serial, there is more incentive to leave things dangling at the end of chapters, because your audience has to be sufficiently motivated to come back all by themselves. That’s different online, because online there are ways for users to ask to be reminded when new things change, and also because part of the point of PULP is not to just mindlessly replicate old publishing and distribution systems, but to figure out what affordances are given us by our new environment and use those to make the experience better in as many ways as we can. To get back to the original question, we don’t talk about specifics with regard to business metrics, but I will say that our conversion and retention rates have been shockingly good, even if the nature of what we’re doing makes it difficult to attribute that to any specific factor.
The fiction is historical and heavily influenced by martial arts. Can you tell me about the team behind The Cabal? Who are they, do they have any other professions, and how do the team’s shared interests and hobbies in the various schools of martial arts influence the writing?
The initial group was pretty much defined by “friends of Neal’s who were interested in martial arts” and has grown from there to friends of friends, and in some cases their friends as well. Some of us were experienced martial artists before—at least myself and two others have been martial arts instructors in various arts—and some were interested newcomers, but we’re all learning the Western martial arts traditions together. We love using the narratives we’re creating to explore these new-to-us martial arts, and we love using the martial arts to help shape the narrative. Basically we are playing around—like craftspeople, we hope—with available materials, shaping something fun.
[…] Because many of us are writers by profession, we started spitballing some stories that created and were set within a mythology related to those styles of martial arts. Our first idea was to write a screenplay, because we love this stuff, and feel that it is so different in many ways from most of what has been brought to the screen before. But there are a bunch of structural issues with that whole process, and we weren’t sure that we could get what we wanted to happen, so we started thinking about what else we could do with the ideas we had been generating. Our first thought was that we could write a serial novel and publish it online, because the group already had all of the expertise we needed to make that happen.
The experience that is found in Foreworld is shaped not only by the main writers, but also by the community behind the fictitious world. How successful would you say this exchange has been? Is the community engaged? What have been some of its most significant contributions?
We were floored at the speed with which fan contributions began to come in. At this point there are several fan-written story series, and we have fan art as well. I’m not going to play favorites but it is very gratifying to see some of the users clamor for new Foreworld stories from people other than the Cabal authors! Behind the scenes we are working on tools to help make these fan contributions a more natural part of the experience for users, which we’re very excited about as well.
What kinds of storytelling methods and features does the website employ to encourage the community to remain active and involved? I notice that I have a user profile, and that I am a level 1 citizen. Can you tell me what the significance of that is, and how I can accumulate awesome badges?
Once it really started to sink in that the experience of users could be significantly different from paper, that realization really opened it up for us. One of the things we did was to take a page (ha ha) from the book of game designers, where every aspect of the experience can be crafted to not only be fun, but to encourage you to explore more and more. You earn badges for different kinds of participation; some of that is automatic, some is manual, and some is manual now but will be automatic later. Every user also has a rank, which is similar to a rank in a user game or on a message board, and is intended to signify a user’s progress through different roles in the community, should they choose to participate like that. We don’t spell out the details officially anywhere, but feel free to poke around!
I see that The Cabal has plans to platform Foreworld to other electronic devices. Which devices are you most interested in, and what strategies do you see going into translating a web experience into a handheld device?
Every kind of device has its own user interface conventions, suited to the modalities of interaction which it makes available or easy. Personally I am a huge fan of tablets, especially for reading. And as a developer, the platforms which allow us to get our software in front of users with minimal friction are the ones on which it’s easiest to make rapid progress. As far as strategies for constructing that experience, I think we’re basically at the beginning of what will be a very productive area in terms of new UI conventions, and right now we need lots of experimenting. It’s not so much about translating a web experience because the web isn’t the primary experience for us—it’s just the easiest to get off the ground.
Don’t miss the main feature: http://words-in-gear.steampunkpublishing.com/?p=332