If you’ve ever thought one of your text message threads was so good it deserved to be published, you may be on to something.
A new fiction app rolling out today delivers stories to your smartphone in the form of a text conversation. Hooked is like “Twitter for fiction,” according to Prerna Gupta, Hooked cofounder and CEO of its parent company, Telepathic.
In reality, though, it’s closer to a mobile-first Wattpad. The app is free, and users can read a free story every day (unlimited access comes with a subscription fee of $2.99 a week). And unlike reading apps such as Rooster, which delivers published works in bite-sized pieces to your device to keep you on track, the literature inside Hooked is all original and, like text messages, exists in the form of dialogue. In future iterations, users will be able to post their own stories and follow their favorite authors.
“Our whole goal is to have the reader go through an entire narrative arc in five minutes and consume it in a way that’s native to mobile,” says Gupta. “The idea of telling a story through dialogue is not new. There’s actually a long tradition of epistolary literature. Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which is one of my favorite books, is told as letters back and forth between the two main characters. And scripts are primarily dialogue.”
So far this year, Telepathic has raised $1.9 million in seed and “pre-seed” rounds of funding for Hooked, with Greylock, Zynga cofounder Justin Waldron, 500 Startups, and Eric Ries numbering among its investors.
Gupta has a history of cofounding mobile app startups with her husband, Parag Chordia, who is CTO of Telepathic. Their previous endeavors include Kh.ush, the app development platform that spawned Songify and was acquired by competitor Smule in 2011.
After a couple years at Smule as chief of product and chief scientist, respectively, the pair decided to take time off and process their learnings from the company. They took a year to travel, learn to surf, and embark on a young adult novel they’re calling The Starlings, a dystopian sci-fi story set in Silicon Valley 100 years in the future, when technology has caused an even greater divide between the haves and the have-nots.
For startup founders who were used to moving fast, writing presented some interesting perspective.
“One of the things we’ve realized is there’s so much iteration that happens when you’re writing a novel, and it takes a really long time to create all of the things you want to create there,” Gupta says.
And like true tech entrepreneurs, the literary project got them thinking of ways they could maximize the novel’s reach, and their profits from it.
“As we were writing, we also started to think a lot more about the business of fiction. The idea was if we were going to spend our time doing this, we want to give ourselves the best shot at reaching a mass audience–reaching the kind of scale that we’ve reached with our apps, previously,” Gupta says. “So the more we looked into how good books are identified, how they’re distributed and monetized, we realized there was a lot of scope for innovation in fiction.”
For one thing, the way we read has evolved. Gupta says 80% of young adult readers are reading on digital devices. And according to Pew, 85% of young adults aged 18-29 own a smartphone, with many of those depending on smartphones as their primary source of Internet connection. That means not only has the method of their consumption changed, the format of what users are reading has changed, too.
“All of these things are vastly different from what they were a decade ago. But the book–the industry of fiction–really hasn’t seen significant innovation since the days of the printing press. Obviously, Kindle has made huge strides in all of that. But the format of fiction was set at the time when books were printed. There was a cost to printing them. There was a huge cost to buying them, and the way they justified that was requiring a certain page length for books. The way that we consume fiction today, you read five minutes here, 10 minutes there, you’re on the go, it’s easy to lose your place. So this idea of a book that’s 100,000 words, that’s sort of this wall of text that’s presented on a small screen, it felt like there was a way to rethink that from the perspective of a mobile app developer.”
They conducted about 50 tests with Facebook ads that drew readers in to reading story excerpts in various formats to gauge interest.
“What we found was you could actually see huge differences in completion rates between the different stories. So in other words, data can tell you differences in pieces of fictional content. There are some stories, not surprisingly, that have a much higher engagement, and others that have less,” Gupta says.
They tried another approach. About 200 writers from top MFA programs across the country volunteered to write stories for a dialogue-only, mobile-first format.
What Gupta and Chordia arrived at was a design that Marshall McLuhan would approve of. The medium demands its own style of writing. But the familiar interface of a text message means users don’t have to adapt to understand it. Hooked requires readers to tap a button at the bottom of the screen to release each story transmission, as the story unfurls into a scrollable conversation. Even the push notifications for the app come across as a text message from a friend, furthering the potential for users to get sucked into a story.
Requiring the reader to access each transmission allows the app to specifically record if and where the user stops reading. That completion data helps identify which stories aren’t working and where the problems might lie. The first test on the text message-based format turned an 85% completion rate.
“To be clear, this isn’t like the data is writing the book, or the data is telling you what to write. It’s just like we use in software, getting some insight into what’s working about what you’ve done, and where certain things can be improved,” Gupta says. “It says, people aren’t just randomly clicking the button. They’re actually reading and engaging with this, and they still expect a certain level of quality in terms of the writing.”
Hooked is launching as a closed platform–like Medium and Detour did–so that it can control the quality of its content library. To set that standard, the app is relying on the (paid) work of about 100 MFAs until it’s ready to open the platform to user-generated content.
“Long-term, our goal is for everyone inside the app to have the ability to write,” Gupta says. “One of the things we hope Hooked will do is encourage more people to write fiction and to understand that we all have the ability to express ourselves in this way,” Gupta says. “Obviously writing a 100,000-word novel is daunting for most people. But writing a 1,000-word text-message story–maybe that’s something that’s more accessible to a broader set of people.”
And she hopes Hooked is a tool that supports the work of professional and aspiring writers in the vein of what Wattpad and others have done for long-form writers. Future iterations will include tools that help users construct their own narrative arcs. Last week, we examined the hardships that some writers face when trying to find paid work after earning their MFAs.
“I think people were amazed that they were going to get paid. What we heard again and again is that a lot of them take jobs in writing that aren’t that interesting to them, but they pay. And they felt like it was an amazing to have an opportunity to be paid for creative writing,” Gupta says. “What we don’t have yet is the ability to give them an audience, but if we succeed in monetizing this, we can both give them an audience and a place to earn from their fiction. It’s a tall order, but it seems it would be well-received.”