Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone – there’s a new platform for creative writing in town, and it has the potential to revolutionise student workshopping.
[dropcap size=big]C[/dropcap]omma Press is probably one of the most well-known independent publishers in the UK, with an impressive reputation for short story writing. But in times of uncertainty for the industry as a whole — faced by the Goliathan rise of the ebook — this Manchester-based publishing house has decided to meet the challenge head-on. The result of this innovation was MacGuffin: a digital literature platform which allows writers to share samples of their work, while also letting readers hand-pick the material which interests them the most.
Jeremy Brown, Arts&Lit Editor speaks to Jim Hinks, project manager, about the concept:
Creative writing programmes are flourishing nationwide. What does your platform offer students who are looking to self-publish?
MacGuffin is a platform for fiction and poetry in text and audio form: writers upload the text of their story or poem along with an audio recording (this doesn’t have to be studio-quality – anyone with a smartphone has a mini recording studio in their pocket).
The hash-tagging system on MacGuffin is designed to help writers target a sample of their work at a specific audience (and you can link back to your website, blog, publishers’ website or Amazon page). You can also use the analytics as a self-editing tool, including graphs of ‘drop-out’ points showing where readers have quit the story or poem before the end; handy if you want to identify scenes that needs tightening.
The most innovative part of MacGuffin seems to be its use of hashtags, allowing readers to find stories or poems which interest them. Are these tags simple genre descriptions, or can you search for specific content?
The hashtagging system helps writers target content at specific readers. For example, you might upload a story and tag it #dystopian #slipstream #feminist #shortstory (we’ll also automatically tag it with the length, e.g. #10minutelisten). In future, whenever anyone searches for one or more of those tags, your story will be returned in the results. So a search for #15minuteread and #crime will prioritise results with those two tags. In a university context, you can tag a story #exeteruniwritersyear3 #workinprogress, to share it with your group prior to a workshop. VERY good news for lazy workshoppers who never get their reading done prior to the session – now you can just listen to it as you do other stuff.
But readers can also add their own tags to anyone else’s work, to describe it, add it to a meme, create a reading list, and share it amongst their own networks. This is kind of like how, back in the day, people made mix-taps for friends. Tag a bunch of poems #jeremysnaturepoems and anyone who searches for that tag sees that playlist.
Aside from that, we do support free text search, so if someone types ‘a story about a monkey’ into the search bar, they should still get useful results (and yes, there is a story about a monkey).
Do you worry about copyright issues and plagiarism at all?
I worry insofar as it’s my job to put systems in place to mitigate it, but I don’t worry too much, particularly if we accrue a good community of writers. Authors who upload work to MacGuffin retain copyright (or can publish under a range of Creative Commons licenses, or even into the public domain if they wish), and can of course un-publish from MacGuffin at any time. There’s a pretty robust reporting system for copyright infringement (i.e. in the unlikely event that someone uploads a whole story or poem that you wrote).
The Observer wrote that this “might be one of the smartest things any publisher has done in some time”, if someone manages to analyse the information on MacGuffin. What possibilities do you see for the future?
MacGuffin’s been something of a labour of love to build (it’s entirely non-profit), and we’re really pleased with it. Now we just want as many people as possible to use it and enjoy it and share it with their friends. I’d hate to be wondering round the echoey halls of a digital Xanadu by myself. However, take-up in the beta phase has been really promising, so it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen. In terms of long-term impact, who knows? Comma Press is a short story publisher, and we built MacGuffin as a way to encourage more people to read, write and share short stories. If that happens, we’ll be happy.
If you had to describe the platform in three words, which would you choose?
‘Big Literary Jukebox’.
by Jeremy Brown
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