The Data-Driven, 21st-Century 'Choose Your Own Adventure'

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A publishing startup is dramatically rethinking the relationship between writers and readers.

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A few of Coliloquy's titles (Coliloquy)

Lisa Rutherford had her baby, Parker, at around the same time she started working on Coliloquy, a digital publishing start-up. Her son is almost two now, and Coliloquy went live in January. The company has offices in San Francisco and Palo Alto, and Rutherford was making the 45-minute drive between them when I called. It's a matter of convenience, she explained, for her and for Coliloquy's editors -- most of whom are recent parents who she and her co-founder, Waynn Lue, lured away from traditional publishing houses with the promise of Silicon Valley-style leeway.

Flexibility is the guiding principle at Coliloquy: narrative structure, process, and format are all up for adjustment with every new title, and every last reader. A choose-your-own-adventure model* for the data-tracking age, its books are designed with multiple "pathways" that lead stories down divergent plotlines. The choices that readers make are logged, anonymously, for analysis by Coliloquy's team and the authors themselves. In one young adult novel, for example, will teen witch Lily see Logan the warlock hiding under a rock? Readers say yes 52.8 percent of the time; 47.2 percent decide against the meeting.

"I get reader stats every Tuesday, telling me how readers are voting," said Holly McDowell, the author of Coliloquy's King Solomon's Wives series. "I get an email and it lists the different choice points and the percentage of voters who chose each one. It also tells me how many people have gotten to the end of the book. And it tells me how many have gone back to read other options."

Open-ended as it may be, Coliloquy also stands to gain from the harsh scrutiny of data, and the clear editorial directions indicated by the numbers. Readers of McDowell's first book were asked which city they wanted to hear about next; of five choices, New Orleans came out on top with about 30 percent of the vote. "And that was awesome feedback for me," McDowell said. She focused on New Orleans in her second installment, which will be out soon. "And actually, now more of the votes have come in, and Chicago is pulling ahead," she added. "But that just means I'll have to work Chicago in."

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Coliloquy's founders want to emphasize that this is not writing by committee or data driving literature. Rather, they say, this is a tool providing authors with helpful suggestions. They are trying to determine -- in a manner well known among start-ups, if not in the publishing world at large -- "Are there places where she would be better off spending her time early on to keep her readers interested."

When I asked Heidi Kling, the author of the Spellspinners of Melas County ebooks, about how statistics have informed her writing, she said, "For me it hasn't affected the series too much in regard to me changing things in response to the data, because I find that readers choose my own choices." But, she went on, "if something came that's sort of alarming -- like 95 percent went this way, and 5 percent went the other way," then, she explained, "I would listen to that."

She added, "I definitely feel like I'm writing a book. I feel like these could easily be print editions--they just wouldn't have these jaunts one way or the other way."

In fact, Rutherford told me, they may release "the best performing pathways in the print versions of the books." And "when we have had discussions with TV and film, they've also been very interested to see the data."

But when I asked her if Coliloquy is really in the business of publishing books at all -- as opposed to a kind of narrative, episodic app -- she replied, "I don't know the answer to that yet."

"I don't consider it a book really," McDowell said of her own writing for Coliloquy. "I consider it a story."

* * *

In 2010, after Rutherford had sold Twofish, a virtual payment platform, and Lue sold his social media marketing start-up, Unwrap, the two friends started an email chain that began: "LET'S DO SOMETHING AWESOME!" With that opening line, over the next several months, "we really got interested in this idea of narrative and gaming," Rutherford said. With that opening line, Rutherford said, "we really got interested in this idea of narrative and gaming." They started by developing a web-based interface, and Rutherford began writing the first test stories. They tried a bunch different genres and structural formulas to figure out "where is the largest market, and what types of engagement mechanics do those types of readers respond to." They honed in on young adult, romance, and adventure. The early data set up the parameters for Coliloquy's business.

Built through the Kindle Developer Program for active content, they later branched out to other platforms -- it's currently available on Kindle readers, the NOOK Tablet, Android-based devices, and in some cases, classic e-book format. For now, Coliloquy has 10 titles available; each sells for less than five dollars. Rutherford said they will soon integrate with the web, in order to start incorporating fan fiction into the original text of an erotica series -- authorship will depend on popular support. Another release will play with time: a father with Alzheimer's narrates a story; his daughter will say he's got it all wrong, and you have to go back to read a different telling. Two more new series will be published using sponsorship revenue models. Of course, all of this malleability flows from a firmly established structure. The editors and engineers must devise a blueprint, within which each story is programmed and tested.

Early on in the process, they conduct beta testing with a small audience. "We do use test readers and test audiences more than most publishers do," Rutherford explained. "We do it with covers, we do it with titles, we do it with endings."

Editorially, "we obviously learn by seeing what different audiences respond to, which does give us an eye to what we look for, in terms of new manuscripts that come in, or new genres," she added. For a series, "it's mostly the authors stepping back and saying, 'I'm looking back at this data and I really wish I could do this character differently.'"

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Betsy Morais is an editorial assistant at The New Yorker.

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