eBooks and serendipity machines: an interview with Connor Tomas O’Brien
This interview is cross-posted from NYWF where I’m one of the official bloggers this year.
There’s a small link at the top of Bkclb’s Infinite Book project which directs to the Wikipedia entry on Borges’ The Book of Sand – a typically curious Borges tale about a book of all books that is ‘exactly infinite’: possessing neither a beginning or an end. The text becomes a monstrous, tormenting object to its owner in the Borges tale, but it’s a far less troubling idea in the age of the internet, and Bkclb have turned the concept into an interesting way to discover ebook titles we may not have sought out otherwise.
When Connor explains Infinite Book to me, he describes it as a ‘serendipity machine’ – and this could perhaps extend to the Bkclb project as a whole, with its emphasis on reader discovery. Bkclb is a new ebook store and epublishing startup site based in Adelaide. It allows authors to sell ebooks across multiple platforms, and experiments with ways for readers to find new writing.
This year NYWF is collaborating with Bkclb to run an online version of the annual zine-fair. I spoke with co-founder Connor Tomas O’Brein about this new site and his epublishing adventures.
Tell me about Bkclb and how it began?
In a nutshell, Bkclb is a platform for small publishers and individual authors to sell ebooks elegantly and easily. Our focus is on letting publishers and authors exert more control over the selling experience, and trying to make the ebookstore experience feel more personal and less like stepping into a warehouse or megastore.
Bkclb began as a PhD dissertation I was working on, looking at how the decisions of programmers and interface designers shape how we read and disseminate electronic books. Yes, the book as a cultural object is changing, but what I wanted to know was: who’s changing it, how, and why? I began speaking with writers and publishers about the epublishing landscape, and what I was hearing was, ‘Amazon and Apple just don’t care about literary culture.’ I asked publishers how they’d do things differently, and began compiling a long, long list of their ideas. Eventually, I realised I had to do something with this list. Something seemed very wrong – it was this hugely exciting time for publishing, but publishers seemed totally unhappy. I got in touch with Fred Fan, a super talented developer I’d worked with before, and we set about turning that list into something real.
One of the really interesting things about Bkclb is its focus on reader discovery, and this is something you highlight as a point of difference to other ebook stores. Why did you feel this aspect was important when developing the site?
I really dislike the way books now tend to be shunted into ultra-specific, pre-established genres. It makes it really easy for readers to stick to a very particular category of book and just read the same thing over and over. When you combine this with Amazon’s algorithms, you can end up locked into a feedback loop, your reading pool reduced to a tiny set of writers producing almost exactly the same stuff. It’s often said that bricks-n-mortar independent bookstores are valuable because they’re curated and because they’re staffed by employees who can direct you to books you’ll love but may’ve never considered otherwise. I think it’s important to bring that online. It’s important to create a bookstore platform that encourages readers to take chances, to explore and expand their idea of what a good book could be.
A really beautiful project you have on Bkclb is Infinite Book. Can you explain this project?
We’ve set up an algorithm that ‘reads’ through all the books sold through Bkclb and extracts random sentences and paragraphs. We then display those snippets on an endless page stripped of context – no covers, titles, author names, genre tags. Only after hovering over or tapping the snippet does all that metadata fade in. You end up finding incredibly beautiful, funny, strange passages from works you would’ve usually dismissed immediately.
You reference a Jorge Luis Borges short story The Book of Sand. Is this where you got the idea for Infinite Book?
The Book of Sand… and Horse_ebooks. I’d love to write an insufferably academic essay about the relationship between Twitter nonsense spam accounts and Argentine magical realists. Another time, I guess?
Have you found that the passages or lines interact?
You do get some beautifully, touchingly weird ones. My favourite combo so far:
Book 1: ‘No one’s giving boys away.’
Book 2: ‘I have no spell to make a boy.’
Book 3: ‘Do you promise?’
The first two snippets are delightfully odd just by themselves.
What other ways of reader discovery are you exploring?
One idea we’re exploring right now is mapping titles and publishing houses geographically. Different cities foster literary communities, but there’s no easy way right now to see what writers in Melbourne or Adelaide are producing right now, compared to those in, say, Seattle or Toronto. I think it could be pretty cool. I’m not sure what we’ll find yet.
We’re also looking at curation and categorisation. You need categories to make a bookstore navigable, but we’re thinking about different ways books could be categorised. All this is happening in consultation with publishers and writers, playing off their ideas. When you ask a writer, ‘How would you create a bookstore?’, you get some fairly out-there ideas.
Bkclb is running the NYWF efair this year, how did this come about?
Every year, the National Young Writers Festival runs a Zine Fair, which is always really nice. The great thing about zine culture is that it’s egalitarian, and there’s no real distinction between ‘buyer’ and ‘creator’ – everybody’s just a part of the culture. I like the idea of trying to translate the zine culture ethos to ebooks. Ebooks are perfect for an emerging writer to get some short work out into the world. Pip Smith and I worked on the eFair concept together, our idea being to make it really easy for festival-goers to buy and read the work of other festival-goers on their devices during or after NYWF. Seems like a no-brainer when everybody’s walking around with devices that double as ereaders. This stuff is really exciting to me. When you think about writers festivals, there are so many missed opportunities to play around with what’s possible with digital platforms. I know Lisa Dempster is really interested in all this as well, so I’m excited to see what she’s got planned for next year’s Melbourne Writers Festival.
Which works are you most excited about in the efair?
Oh, everything, basically (all over here). We’ve got a digital only edition of The Lifted Brow, the latest Voiceworks (which is gonna be launched in physical form at NYWF), and some original fiction and poetry from Emily Craven, Amelia Walker, and Rory Kennett-Lister. I hear a few groups are going to be working on ebooks during the festival, so it’ll be interesting to watch that list of titles potentially grow over the weekend.
How can authors wanting to publish with Bkclb get involved?
Over on the Bkclb.co homepage, there’s a ‘Publish with Bkclb’ button. We’re really excited to hear from emerging writers and small publishers, particularly if you’ve got an interesting project in mind.