Bastion’s Last Stand pt.1: How Not to Develop a New Way of Reading

I promised a tale at some point in the newsletter you’ve likely read and reread and then printed out and framed to put on your wall. It was to be an undulating, heartbreaking and ribald tale of brilliance penned on pub-soaked notebooks and sleepless nights. I may have even promised a tale of heroic struggle and welcome relief. What I for sure won’t promise is the usual schlock you read about how passion and perseverance overcame everything and unlimited funding awaited at the end of a mythical entrepreneurial tunnel.

The tales to follow will be a short series documenting the unholy bastard of an idea and its foretold doom. Wow. I’m really going to have to make this funny somehow aren’t I? Come with me, you won’t regret it.

Passion, Purpose and Bullshit

I’ve always like stories. Stories in all shapes, lengths and forms, from drawing Godzilla scenes as a kid to waking up before work to write books that I didn’t show anyone. At some point I ended up as a designer. At some point after that I fell hook, line and sinker for the notion of passion being the thing that can solve this eternal yearning to just make stories and things that hold them. Sure enough, I spent years trying to do what I thought was the logical thing, which was combine design which is what I do for a living, with one of my biggest passions which was storytelling. I might as well have chosen to somehow combine skateboarding and rock-n-roll as a career and would have gotten just as far. Probably farther.

I’ve never had a publisher nor ever been paid to write. Despite this, I’ve written 2.6 novels, countless stories, essays and missives on everything from trolls to the state of the design industry. Writing is something I’ve always done and will continue to do till the end of my days it looks like. In contrast, I’ve been a designer and paid to be a designer for going on two decades. So naturally I got to thinking, “Why Jim, why don’t you just combine these two thing? Soon unthinkable power, untold riches and glory will soon be yours!”

Software vs Comedy

In 2015–2016 I wrote what could possibly be the world’s first and only siege comedy: The Gates of Vienna. This makes absolute sense when you randomly read a book about the 1683 Siege of Vienna, you start to see comedy gold. After all, a siege is mainly sitting around and hoping you don’t get dysentery. Of course when the cannons go silent, hi-jinx ensues. Or something like that. So I ploughed through various draft, revisions, back and forth’s to the editor to something like 50,000 words and thought, “Wait Jim, you need to design something for this.” So I did. Oh wait, did I mention that there was a book at this point and maybe that could have been enough?

You can just see the hilarity in this scene

The premise I like to believe was rather simple. Reading has changed dramatically in the past twenty years. Among other things, we have this whole Internet thing now which has taken the last shreds of attention that decades of TV hadn’t eaten away like cancer. The novel is roughly 400 or so years old1 and it’s format hadn’t changed much. You have a bunch of story in chapters arranged in order in a bound book. It’s usually roughly 80,000 words or so.

For the large majority of those past four centuries people, meaning those who could read, would have hours, undisturbed, beautiful slabs of time to read. We don’t have time to read that way anymore as you can attest to by just an hour ago when you decided to read 220 words of an article on the history of cheese crackers while waiting for your toast to pop up. We read in bite size bits and pieces throughout the day, scavenging across different pieces of media like rabid wolves. I saw a problem here. My job is to fix things with design.

This is who people used to read
This is what it’s like today, on the 32 bus or waiting at the dentist office

Here’s some fun facts and figures about the sorry state of reading today2

18% of adults never read physical books at all

36% start a book but get bored

35% cannot find the time to read

27% said they prefer internet and social media to reading books

I had a way to address this, break down the book into units that can be arranged or rearranged and thus read in any order the reader wants, all in fifteen minutes or less. This I thought was obvious. The reader can read an entire Point of View (PoV) all in a row, or skip to what happened of August for each person that year, or go to a map and read what happened at any particular place. I would rebuild the novel as a design exercise. What could go wrong?

What started as a couple sketches turned into what was initially helped by some Proof of Market funding from the UK government. Because this initial work was successful I did what anyone else would do and think this was it, go for it.

So I went and started building a thing for a phone where you could choose how you want to read a massive story world: by who, when and where.

Best laid plans

I spent the next two to three years going through a barebones3 campaign of designing and building a digital product and service from the ground up the right way. It was all there. I had up until that point been researching, designing and being part of the building of digital products and services for over fifteen years so I was pretty sure I knew what I was doing.

I did actually. The roadmap was there, the processes were there, it was all there. I had the expertise with mobile, with CMS’s4 and knew enough to get the designs done and have the right conversations with developers and building just enough to make a product. Just because you know what you’re doing doesn’t mean it’s the wright thing. Eventually we released an iOS app5 and then…

Crickets. Tumbleweeds. You could hear the wind rustling through. You could see dust. What was that in the background? The sound of someone taking a sip of water. Oh and that buzzing? That’s a fly across the road. It was that bad. What happened? That was simple. Nobody wanted it.

Systematise or Die, or maybe Systematise and Die

I spent a lot of time on things that didn’t matter. For some reason I got lost in the product swamp of my own head6. I was convinced it needed to work offline because I think someone mentioned it once and because that meant an app and developing an app, well at least in 2015/2016, was the only thing one should be doing with themselves. I was so worried about a problem that wasn’t yet, namely that a.) people would want to read it and b.) they could not possibly live without this book of mine on their phone while in the tube or on a plane. I was thinking too much like book instead of Internet. I was taking on a thing that still worked.

During the Proof of Market research I talked to loads of different people and worked with an agency that talked to even more. There was a load of enthusiasm for what was then just a book. But it couldn’t be just a book, it had to be a repeatable thing. That much was clear. That’s Product 101, you have an interaction or set of interactions that work or look like they work in a situation, you have to systematise it and productise it which is what I did. But I also had conversations, for instance with this super nice guy, a guy who actually authored and wrote fiction for apps and games. He seemed to like it but told me that he couldn’t picture trying to rewrite something to get it into this format. I didn’t have empathy or didn’t want to hear it. Not sure which, but it doesn’t matter. The passion was the issue. I had way too much of it and it got in the way

To Be Continued…

So there you are, part 1 of what looks to be 3. For part two, grab a cozy quilt and curl up with the story of a story inside a thing that didn’t go anywhere and all that lessons learned stuff people say they like.

Oh yeah, about the title of this, I’m sure at least one of you, or maybe just one of you (Hi Tom!) caught the intricate irony there.

Don Quixote is credited with being the first novel and was written in 1605 ↩︎

Bear in mind they’re from the Booktrusts 2013 ‘Reading Habits Survey’, but you know it’s probably even worse today ↩︎

A potential funder was floored when I told him I spent less than £10k GBP over 2–3 years on having it built ↩︎

Content Management Systems ↩︎

It’s just been pulled down from the iOS App Store after four years, Rest in Power Bastion ↩︎

You know the one, the one where you, because you’re in charge of it, know best and sort of don’t have to listen? That malarial, fetid swamp we all sweat and suffer in. ↩︎