Is This Thing On? #4

Hello, and welcome to another episode of "Is This Thing On?"
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For those of you flipping through the internet, my name is Dan Shaurette. Welcome to my podcast.

About a month ago, I mentioned a unique "email mystery" called THE DAUGHTERS OF FREYA, written by Michael Betcherman and David Diamond. Besides being a suspenseful and fun read, the most fascinating aspect of the story is its presentation.

The story's narrative takes the form of a collection of email exchanges between the main characters of the story. However, the reader upon purchasing the story, has those same emails sent to their own inbox. This gives the reader a more intimate reading experience, as if being CC'd by the characters themselves.

While "email narratives" are relatively new, THE DAUGHTERS OF FREYA, which was released in 2004, is the first to actually be sent out as an email subscription. It seems like a fine medium for storytelling, drawing in the reader in an exciting new way. Besides wanting to know more about the story, I am curious about the technology behind the delivery.

It was a real pleasure speaking with both writers. My first attempt at the recording had to be scrapped, unfortunately. But luckily, I was able to talk again with Michael on September 8th. Here is our conversation.

DS: I did enjoy the story very much, and I want to thank you very much for this opportunity to interview you tonight.

MB: My pleasure.

DS: You're a writer and producer of documentaries and dramatic television programs, and you live in Toronto. You are currently working on a documentary on the wrongly-convicted.

David lives in California and is a writer and journalist. His seventh book, coauthored with poker's Annie Duke, hit bookstores yesterday!

Where did you two meet? How did you two get together?

MB: David and I met in Israel in the late 70's, and we've been friends since then. We've seen each other a few times over the years, but for the last several years really have kept in contact via email. So, he contacted me and thought that we should write a novel together that would be composed entirely of emails. A century ago it used to be very popular that people would write novels in the form of letters. This was kind of updating what was epistolary novel to what we called an "e-pistolary" novel.

I thought it was a really great idea and so we started to work on structuring a story and early on we decided that we would do a mystery. One of the things that intrigued David from the start was the idea that on the internet you can disguise your location and one of the insidious aspects of the internet in fact is that you never really know who is on the other end of an email. So the format of an email story was kind of tailor-made for a mystery.

He had written an article for Wired magazine on a cult and suggested that we might want to use that as the setting and I thought that was a really good idea. Very early on we decided that our sleuth would be a journalist because he had been a journalist for many years, so it was something that we would be able to write about with authority.

As far as the cult in this story, is a sex cult, although none of the sex is graphically depicted in the story and that just came out of our conversations back and forth, probably out of our fevered unconsciouses in some sense. The idea of the cult is that the cult believes that sex can solve all the problems of the world.

DS: Right.

MB: He originally contacted me in January of 2003, or proposed that we work on this together. Over the next six months, we got a basic story line together. Originally, we tried to each assume a character and actually write the emails, but it soon became clear that before we could get into actually writing the emails we had to get a story structure down. So through both email and phone conversation we got our story structure together and a basic plot emerged.

Then at the time we were still thinking very much of this as a print book the idea being that we would write a manuscript, the story would all be written in emails, and we would go and try to get a publisher interested. But that summer, so the summer of 2003, I was on a bike trip with a friend in British Columbia, and one night just killing time in a bar I told him the story line of our story and he thought it sounded really good and suggested that we instead of publishing it in a book that we should send it out as emails. A few emails at a time, as if the reader is being copied on the emails that the characters are sending to each other. I thought that was a great idea, and even in the morning after I'd sobered up it still sounded like a great idea.

When I got back to Toronto, I called David and he got really excited about the idea, and that was a real motivator to complete the project, because although we were committed to it, at the back of our minds was always an awareness of I think the hurdles that would be surmounted in trying to approach publishers with a print manuscript. Although we both are writers in our own medium, none of us had a mystery to our credit. I was certainly worried that was going to be an uphill battle and then the idea of distributing it over the internet and doing something that was completely unique was a real motivator.

But the following October, we got together in Washington and borrowed an apartment and spent four days sort of across the table from each other on dueling laptops and pounded out a first draft of the novel. Over that next winter we kind of polished it to the point that we thought that it was in good enough shape to present to people and test the concept of delivering it by email, which everyone has said to us, when we talked about it that everyone immediately reacted what a cool idea to send it out that way.

We recruited about forty acquaintances, friends, family -- different ages, different backgrounds -- and ran a test with them over two weeks sending it out as we are sending it out now, in random installments over the time of the story. The response we got was really encouraging and exceeded our wildest expectations. Unsolicited emails would come in saying, "I'm hooked," and when the story ended people were telling us they were going through withdrawals. So we felt that we were really on to something.

DS: Was it after that initial focus group of about forty people, was it them that suggested it should be stretched out into a longer period?

MB: So we sent out a survey following that and at that point the story lasted two weeks and we were sending out, I guess about ten emails a day, and we asked people if they felt that was the right pacing, and people said "yes." So we the next six months was another six months before we actually launched and during that period we both did a fairly significant rewrite on the story based on the focus group feedback on the actual mystery itself. I think people felt at that point that the mystery lacked a level of complexity. We agreed with that, found a solution to it. Did a rewrite, make it a complex and entertaining mystery. And worked with a web programmer to get our website up and running, and get the computer program that we would need to deliver the emails to subscribers up and running.

In September we opened the website up to the public and sort of spread the word among friends and acquaintances and we had a lot of people signing up and it was we still were on the two-week timetable and from that much larger group, the feedback quickly was that people were overwhelmed by the amount of email and that's when we decided to stretch it out to slightly over three weeks.

We combined some of the individual messages from the book into one email for readers so that readers now get about four or five emails a day and based on the feedback we are getting, people are finding that's a reasonable amount for them, because that really translates to about five or ten minutes of reading a day.

DS: Right.

MB: And you know it still is a lot of fairly high-volume of email but based on what people are telling us once they realize that each time they open it up it's only about a minute or so to read, it seems to be a decent pacing for people to accept.

DS: Mm-hmm, and that was one of my personal favorite things about the story not only is it unique in that it comes to you in an email format, so you're already doing something you are used to doing. But the fact that the you get sort of short bites... I'm notorious for taking forever to read a book and this was a good-size story and the fact that you get three, four, maybe at most five messages a day, and it only takes you a couple minutes to read each one. I felt like I accomplished something by getting through the story as in the pieces that it took. It felt good to get through a story. But then it also added to the suspense of I have to wait though to find out what is going to happen next. So the suspense is built up by it as well. So it just all came together in the pacing that you did put together for it.

MB: Well, I think that what sets this apart, people have tried to do this you know this sort of somewhat similar stories before like they tried to write .. people have written stories in email form but no one has really sent it out in the same way that we're doing where as the subscriber, you decide when you want to start and then you are on this three-week delivery and I think what distinguishes this from, certainly a print book is you can't turn the page to find out what happens next. You have to wait for the next email to arrive. So in a way as a reader you're surrendering that control.

DS: Yes.

MB: And that in itself I think transforms the reading experience in a away that has the potential to be more. There's an innate suspense in it. I mean, and again this is not a new development. A 100 years ago, Charles Dickens was writing novels that were delivered in installments and people would wait a week or so for the boat to arrive with the next installment. We're again updating that idea for a modern age, and instead of waiting a week, you wait a few hours, but you never know when it's coming in and you are as a reader you give up that control. And that makes this, I think, a different experience for people than reading a traditional book. Although the story itself is you know it's a conventional narrative that is chronological and linear and the mystery has a villain and a hero and clues so if you were to read it in manuscript form it would be readable as a mystery, but by receiving it in email installments you have this added element of having to wait for the story to unfold. That's why, you know, we kind of have been calling it a "real-time" mystery. If the protagonist for example is today she's in Toronto and tonight she is flying to California, as she does in the story, you don't get her emails from California until the next day when she's actually there. So we tried as much as far as much as possible to spread the emails out in the same, over a real time period.

DS: And that works and you are sort of bringing the cliffhanger-type feel to the story as well by not being allowed to see the next page. So you're sort of adapting that methodology as well.

MB: Exactly. Like people used to go to the theatre and there would be a weekly serial and every installment ended every week would end on a cliffhanger with the hero in trouble, and the next week the people would come back and find out how it unfolded. So wherever possible we try to end the day on a cliffhanger so the audience you know the readers go to bed you know sort of looking forward to what's going to happen next and living with that suspense and I think that that makes the reader feel a little more implicated in the mystery. Like the very act of picking up a book is a distancing mechanism. As soon as you pick up a book, you're aware no matter that you're an observer in events that belong in someone else's life.

Not to say that you can't get completely absorbed, because obviously people do get completely absorbed in print books, but the physical nature of holding a book separates the reader from the events in the story. In our story, because the emails come right into your inbox, it feels I think for the reader, that the line between the reality of their life and the fiction of the story is a little more blurred. And I think that's one of the attractive elements in one of the elements people like. Like one of our readers when they sent in the survey said that when the story was over they felt like their friends stopped writing to each other. And I thought that that was exactly the kind of reaction we were hoping to illicit, the idea that, you know because the emails arrive right in your inbox in the same way that the emails from the real people in your life do. So, the line between what's real and what's not is a little more blurred, and certainly a lot more blurred than it is when you are reading a print book.

DS: The look and feel of the emails as well there's definitely a distinction between the characters in the story. One that I can immediately think of is Max, Samantha's son. He doesn't know how to capitalize. He's just like a teenager or college student who is just writing a quick email. Doesn't care about spell check, or anything like that. But of course the journalist -- perfect writing, and the articles are well-written and perfect structure for the journalist articles that you see in these emails. That was also very well done. It fits what we expect in emails. If Max has perfect diction and typing skills, not to say it's not realistic, but it feels more realistic seeing that.

MB: We tried, certainly my experience is that younger people especially, an email is a more informal form of communication, and they don't care as much about spelling and punctuation. Plus, email is also, you know there's a lot of everybody sort of, even people who's spelling and diction might be right have their own idiosyncrasies, like some people separate sentences by a few dots in email. Other people when they're replying to an email will insert their responses into the body of the email that's been sent to them. So Samantha's father in our story, he does that so we try to give everybody their own email personality because that's the way that people use emails you know, that's something that's unique to this format. As well of course trying to give the characters all different voices as you would in a conventional story.

DS: Yes.

MB: So I'm hopeful that came through.

DS: It did. It definitely did.

MB: Thank you.

DS: So what challenges did you find -- once you'd written the story, getting it put out to the public? Did you seek out somebody to create the mailing list subscription system and the website, which by the way is just awesome. I just love the way the way the website is set up. It's just perfectly organized. It looks good. The ability to go in and read past messages in one place that you can log in to was very handy. To see a list of characters it's I just recommend even people just to check out EmailMystery.com just to see the look of it and appreciate the website for its strengths. And then check out the free sample, initial email that you can get before even deciding if you wanna put down the five bucks. I think you'll want to. It's a very good story. But tell me about the challenges you had in getting this out to people.

MB: Well the first challenge was to get a website design, get a computer program written. We worked with a guy here in Toronto whose name is Al Booth, who a total respect for who was a wonderful guy to work for, and takes a lot of credit for the visual look of the site. He wrote the computer program, and together we would discuss what functions we needed, and he was able to put them into place.

It was kind of a real fluke that we ended up with him, because I had received proposals from two other people that were very competent but somewhat corporate proposals. I met Al through, I had been recommended to him as someone he could talk to about a documentary film he wanted to produce. So he actually hired me to just talk to him and brainstorm his documentary and some of the problems he might run into doing that, to take advantage of my expertise in that field.

And at the end of our conversation, he asked me what I was doing, and I mentioned I was doing this project and he said, "Well I do website design and computer programs." I said, "Well would you like to bid on the job?" and he said "Sure," and he sent in within a day or two, a much more informal but very complete description of what would be needed and his price was half the price of the other two bids, and he didn't know obviously what the other people had bid on, but in his letter he said this is probably half of what you'll pay someone else would charge you and I'm doing it because I know you guys are putting your own money in. So, he was the total antithesis to the kind of corporate people we approached, and not only did he have like tremendous visual sense, and great to work with, we didn't have to worry about every minute of him time being rung up on the meter. So, everything came in on budget.

The look of the website was his inspiration and the functions that the website has were ones that we came up with in consultation. Like for example, the one that you mentioned, readers can to the website and log in and see the emails that have been sent to them, but only the emails that have been sent to them. They can't read ahead. Because part of the whole appeal of the project is you have to wait for the story to be delivered. And that was, that's a really key function to have because emails occasionally emails don't get through. You know servers block them, spam filters block them, you could be away at another computer and want to follow the story, so no matter what happens, you can always keep up with the story via your sort of personal archive on the website. And you know so that's worked out really well where people have had issues with their email or servers, no matter what they can keep up with the story.

And the free preview is also something that has proven to be very effective. And the way that works is people can go in and order a free preview and get the first three emails sent to them, and it's sort of a parallel to going into a bookstore and reading the first few pages to see will I like this story. But rather than post the emails on the website, we thought it would be cooler for people to get the idea of what it looks like when they get them in their inbox in the same way that they'll get the rest of the story.

And we've actually found that over 20% of people who read the preview go on to buy the book, which is a pretty gratifying statistic, because it gives you a complete sense of what the story is about and you know what the writing style is. so you can see when you read those three emails and say I like it or this just isn't for me. But at least you have that information. You can also send the free preview to a friend if you want, which is a function we've just put in. because thinking maybe that would be a good way for people to find out about it.

DS: Word of mouth has to have been the biggest key for the success of this because you're really not doing any marketing outside of the website, and the promotions of reviews and interviews like this.

MB: We haven't actually spent a nickel on marketing. Our strategy was to get the book reviewed by newspapers primarily as well as bloggers. We launched the project actually at BoucherCon which is the International Mystery Writers Convention. And we had a booth there with a couple computers set up and this was a convention in Toronto last October, where writers like Ian Rankin and the top ranking mystery writers were all there, and people would listen to them give seminars, and then they would walk through the dealers' room where people were selling print books, and we had our computers up and people got to see what we were doing.

The Globe And Mail which is Canada's national newspaper, sent a writer to the conference, and she interviewed us, read the mystery, gave us a really good review and we were able to use that to get the attention of other reviewers. We were basically cold-calling reviewers for newspaper and saying, "Hey, we're doing this thing, would you like to read it?" By being able to say that The Globe And Mail ran a big feature on us, allowed us to get our foot in the door, plus what we had going for us was the fact that nobody else had never done what we were doing. So that kind of separated us from the crowd. And we received many excellent reviews from The Globe And Mail, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The UK Guardian, Boston Herald, Vancouver Sun, that have given us a kind of credibility and they generated most of our sales have been generated through that and through word of mouth, as well.

DS: And, I've read many blogs, fellow blogs that have been just glowing reviews as well. I think you had mentioned BoingBoing?

MB: Yeah, we got a great review from Cory Doctorow at BoingBoing. Actually, ironically he, when we contacted him, he said I get too much email, send me it in manuscript form. So I mailed it to him in England, in manuscript form and kind of thinking, Oh God he's not gonna want to -- he's not experiencing it the same way, but he wrote a great review, calling it a "gripping, fun mystery" and he said he almost missed a plane to read the ending.

Well, as well as generating a lot of interest in the project, it was confirmation that the story on it's own was that we had a good story on our hands because the idea of sending it out by email, absolutely everyone we've talked to has said what a cool concept. We knew the concept was cool, but at the end of the day, people have to like the story that you're writing. People seem to be liking it. And when, the guy at BoingBoing liked it just reading it in manuscript form as if it was a print book without the added plus that the typical reader gets of having to go through the suspense of waiting for the emails to arrive you know that was sort of more confirmation that we felt we might have something good going for us.

DS: Well, absolutely. You've got to have a good story, a good plot, and great characters, and this story has all three.

MB: Well thank you.

DS: And the cool concept, and the wonderful delivery. Just everything about it, I loved it.

MB: Well, thanks.

DS: Uh, One of the cool things about this story was there are, since it is in email, one of the great features of email is the ability to link to websites and to articles. Which in this story, the main character is a journalist who's investigating this cult. So you get to read links to the articles that she's written, but there's also links passed around to real websites and real locations. Obviously, that adds to the realism to the story, but were there any other reasons why you decided to have links to real websites for stores and hotels and uh another author's book, kind of thing in this story, links to those?

MB: The guiding principle behind this concept is that we wanted readers to experience this story in exactly the same way that they actually use the internet. There've been a lot of attempts to get people to publish on the internet. And by and large they haven't been very successful, because by and large they've asked people to read a chapter book on a computer screen and people have basically said, "No thanks."

If our project works, I think one of the main reason is that the form of the story is integrated with the medium in which it's delivered. The story is written in emails and sent out over the internet. Our readers when they open an email they read an email that is written in email form in the same informal style of emails, chatty, and just as in the emails that people get in their real life will occasionally link to external sites, our emails also link to external sites. So some of them are newspaper, magazine articles, or photographs of potential suspects that were created specifically for the mystery. But in order to enhance that aspect of email use, we're sort of fit in organically with the story without having pre-planned it, we would include websites that were already existed just to further blur the line of reality and fiction.

Early on in the story, Samantha, who is the protagonist, is going to visit this cult in California that is named The Daughters of Freya, and Freya was the Norse goddess of sexuality. So, someone from the cult sends Samantha an email with the directions for how to get out there and says and if you want to know more about Freya, here's a link, and we just linked a real article on Freya. So now the reader links to that, and now all of a sudden they're out in the you know "real world", if you can use that for the internet.

So wherever there was an opportunity to do that, we took advantage of it, feeling that this would just enhance the reader's experience of the mystery. plus those websites already existed so it was a lot easier to just link to that rather than try to create one of our own.

DS: Sure, you had mentioned the photographs that were linked to the emails as well. Who were the folks that volunteered for these, some infamous photographs?

MB: The people are David and myself and a number of our friends who just thought it would be cool to be involved in this. So we just went out with digital camera and took pictures of people who said yeah you can use my photo and use the photos, these are people who are suspected of being involved in rather a shady dealings. So it was a matter of finding friends who didn't care about their reputation. I was happy to say that neither of us had any problem doing that.

DS: This is a grassroots project, you guys did publish this yourselves. You had mentioned it was originally conceived to be in emails but as a manuscript that could have been produced as a print book. Was it truly just an issue of you knew that there was going to be a lot of hoops to jump through to go through to make this a traditionally published story and you wanted full control over everything, or did you try any of those any avenues first, and then through frustration you decided to do it yourself?

MB: No, originally that was our idea was we would write up a manuscript and send it to publishers because really that was the only model we knew. As I mentioned it was this friend of mine who said what you really should do is send it out as email and that idea itself. That was really the killer idea behind the whole thing.

DS: Well the one great thing that publishers do provide is promotion. So, you're out there promoting this yourselves, through reviews and websites, but have you found that it's being successful with the way you're approaching it now, and do you have any plans for stepping up beyond? Specifically, for example, the Group Read that caught my interest in this case. Which started August 1st, and I read it starting with that. Is this the first time you tried a Group Read as an approach to get more readership, but as a marketing technique. And it worked. Are there plans for other group reads? What is next for trying to get the word out for the story?

MB: The group read was really one of the advantages of the format is that you can set up a kind of an online book club and have everybody read the book at the same time and be able to discuss it while it's happening. To explain to people perhaps what the Group Read was, we set it up with in conjunction with a website called ARGN.com Alternate Reality Gaming Network, and they through another website, unFiction.com set up an online forum and the idea was that everyone would subscribe and select August 1st as the start date.

So you would have this mass of people reading the same story at the same time and then people were able to discuss it as it was unfolding on this online forum. Since nobody could read ahead, there was no risk that someone could spoil it by revealing aspects of the story that other people wouldn't have caught on to.

Unlike a print book, where if you read a print book you know and someone happens to read ahead they could spoil it for you and that's why the traditional book club people discuss it a month later when everyone's read it. So we just wanted to kind of see what it would be like to have a bunch of people reading a book at the same time and discussing the book while they were reading it. It was quite fascinating to see the conversations that ensued. I would like to take that Group Read idea and expand it -- do more of it.

But I'm not sure how or where to proceed with that. Like one of my thoughts is maybe we could persuade one of these social networks to sort of run it for their members, because you know it is kind of like the equivalent is you go on your first date with someone and you go to a movie and now you've got something to discuss. So now here you're meeting people on the internet and you can all read this story and it's an entree to a conversation between people. I haven't really moved on that.

I love the idea of the Group Read as a marketing tool. The one we did was more of an experiment to just see what it would be like because it was a natural extension of the format we created.

Word of mouth is good. We have a gift subscription function. And about a quarter of our sales are gifts. So you know that's an encouraging thing. Most of whom are given by people who have read it. So people are reading it, liking it, and saying I'm going to give this to somebody. How we make this take off virally I don't know. But if any of your listeners are really clever marketers, I would love to speak to them. I believe that we really have something that would appeal to a lot of people and it's a bit frustrating not knowing how to kind of you know make that happen.

DS: I think that marketing is a challenge for just about every publisher, every author.

MB: Everything in life, really.

DS: Yeah, you've got to let people know you've got something that they're going to want to check out. But I think that the Group Read was just a great idea, I enjoyed it. The ability to chat with my fellow readers, ideas about what was going to happen next, who the bad guys were, what they were doing, what they were planning to do. And there was a great feature in unFiction's message forum where they had the ability to block out anything that their suspicions, that they considered spoilers, they were able to cover that up.

So if somebody reading that didn't want to know what somebody else was, what their suspicions were, they could go past that if they wanted to. But it was nice to be able to hide that. So I thought the marriage of that website with the story was just very well done. I think that there are a lot of websites with forums for different kinds of storytelling mediums that I'm sure would love to pick up on another Group Read.

Is there a sequel in the works? Either for Samantha Dempsey, or are you planning another mystery or another story in the same email format?

MB: We've got a couple of projects that are in the early stages of development. The idea of doing another mystery with Samantha is something we've discussed but that we haven't really taken that beyond the initial stages.

My feeling is that the format is would lend itself to any genre. It would be ideal for stories aimed at young kids who don't read that much, or parents who are having trouble getting kids reading, but certainly not having trouble getting kids turning on the computer.

But right now we are really focusing our efforts on getting the word out about this one, because if this becomes very successful it'll be a lot easier to get something else up and running

DS: Oh, absolutely true. So, what else is up next for you and for David?

MB: Well, David has co-written a book with Annie Duke, who is the top female poker player in the world, and that as you mentioned up front hit the bookstores yesterday, so he's gonna be fairly busy with the promotion of that.

I'm currently working on a documentary series on the wrongly-convicted that's investigative in nature. We're looking at cases of people who are still in prison who we feel are innocent, and so we are in the research phases of that, looking for cases that would fit that bill, and um, that's occupying most of my time. As well as the time I'm putting trying to market THE DAUGHTERS OF FREYA.

DS: Absolutely.

MB: Yeah.

DS: Well, I appreciate you taking some time with me to talk about it. I recommend to everybody who listens to this to go visit EmailMystery.com. Every good story starts with a good cover; the website is that cover. I think it looks good -- it brings you in. You have the ability to flip through the first three pages of the story as it were. It comes to you in email. You can decide if you like... if you like the characters in the story, you can go back to the website. It's $4.99 American, which is how much, Michael, in Canadian?

MB: $5.99 Cdn.

DS: Right, and so it's a good buy, it's a good story. It takes three weeks to read it, but it only takes maybe five, ten minutes out of your day total. It comes to you at your convenience, at your inbox. It's just a wonderful story. a novel way of telling it, and I really enjoyed it. and I'm glad you took the time to take to me and my listeners about it.

MB: Well, I really appreciate the invitation to talk to you and I'm really glad that you enjoyed reading it as a reader, and I appreciate the chance to talk to you about it.

DS: Thank you very much.

MB: OK, thanks a lot, Dan.
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Michael Betcherman is a Toronto-based writer and filmmaker. He is currently working on a documentary on the wrongly-convicted.

David Diamond is a writer and journalist based in Kentfield, California. His seventh book, coauthored with poker's Annie Duke, hit bookstores earlier this month.

To find out more about Michael Betcherman and David Diamond, visit THE DAUGHTERS OF FREYA website at EmailMystery.com.

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