The launch of e-reader platforms has fueled the growth in self pub- lished and traditional books. Reading habits
are changing — no more dog-ears on print copies, now it’s
about reading in the dark with the backlit screen, changing
the size of the fonts for a better reading experience, and carrying many books in one device. This means authors have
also learned new ways to engage with readers. Shorter
crisper stories and new formats on smartphones and other
devices are being developed for consumers on the move,
waiting for a meeting/flight/train or simply unwinding at the
end of a hard day. No longer do authors have to visit bookstores or chase their publishers to check on book sales; analytics reveal the demographic of the readers, where the books
are most popular, and instant feedback on stories can make
writing more challenging, but more gratifying as well.
On a sabbatical from work to travel, unwind, lead a simpler
life and write a book with her husband, Prerna Gupta hit
upon a new idea. Was there space for a storytelling format
that had the potential to become the ‘Snapchat’ for stories?
She got down to work and with her compelling data managed to secure funding for a new app, Hooked.
Prerna is not new to innovation in the digital space. She
founded Songify, a quirky iPhone app that turns spoken
word into song and became the most downloaded free
iPhone app. All her energies are focused on Hooked now,
and she hopes this storytelling app will become ‘THE’ place
for great stories.
In Hooked, bite-sized stories — of less than a 1,000 words
— look more like text messages. It is almost as if the reader
is eavesdropping on someone’s conversation. In Shopping for
Love, a young woman, Olivia, starts a conversation with
Jason whose phone she found in the toilet. After each message, readers have to hit ‘next’ to follow the story. The messages are short, sometimes populated with emoticons, but it
has enough twists and turns to keep the reader engaged for
the few minutes it takes to finish the story.
India Abroad was ‘hooked’ enough to speak with Prerna
and find out what her plans for the new app were.
Why do you call Hooked the Snapchat for stories?
We refer to Hooked as fiction for the Snapchat generation,
because messaging is how teenagers are telling the stories of
their lives. The way in which we tell stories, as creators, must
adapt to fit into this new paradigm. The best stories are a
reflection of how we live our lives. There are two types of sto-
ries in Hooked currently:
— Short stories, which are 1k words long.
— Serialized stories, which have several episodes, each of
which is 1k words long. Our longest story in the app so far is
10k words (10 episodes), but it’s not finished yet. I think it’ll
be 20 episodes (20k words), in the end.
In what way is Hooked different from Keita Shousetsu, the
Japanese cell phone novels? Or other such apps?
There are a handful of popular apps, or stories, that have
elements of Hooked.
The Japanese ‘cell phone novels’ are a great example of fiction that was written by young women on cell phones.
However, the style of storytelling was not conversational.
Lifeline is a popular interactive narrative game, told as a
sequence of first-person text messages. But that was one
story, rather than a platform for storytelling.
Wattpad is a popular app for mobile storytelling, but the
stories are long and written in normal prose. So, I think all
the pieces are out there, but we’re the first to put them
together in this way.
Why did you think Hooked might work?
My goal is for Hooked to be the next-generation You Tube
— a media destination where a billion people come everyday
to create and consume great stories from all over the world.
We knew Hooked would work because we tested it. We
built a very basic mobile web prototype first, and tested a text
message story on it. We put analytics into the Web site to
track reader behavior and saw that 80 percent of people who
started this story finished it. For benchmarks, we had previously tested normal prose stories of the same length, which
typically saw completion rates of 5 percent-35 percent. That’s
how we knew we were onto something. We were able to raise
funding for Hooked because our data was so compelling.
Our data tells us that Hooked is a highly engaging reading
format for teens. We’ve had 300,000 teenagers in America
read 3 million stories in Hooked since we launched in late
2015. Our average completion rate on a 6-minute story, or
episode, is 90 percent.
And the app has rave reviews. Check them out in i Tunes J.
What kind of genres are you looking to explore for Hooked?
Teenagers are our early adopters, because that is the demographic that drives fiction and pop culture in our country.
But long-term, we want Hooked to be a content destination
for everyone in the world.
Our initial focus is on mass-market fiction genres, such as
mystery, science fiction, thriller and romance. Long-term, we
are interested in all genres, including fiction, non-fiction and
news. I believe conversational UIs are the future of content,
and you can tell any sort of story in the text message format.
Having said that, we are also testing the long-form method
for storytelling on the app, and will launch appropriate content once we have tested it.
Have you engaged any well-known authors yet?
No. We took a decision to work with new, young undiscovered talent. We wanted freshness in stories and storytelling.
Our authors are MFA graduates who are willing to try a new
format, and have a handle on what will appeal to our current
demographic. Our data-driven approach allows us to take a
chance on authors who don’t have big names. The proof is in
Will Hooked remain a free app? Are you looking to get into
collaborations with publishers?
Hooked will become a Freemium app. Most of the content
in the app is free currently, but we will be introducing a subscription that gives readers access to premium content. In a
while, readers will be able to upload their own stories, complete with illustrations and pictures as well.
We may work with publishers eventually, but currently all
our content is original and written just for Hooked.
In what way did your upbringing prepare you for Hooked?
I am currently writing a serialized story for Hooked called
Not an Ordinary Girl. It is an account (with elements of fiction of course) of my experiences growing up in a small town
in the Bible Belt, called Shawnee, Oklahoma. There weren’t
many Indian families in my town, and I encountered a lot of
racism and prejudice growing up. It was not fun, but I think
facing this adversity at a young age taught me how to be a
better entrepreneur, because I learned how to build relationships with people who are different from me, and I gained
the courage to be myself and stand up for what I believe.
Prerna Gupta, who
founded the quirky
iPhone app Songify,
is now growing a
new storytelling app.
She tells Preeti
Singh more about it
and the start-up life.
the Snapchat for stories
Prerna Gupta with husband Parag Chordia. She is the CEO of Hooked and he is the CTO.