MacGuffin: An app device to move writing forwards?

MacGuffin - an app for wriingWE GOT IN TOUCH with Jim Hinks, project manager of MacGuffin (that’s our new favourite app and not Alfred Hitchcock’s nickname for a plot devices).

In your own words, what is MacGuffin?
MacGuffin is a big online jukebox for literature. Anyone can put their fiction, poetry or essay on it, so long as they upload an audio recording along with the text. End-users can either read or stream the audio (via the website, the App Store or Google Play). In this respect, we want to encourage self-publishing authors to follow the lead of amateur podcasters, who’ve shown in recent years that technological barriers to entry have fallen away (if you have a smart phone, you have a mini recording studio in your pocket). There’s loads of stuff on MacGuffin by established authors, but it’s also a really good place for new writers to self-publish samples of their work.

What are the key features?
Aside from the fact that everything on MacGuffin is available in both text and audio form, it’s got a really nice search function, which uses tags. Any user can add tags to anyone else’s work, to describe the content, or tag it into a playlist. This means you can search for stuff according to theme (try a search for #ice, for example, to find a diverse range of stories and poems that are, in one way or another, about ice). You can also use tags to create playlists of stories and poems to share (e.g. #clairesfavouritespecfic), or group together performances from your spoken word night (e.g. #badlangaugemcr), or work-in-progress by your creative writing group.

Where did the initial concept for Macguffin come from?
I work Comma Press, an indie publisher specialising in short stories, and a few years ago we launched an app called LitNav, featuring short stories set in cities across the world, in text and audio form. It proved to be really popular, and one of the most common responses we had was from authors, saying, ‘I have a story that’d be perfect for it – how do I put it on there?’ So we worked on developing a new platform with a really usable interface that allows anyone to add their own work, linked to a point of sale where readers can buy the whole book (if the author has one). I should mention that MacGuffin’s entirely non-profit and non-income generating, but we’re totally fine with writers and publishers using it to market their books to new readers.

What’s the variety been like among what’s being written?
It’s incredibly diverse, with stories and poems by established authors published by presses like Bloodaxe, Carcanet, Faber, Valley Press and Peepal Tree (and of course, Comma Press), alongside work by new writers from all over the world. It’s really pleasing to see great stuff popping up from writers in the US, South America, Australia and Asia. MacGuffin’s proved to be especially popular with poets (perhaps because they’re used to reading their work aloud) and spoken word nights, and a lot of this stuff is punchy, impactful material written specifically for performance, so it’s great to listen to.

Still in the early days of release, but have any trends started among those using it?
MacGuffin has a range of open analytics, which show things like where in the world (anonymised) readers and listeners are consuming stories, the ratio of reads/listens, and the key reader ‘drop-out points’ in stories. We initially found that in a lot of stories, about 50% of readers drop-out within the first 10% of the text or audio, and this worried us a bit. Were the stories bad? Then we uploaded a bunch of classic, public-domain content, for comparison. Stories by writers like Chekhov and Joyce. We found that their drop-out rates were similar. So I think this shows us something interesting about the way people browse; scanning the first few lines, perhaps deciding it’s not for them, and moving on to try something else. I suspect this also reflects the way we browse in bookshops – picking up a book and leafing through the first few pages, then moving on – but we’ve never before had data to reflect it.

What have been some of your favourite stories you’ve seen on MacGuffin so far?
Far too many to list them all, but I’m very fond of a story called ‘Norway’ by the spoken word performer Fat Roland, which manages to be both absurd and profoundly sad at the same time. Malika Booker’s ‘My Mother’s Blues’ shows a great poet (and great reader) at the peak of her powers. And for a longer listen, multi-award winning short story writer (and Comma Press author) David Constantine’s ‘The Cave’ is an astonishing story.

Are there any future plans for the project?
Keep growing it, reaching out to more readers and writers. People who try it tell us they love it; even skeptics are won over after they’ve had a play around for a while. On the audience side of things, the audio dimension makes it really well suited to commuters, so we’ll be doing more to market it to commuters over the coming months.

The MacGuffin website is at Apps are available for iOS and Android; just search ‘MacGuffin Stories’ at the respective app stores.

Once again, nothing to do with Hitchcock.

Once again, nothing to do with Hitchcock.