Will the next great novel be nothing more than a series of text messages?
Uh, maybe not, but there’s always room to experiment with new formats. That’s what husband-and-wife team Parag Chordia and Prerna Gupta are trying to do with their new startup Telepathic, which is launching its first app, Hooked.
Telepathic is also announcing that it has raised $1.2 million in new funding, bringing its total raised to $1.9 million. Investors include 500 Startups, Greylock, Foundation Capital, a syndicate assembled by Gil Penchina, Rivet Ventures, as well as angel investors like Hired founder Doug Feirstein, BranchOut founder Rick Marini, Zynga co-founder Justin Waldron, MightyText CEO Maneesh Arora and Lean Startup author Eric Ries.
Chordia and Gupta sold their last startup, Khush, to music app-maker Smule. They left Smule in 2013 (CEO Jeff Smith is an investor in their new startup) and spent some time traveling and working on a science fiction/fantasy trilogy of novels. In the process, they started researching the publishing industry, which made them think there was room to do something new.
Chordia compared their vision for Telepathic with the work they did at Smule and Khush, taking an existing art form (previously music, and now fiction), then “rethinking how does it fit into people’s lives.”
“We don’t think fiction’s dying,” Gupta added — but they do think there are ways to improve “the way it’s currently presented and produced.”
So with Hooked, they’re commissioning short stories that take the form of text message conversations. Instead of turning pages, you tap the screen to bring on the next message. The app offers a limited number of free stories but charges a subscription fee (starting at $2.99 per week) for unlimited access.
Chordia suggested that this presents a couple of advantages over a standard book or e-book. For one thing, readers aren’t faced with “this block of text that just doesn’t have that natural feel on your phone that a casual game does.” It could also make it easier for readers to consume the story in small bites, say when they’re waiting in line or riding the subway.
At the same time, the stories are supposed to keep you, well, hooked. I read one of them, “Unknown,” and while I don’t think it was a great piece of literature, I have to admit that the mystery grabbed me — I kept hitting the “Next” button until I reached the end.
“Every line has to either advance the story or advance the relationships,” Chordia said. “Every message is a cliffhanger.”
He also emphasized that the company is taking an experimental, “agile” approach, both within Hooked and perhaps with new apps.
For one thing, Telepathic will start gathering data about which stories are getting real engagement from readers, which in turn can influence the later chapters. That also helps the company identify the titles that will benefit from a heavy marketing push. And Chordia suggested that the messaging format could eventually lend itself to more interactive approaches, like branching stories.
By the way, Gupta acknowledged that there have been other interesting experiments over the past few years, like the New Yorker publishing a Jennifer Egan short story over Twitter. (There’s also a whole genre of cell phone novels that was popularized in Japan.). Oh, and there’s Wattpad, which has millions of users on its social platform for readers and writers.
“There is a huge demand for fiction,” Chordia said. “For us, [Wattpad] was one approach, but there’s much more that can be done.”