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Capital: sustaining the conversation

Helen Bagnall

Cross Platform Editor, The Literary Platform

Whilst John Lanchester has been busy writing his latest book: Capital, some big questions have been asked of publishing. How do you harness technology to get people to buy a book? How do you extend a fictional world of words in to a digital space? How do you best use an author’s skills in social media? And, more recently, does digital marketing sell books? Answers have been elusive, yet the Faber and Faber-commissioned Pepys Rd online story created by Matt Locke’s Storythings goes confidently in search of some all the same.

Capital is a state of the nation in microcosm book, and Pepys Rd is the sun around which its characters orbit. It is also the  address for the supporting site, an interactive text to persuade readers – those lovers of literature and London – to buy the book. Capital follows its London dwelling characters’ social and economic fortunes over a period of two years, concurrent with a slightly sinister postal campaign aimed at the street’s residents, which declares ‘We Want What You Have’. The site predicts the readers’ coming decade, one likely to be dominated by the consequences of social and economic uncertainty. Yet, as the web-app demands answers to determine the readers’ fate, the more info it gets, the more cleverly it positions the reader firmly at its heart.

Within moments of the first click the reader is told the net gain or loss they’ve made since moving from their place of birth to their current address. This is its inherent thrill: presenting available data in a nostalgic and personal way, jolting the reader to an understanding of how decisions made long ago affect income and life expectancy. By engaging with the site the reader is drawn in to Capital’s world almost as a character, equally affected by their own and unseen-others’ decisions. Over the following ten days, an email drops daily in to the readers’ inbox, asking for binary opinions on the Olympics, air travel and the likelihood of an apocalyptic financial crash. However, the decisions become harder to make as the journey unfolds and reveals its scope that includes education, health-care and immigration. For each choice made, the reader is rewarded with a relevant mini essay from John Lanchester, a ‘text’ of 200 – 500 words written in the second person singular (the grammatical person of most web content, thus one unconsciously familiar). This is upmarket, literary entertainment at its best and soon the reader is doing exactly what Faber intended, having an ongoing conversation with the themes of the book.

From the outset John Lanchester was keen to support Faber’s desire to sustain this conversation. He firmly believes the web will present the next new way of telling narrative and his much-documented love of gaming had given him a working knowledge of the digital world, it’s vagaries and speeds. However, he doesn’t believe the author should display themselves too much in social media.  John relates it to magic, “people think they want to understand the trick but really they love the illusion”, and is wary of publishers who over expose the author, close the circuit and undo the mystery and the magic of the book itself. Ideally, John wanted Capital’s app to allow readers’ lives to overlap with the characters in the book. “In a world that is increasingly ‘Me, Me, Me’”, John wanted the project to allow for “reflection, for the reader to be able to spend some time in their day thinking: ‘what about me?’”

So, when Matt presented his idea of projecting the next decade for the reader in a Capital context, John was keen, and they, having bonded over a shared interest in illusions, developed a working relationship to create a project that worked like magic.

The creator Matt Locke is a techno-fanatic and crucially one who has spent over a decade working in television, therefore adept at balancing digital engagement around a more established medium. He believed, however, to meet Faber’s brief and to successfully sell a book that no matter how technically clever the technology could be, the content had to revolve around reading. The idea was reminiscent of another state of the nation project developed by Locke for the BBC, however Faber liked its potential to keep a conversation going thematically. It also had a social media call-to-action built in, with a suitable reward to remind readers to get out their credit card and buy. Finally, its technology would also allow the diagnostics to analyse how the digital strategy helped book sales, taking a quantifiable step towards understanding how marketing and sales work together in a digital world.

Co-developer James Bridle has harvested readily available data, and serves it back up in novel ways, which are all about the reader. Pepys Road abounds with what Bridle has coined the ‘new aesthetic,’ with info-graphics interpreting the information that continually flows around us. Some of it just misses, the site displays the details of the exact plane overhead right at the moment of your accessing air travel section of the app, but this feels too much of a technical thrill to be a readerly thrill. However, the video footage of the route from where the reader was born to an assigned address on Pepys Rd is, at present, a uniquely personal and nostalgic a trick as the internet can currently turn. What is also consistently interesting is the omnipresent feedback, decisions are compared against current other readers, declaring how much they are swimming with or against the tide.  This mirrors the world of John Lanchester’s book, and also reflects on another question of interest to the digital literate: in the noisy hubbub of social media how can people be heard?  Storythings‘ answer is to create unique, fascinating to the individual content, which can easily be compared in public.

Faber’s digital offering for John Lanchester’s Capital doesn’t have all the answers publishing wants, but in terms of reader engagement and interest: you do want what they’ve got.

Pepys Road

Buy Capital by John Lanchester



2 Responses to “Capital: sustaining the conversation”

  1. Steve Guise Says:

    March 16th, 2012 at 2:51 am

    Helen, Thanks for this piece – I’m interested in anything that James Bridle is involved with, and I’ll keep a look out for Matt Locke from now on too. I just wondered if you can help me get a little further with three issues that your piece raises.

    First, how did Faber promote the Pepys Road site? Presumably they used social media. Really what I want to know – and of course don’t expect to be told, quite rightly – is how many hits the site has had. Do you think that you could come back to this in, say, a month’s time with figures for #pepysrd and Facebook likes. The problem is exactly what you say: signal vs noise. Lots of things seem to be pointing to the (increasing) inefficiency of Twitter and Facebook: that lots of us are now oversubscribed and can’t process the information (OK, anecdotal); GoodReads telling us that Facebook and Twitter don’t lead to book sales (well, they would tell us that); a not so old piece in Publishing Research Quarterly that reveals that a quite a large proportion of tweets issued by UK publishers have nothing to do with books or authors – and, well, I hope that someone can try to do some research into this. Inefficient or otherwise, I’m not suggesting that this is something that publishers can step back from.

    Second, can you clarify ‘Finally, its technology would also allow the diagnostics to analyse how the digital strategy helped book sales, taking a quantifiable step towards understanding how marketing and sales work together in a digital world.’ What form will this analysis take? You can count the number of hits at the site, and presumably you can count the click-throughs to Amazon. But you can’t – can you – know how many people have bought Capital, at Amazon or elsewhere, because of Pepys Road. You can also count how many times Pepys Road is shared via Facebook and Twitter – but this takes you back to the beginning again: you can’t measure how many people have bought the book because they came to Pepys Road via Facebook or Twitter. In other words, the problem here is ‘quantifiable’ (perhaps). Quantitative data – if that’s what ‘diagnostics’ is – is good at some things, but it won’t tell you all that much about user experience. To understand the user experience you don’t need diagnostics, you need qualitative date captured by questionnaires (starting with: Did you buy a copy of Capital after visiting Pepys Road? And why?) and interviews. Otherwise, even if you could measure with some accuracy the effect of this aspect of the promotion of the book (i.e. the Pepys Road site) on sales, disentangling from all the other promotion, you still wouldn’t know why it had had that effect. Quite possibly I just don’t understand what can be done with diagnostics.

    The third thing is just a note rather than an issue. I moved from Redditch in Worcs to, eventually, SE23 in London. Pepys Road tells me that an average house in the latter is worth some £10k less than the average house in the former. OK, so I’ve compared a town (Redditch) with a street in London, which may not help, but the real problem is that the figure for my street in London is at least £100k out – at any point over the last five years if not more. Where’s the data coming from? And when Pepys Road says ‘average’, surely it has to say average over a certain period for it to make any sense – because presumably the average is based on recent sales (perhaps not); and if the data isn’t accurate for a street, then perhaps it should say so. And this seems trivial, but if my first encounter with Pepys Road gives me an answer that I know is wrong, then it undermines my user experience from the start.

    Anyway, I’ve only just signed up to Pepys Rd, and maybe I’ll find some of the answers there. Now I’m off to share it via Facebook and Twitter.

    Thanks, Steve

  2. Matt Locke Says:

    March 21st, 2012 at 8:18 am

    Hi Steve,
    Thanks for your comments – they’re exactly the kind of questions we discussed with Faber, and have designed Pepys Rd to explore. Regarding sales – we have amazon affiliate links in Pepys Rd, so we get data on every completed sale on Amazon generated by Pepys Rd, not just clickthroughs to the site – we’re already generating direct sales from the project.

    But you’re right to ask questions about how quantifiable social media marketing is – this is something we worked on a lot when I was at Channel 4, and at Storythings we design campaigns with a very clear goal in mind, and use social media channels to focus on these goals. For Faber, the goal was to create interest and engagement with the book outside of the initial ‘spike’ of attention around the launch/review period. PepysRd is just starting, and we expect to see traffic on the site for a few months yet, hopefully driving direct sales throughout the hardback release period.

    And finally – we get the house price data from a commercial API supplied by Nestoria.com – its one of many websites tracking property prices, but its by far the best API. With any data feed you’re going to be reliant on the quality of data you’re using, but for the purpose of these illustrations, we were happy to use Nestoria.

    Thanks – I hope you’re enjoying the project and John’s texts.



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