A figment of their imagination

Interview by Miranda West

Jacob Lewis is the co-founder and ceo of Figment, a popular online community for teens and young-adults to create, discover, and share new reading and writing. Figment allows users to read amateur and professional content and create their own creative writing to share with their peers across web and mobile platforms. Before founding Figment, Jacob was the managing editor of The New Yorker magazine, where he worked for more than twelve years.

TLP: When did Figment launch?

JL: Figment launched on December 6, 2010. We had run a prototype for the preceding five months, which had about 500 users. Since we’ve launched, the site has more than 28,000 registered users and over 55,000 pieces of writing, from poetry to multi-chaptered novels.

TLP: How many people are in the team and where are you based?

JL: Right now we have six people (and me): a community manager, VP of product/tech, VP of marketing, author relations, school and library relations, and editorial. And an amazing team of interns who really keep the place running. The Figment offices are in New York, though some of the staff works outside the office.

TLP: The idea is based on a Japanese model, how closely does Figment adhere to their model(s)?

JL: Japanese cell phone novels were our inspiration. The idea of communities of teens and young-adults sharing their own writing through technology, and the profound effect it had on publishing, was what compelled us to start Figment. We don’t, however, attempt to mimic the technological adherence to the phone or the format of the writing in that model. Figment is unique because the content is driven by the community, and they determine its form. The users of Figment create all kinds of writing, use all kinds of devices, and communicate and interact in all kinds of ways.

TLP: Please explain what a cell phone novel is and how it works, practically speaking (it takes me 10 minutes to write a simple text message)

JL: One of the more remarkable parts of the Japanese cell phone novel phenomenon was that when it began in the middle part of the decade, most phones had t9 keyboards. You can imagine how long it takes to type out an entire novel if you have to press the number 5 twice before getting to your letter…

TLP: Very much so!

JL (continues despite interruption): Most Japanese cell phone novels use an abbreviated and idiosyncratic version of Japanese that speaks to writer (using the phone keys) and to the reader (reading on a tiny screen). Many of these texts are easily identified by their form, even when they are adapted into print books.

Most cell phone sites are simple sharing platforms, where people write and release serially. Readers can follow along as a story unfolds and comment at each stage. Many sites have millions of users and stories, a large number of which are adapted by the publishing industry for sale as e-books and physical books.

TLP:  So far, has Figment captured the attention of creative teenagers as it has done in Japan?

JL: I believe Figment has tapped into something that people, especially teens, have been wanting for quite some time. Whether they are readers or writers, there aren’t outlets in which they can be creative, discover new content, interact with authors and books, and share stories. I also think we will become a home of discovery for new professionally created books, making Figment a home for amateur and professional content.

TLP:  Are you targeting mainly American teens or is your strategy global?

JL: We started focusing on the US, but we have found, in short order, an eager international audience. Right now about 6% of our visits come from outside of the US. We’ve been visited by over 180 countries, including Libya, Mongolia, and Iran. We think there’s a tremendous opportunity in not discriminating between teens and young adults in one country vs another, and now foresee a big part of our growth, with users, authors, and publishers, overseas.

TLP: Has it been a challenge marketing the site and finding your audience? If yes, pls expand on ways you have addressed this.

JL: Knock on wood, but we have not had a difficult time marketing Figment. Most of our growth has been viral. And we do so much work with existing fan bases in YA fiction, by including authors and new books on the site, that there’s as much activity from readers as there is from writers.

TLP: Incidentally it was only when I listened to an interview that I realised the site was aimed at teenagers. I assumed it was for adults of all ages – young and old. So with that in mind…

TLP: Why is Figment aimed at teenagers; and is the fact that this isn’t made obvious on the site to encourage anyone to subscribe?

JL: We don’t believe that the word teen should appear on the site. Yes, it’s aimed at a younger demographic (right now, most users are between 13-24), but it’s not restrictive. I really believe that the most excited and explosive are of creativity is in teen writing, and I would have loved it (and used it obsessively) if Figment existed when I was younger. So much of what Figment stands for is about taking that first step and experimenting as a writer, or enjoying the process of discovery as a reader. And there’s also a tremendous outpouring of content in the YA industry, including a wonderfully open and expressive quality to the writers.

TLP: I like the look and feel of the site. Did it take you a long time to find the right designer to work with?

JL: It took a long time to get the design right. But it took much longer to get the site right. We were lucky to have worked with our test group on the prototype. So much of what we thought was right or good or appropriate turned out to be way off. We had to change the social component, the reading interface, and the writing process. And the people on the site (then and now) are always open and vocal about what they like and don’t like. There’s no better way to find out what works than to have people using your product.

TLP:  Post-launch do you feel the site has ‘caught on’?

JL: I really do feel it’s caught on. We’re continuing to grow at about 1,500-2,000 new registered users every week, with more than 500 new books uploaded every day. We’re big enough already that the community is inclusive of so many kinds of writers and readers, that everyone can find a place to read and write.

TLP: Is the site monetised, if so, how? Do you have a sponsor?

JL: We currently work with a number of publishers to help market individual titles through the site. And we believe, long term, that there’s an incredible opportunity for publishers to build a direct to consumer sales and distribution model directly through Figment.  And yes, we have had a couple of investors.

TLP: Can members download complete novels from fellow members?

JL: Everything on the site is free, and available through any web-enabled device. We have a wonderful mobile site which allows for reading and writing on a variety of smartphones.

TLP:  In Japan certain subscribers created print versions of their novels. Can you expand on this – were these traditional publishing deals, were the writers ‘spotted’ on the site (as a publisher may trawl blogs for a hidden gem), or did the sites themselves offer a POD option?

JL: As many of the Japanese sites were taking off, some of the content generated hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of followers and readers. This certainly caused the publishing industry to take notice and a number of these books were published in physical form.

TLP:  Do you think the teenage market is particularly fertile ground for creative writing?

JL: I think teens and young adults are infinitely more creative and brave in their writing than adults. So much of what we see on Figment is mind-bogglingly good. It’s innovative and full of risk. I find it very gratifying to wake up and read new stories every day on Figment.

TLP: Lastly, where do you see Figment going and/ or how might advances in new technology affect its future course?

JL: I think of Figment less as a technology company and more as a community. We enable users to create, discover, and share over any device. I personally believe that most people will want to read, watch, shop, etc. over a variety of devices, and the more Figment is an option on every one, the better it is. Right now our focus is on building the community as well as making it an incomparable resource for publishers and authors.

TLP: Actually I lied, that wasn’t the last one. It would be great to hear a bit more about you and what it is about Figment that makes you want to switch on the computer in the mornings.

JL: I’m driven by building something great. Something that people can use every single day to create their own masterpieces on. I’m always impressed at the risks people take in sharing their work. Seeing that is very emboldening!

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