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Navigating narrative with Gimbal

Editor Jim Hinks explains the thinking behind the new Comma Press release Gimbal, an audio fiction app that allows busy commuters to ‘read the city’ as they travel.

I love audiobooks. Something about listening to a story really appeals to me. Maybe it’s because it feels like a treat, being read to. Maybe it’s because it frees your hands to ride a bike or make a soufflé. Back in the days of the Sony Walkman (actually, mine was an Aiwa from Boots), my coat pockets rattled with cassettes of audiobooks, which would unspool and have to be meticulously re-twiddled with a pencil. I still have them all in a drawer, just in case (of what? I dunno).

Since the Aiwa days, I’ve been lucky enough to join Comma Press, an independent publisher specialising in short stories. We’ve published thousands of stories over the years, by multi-award winning authors and unknown authors alike. About half of our output is from overseas, translated into English; in many countries, short stories aren’t viewed as the poor cousin of the novel, but rightly valued as a potent and pointed form in their own right. Short stories translate well: the situations they depict are often more universal than the novel, and yet they cling to their original language less tenaciously than the poem. This makes them perfect vehicles for imaginary journeys into unfamiliar locations and cultures, and to date we’ve published ten ‘Reading the City’ anthologies (of stories from Europe, the Middle East and China), with more planned.A few years ago, we stuck some recordings of our authors reading their stories on our website, as free mp3s. It wasn’t something we gave much thought to at the time. But when we checked the analytics later, we were like fishermen hauling in a line left drifting for months and finding a whale attached. Or rather, a whole pod of whales. We were getting thousands of downloads from all over the world, often from places where you couldn’t even get our books on import. It was pretty clear there was an appetite for this stuff in audio form.

This month we launched the Gimbal iPhone app. It marries all these things together – short stories, translation, audiobooks, and the exploration of different cultures. The idea’s quite simple: short stories set in cities across the world, which you can listen to or read in eBook form. All the stories feature a journey across a city, and as you listen, the app charts the journey on a map (with additional information about key locations), so you can explore the context as the story unfolds. A gimbal, by the way, is a navigational device – a sort of gyroscopic mounting for a ship’s compass. The Gimbal app is primarily aimed at commuters who, like me, want to let the humdrum journey to work dissolve around them, and take an imaginary journey instead.

The response to the app so far has been amazing. We expected people to like the content, but we’ve been surprised by how much people love the discoverability of stories within the app, too. You can select a story by location, by genre, by mode of transport, or by length (to match that of your own journey). It solves the problem of ‘I’ve got 25 minutes to kill – what can I read?’ (or listen to).

Much of the success has been down to strong partnerships. The developers, Toru Interactive, really took the time to understand what we wanted. They learned what kind of reader this will appeal to, and how to make the app optimally intuitive and navigable for them. Likewise, we partnered with Literature Across Frontiers, a brilliant organisation which coordinates innovative literary exchanges between writers from around the world. They sent eight writers to visit each others’ cities, ride around on public transport, and write stories specially for the Gimbal app, to go along with stories by Comma Press authors. We’re also very grateful to Arts Council England. Their support of new digital projects like this helps to ensure that the independent sector is at the vanguard of innovation.

Future iterations will bring Gimbal to Android OS, and increase the functionality (including Google Street View capability). We’re also looking at replicating the success of Gimbal for some of our science-literature crossover projects: an app of ‘real science fiction’ stories written in consultation with scientists, with audio-visual explanations of the key scientific concepts involved; and an app of essays by contemporary authors on their favourite short story writers (including full text and audio versions of their out-of-copyright works). Again, it’s all about discoverability – inviting readers to take a journey, be it conceptual, imaginary, or literal.

Gimbal is available free on the App Store for iPhone and iPad

Watch a video demo of the Gimbal App here:


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Jim Hinks
Comma Press

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