Today I am interviewing John Rickards who has recently launched a new website dedicated to the discovery of good books merely (and I use that term ironically) by the writing. From the website: No Names, No Jackets (aka 3NJ) is a book discovery service with an innovative twist: all you see here is one chapter from a story without knowing who wrote it, whether it was self-published or traditional, its synopsis, its title, or what its cover looks like. We all say that good writing should be the only thing that matters, not good salesmanship or high profile. 3NJ aims to make that a reality …
This is such a simple, yet refreshing idea, and so completely opposed to everything else writers feel they must do to connect with readers. How did the concept come up?
The basic idea – that of blind-reading book samples – wasn’t mine. Suw Charman-Anderson, who’s a friend of mine, came up with it for one of her blog posts on Forbes at the end of March. I thought it was not only a great idea, but also one that was extremely doable, even without crazy coding skills. It was something that didn’t exist, but which could, given a bit of time and effort. The prime mechanic aside from blog-style regular posts, that of randomised lucky dips into the site’s content, was a practical solution to the problem of older material getting lost (and, if I’d used it, time-skewing of ratings/likes). New readers seeing a site for the first time generally don’t dig back too far. I wanted a way to make sure everyone had as fair a crack of the whip as possible.
How long has the site been up and how has the response been so far?
It went live Monday (June 24, 2013) lunchtime, having been given a spot of beta-testing by a few writer friends for a couple of weeks before that (and alpha-tested by Suw a month or so before that). So two and a bit days. The response so far has been overwhelmingly positive. It’s not a format that’s for everyone, and there are some rough edges to work out over time, but it seems to have really hit the mark with a lot of people, both readers and writers. More so than I’d expected. It’s been great. If I can keep that going, things look good.
To date, how many samples have been uploaded?
As I write this there are 131 entries either published or in the queue, and a further dozen or so as drafts with formatting issues waiting to be corrected. There were the 10 beta entries when it went live two days ago.
What kind of readership numbers are you seeing?
In its two and half days and a half (Google’s figures run in arrears so I don’t know what the numbers for today are like) the site had 11,000 visitors. Average page numbers were roughly 3 pages viewed per visitor, so allowing for drop in-drop out single view passing visits, it looks like a good number had a nice read through the content. (Which is impressive given how limited the initial content was.) Readership numbers will drop (and have dropped) after the initial launch surge, but that’s normal. So long as they hold good in the long run.
Wow, impressive numbers so far. How are you planning to bring readers to the site?
It’s been bounced all over Twitter and Facebook, and had a popular mention on Hacker News. I’m intending to mention it – assuming I can do so without appearing spammy – on places like Kindleboards etc. over the next couple of weeks, and there’s likely to be mentions on publishing blogs. It’ll spread, but I don’t need to do it quickly or aggressively. Word of mouth is the main thing. If people like it and use it, word will get around. Obviously as more content gets added, there’s more of a draw for readers.
Do you or will you send out an e-newsletter to readers when new chapter samples are uploaded?
No, but you can keep up with chapters on 3NJ via its RSS feed. I may publish genre-specific feeds as well at some point in the future.
Are you keeping track of click-throughs on the purchasing links or actual buys by readers?
Clicks on the source links, yes. I’m not 100% sure that the code for it is totally reliable yet, but that’s data that is good to have. It’s impossible to track how many click-throughs to find out where a chapter comes from results in the reader then going to buy the book, but seeing how much outbound traffic 3NJ generates can only be helpful to users.
Why the decision not to include “likes” or star ratings?
Partly because it’s not a core part of the site’s concept as I saw it. 3NJ could do discovery, and do it in a new way, and that should be the main focus. Partly because they’re prone to either time-related skewing (older content may have time to build up masses of ratings and look artificially great, or newer content appearing when site readership has risen hugely may do likewise at the expense of the old) or outright gaming by the few writers unscrupulous enough to mess with the system to look better. Since I’d like the site to be as fair as possible, neither would be good. And partly because there are already other places for sharing that information. If you find something you like on 3NJ there is nothing at all to stop you rating it on Goodreads or Amazon or anywhere else. Likewise, if you find something you’re interested in on 3NJ, there’s no reason not to check its ratings on those sites before you stump up cash for it. I don’t need to do ratings because those other places do them, and do them well with large userbases. I do need to do discovery, because those other places don’t, not so well at any rate.
Makes perfect sense, especially when you talk about older content building up more likes. And while some writers may bemoan the fact that they can’t game the system, this ultimately serves the readers in a totally honest way, a “novel” idea! Have you gotten any feedback from authors?
It’s early days, but yes. Most seem to like the site’s set up, and (very anecdotally) initial traffic driven to their own sites when used as a source link seems to have been notable, albeit under initial surge conditions. And I’ve fielded a fair number of support queries and issues, and by and large everyone seems pretty happy and excited.
You say: The service is free, and will be for as long as possible. Do you believe you might institute some kind of charging structure in the future? Do you know what that would look like?
It’s in the site’s FAQ because I wanted to be quite clear and up front about this, especially because the prospect of paying for something that used to be free usually rubs people up the wrong way. The site will be free for as long as its hosting costs don’t rise sharply and as long as it doesn’t eat into too much of my time to maintain. I don’t have a lot of spare hours – I work freelance, write books, have children to look after etc. – and I’m not rolling in cash, so I can’t afford to have 3NJ eat into time that would have been spent doing things that keep my family fed. I’m hoping it won’t – and so far it’s been survivable. If we hit that point, though, the plan is to charge a fairly nominal amount, probably between $3 and $5, for accepted submissions before they publish, depending on what costs/time I’m having to cover. Which I would expect would drive submission numbers down, but that’s natural.
The upside in that even would be that it’d be much easier to justify putting more hours in sooner to improve features, make 3NJ better, and all that. At the moment if I have to choose between two hours trying to understand why a PHP checkbox form won’t talk to WordPress’s search function to give me a multigenre browser, or two hours writing a freelance news piece I’m being paid for, the news has to win out.
Any plans to offer advertising?
No. It’s not impossible, but I’d be very loath to do it. I would much rather monetise the service (which, presumably, would be worth it if traffic/user levels have gotten so high that I need to) than monetise the userbase and readership. It seems cleaner.
What impact would you like to see 3NJ make on the writing/publishing world?
If it’s a roaring success, I’d like to see it open doors to new ways of finding and sharing good writing. There are a lot of sites which follow the standard paradigm of list/review/favourite/join yet another community or rely on price or weight of sales or ratings to publicise deals of the week. There’s nothing wrong with either of those per se – and both can help drive readership – but there need to be alternatives. And maybe, more to the point, we need to remember that it’s possible to think of alternatives. People all look for different things in writing, and look for things in different ways.
Are you entertaining any other ideas to promote good indie books?
Nothing that’s ever likely to see the light of day. There are a couple of things in the ideas bank, probably not too seriously, and definitely not something I’d have the time to do any time soon.
Anything else you’d like to tell us about 3NJ?
Other than a very general “come check it out!”? Off the top of my head, I can’t think of anything. 🙂
Thanks very much for your time. We salute your effort!