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Updated on: Apr 12, 2012
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Giving writers access to an active community of readers and commentators, Web sites such as are challenging the traditional publishing world.

When she's not studying the finer details of microscopic organisms, BSc microbiology student Aishwarya Dixit, from Gwalior, likes to write poetry. “I've been writing since I was five,” she says. “I write when I am sad, happy, tense… I just write.”

Like many aspiring writers Aishwarya hopes to one day publish a book, but so far much of her writing has been confined to a blog. Since October last year she's been publishing her work on , an online writing community set up in Denmark. “ is a platform for me to see how people react to my writing,” she says.

Supriya Prathapan, a New Delhi-based teacher currently studying for a Masters in Education, had been writing short stories and poems on a blog but found it discouraging that she rarely got feedback from readers. She too has been using Movellas and is encouraged by the experience, particularly the response she's getting from other users. “It makes a creative person feel important and encourages him/her.”

The Web site, which started out in Danish back in 2009, launched an English version last year, and now has around 12,000 registered users globally. Most users are teenagers, though some authors are well into their 50s and 60s. There are about 2,000 users in India — a figure its founders hope will rise to 10,000 by the end of April.

Game changer

The rise of sites such as Movellas presents a new challenge to the traditional publishing industry. In the West, one publisher, Penguin, has responded by establishing its writing Web site, Book Country. Further east, however, the phenomenon is already well established. In Japan, for example, a successful “cellphone novel” industry has existed for just under a decade, through sharing Web sites such as Maho i-Land, some of whose most successful writers have gone on to be major successes in printed fiction as well.

In China an estimated 200 million read through such community Web sites. Cloudary, a subsidiary of Chinese gaming giant Shanda, is set for an initial public offering in New York shortly, and expected to raise around $200 million.

The company generates revenues through a “freemium” model: here, most of the content is free, but once authors reach a certain level of popularity, readers make micropayments for each chapter they download, with the revenue shared by the author, the site and the mobile phone operator.

Th@t's my work!

The idea of Movellas is this: if you enjoy writing you can sign up and, under your own name or a pseudonym, pen stories, poems or chronicles of your experiences to share on the Web site — whether through a computer or a mobile phone app. If you aren't too keen on writing, you can just read the work of others, or comment on pieces and make suggestions about how they could take the story forward — an option that many users have exercised.

In February up to 2,000 stories were uploaded, and 50,000 comments posted. The site has attracted users from across the world. “On a normal day we have people from 40 or 50 different countries, whether it's Britain, Algeria or Somalia,” says Per Larsen, the CEO and founder of the non-Danish operation, based in London. The company currently operates in three languages: Danish, English and Spanish but hopes to quickly expand the range.

Themes vary from romantic pieces such as Until Death Do Us Part , a short story that has been viewed over 1,500 times and attracted some 300 comments, to an adventure chronicle involving King Arthur and dragons. There are also fantasy pieces about heartthrobs of the moment (yes, often Justin Beiber). Some relate to the authors' own, often difficult experiences: perhaps the breakdown of their parents' marriage, or the pain of separation from a loved one. Some pieces are just one-off short stories, while others are entire books, posted chapter by chapter. In Denmark, the site has been used by some schoolteachers in writing classes — Movellas hopes to introduce a special scheme for schools, with closed forums for a class to write together and comment.

Poet's corner from India

Interestingly, in India, male users outnumber women (elsewhere the balance is either more equal or female-dominated), and most of the work is poetry. The writers are also slightly older than most of Movellas' users — in their early to mid-20s, rather than in their teens. Contributions include pieces such as A night un-passed , by an author who goes just under the name of “Prashant” — an emotional poem about a past love.

“It's the type of content you wouldn't find elsewhere,” says product director Christian Schlosser.

While some authors maintain a discreet presence on the site, some of the most popular ones handle themselves with the professionalism and outreach of a big brand, with their own Facebook fan sites and even Youtube videos or trailers promoting their work. “RinKim”, a young woman living in the middle of Denmark, who writes about the turbulent lives of a fictional South Korean band, is one of the Web site's most popular authors and has slick Youtube videos promoting her latest work — complete with acted-out scenes and special effects.

“Many of them really do manage their fans, with polite, professional constructive engagement,” says Larsen. “It may not be surprising when a 25- to 30-year-old does that, but when it happens with a 15-year-old it is quite surprising.”

Revenue horizon

While Movellas, eager to establish a wide user base, is yet to introduce any charges, Larsen believes the model has potential to disrupt the traditional publishing industry in the way the app industry has revolutionised software industry. Once the realm of geeks, Apple's app model — where creators split revenues 70:30 with the company — has enabled anyone with a bit of tech know-how and a computer, whether in Mumbai or Kiev, to create software. And with games such as Angry Birds available at the touch of a button, and at minimal cost, apps also brought in a whole new audience. Larsen believes the same could be true for literature, arguing that the Movellas model not only helps writers who have little hope of cracking the conventional routes to publishing, but also brings in readers alienated from traditional fiction.

For him, what is particularly striking is the enthusiasm and straightforwardness of readers' responses to the works — one reason, he believes, why the moderators (to his surprise) have rarely had to remove offensive or bullying comments. “There is a lot of emotional investment here. They are really attached to the stories they read and protective over other people, and rally together if they feel others are writing inappropriate comments or are being too harsh.”

“This content is different,” he says. “The writers break rules left, right and centre, but it makes people start reading again.”

Published on April 12, 2012

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