If you want eyes on something, very few options put them there like Instagram Stories. The company boasts that each day more than 400 million of the app’s 1 billion users stop scrolling through their feed of pics and vids long enough to explore the curated Stories of individual accounts, where there are even more pics and vids. At a time when nearly a quarter of U.S. adults admit that they haven’t read even part of a book in the past year, the creative agency Mother pitched an idea to the New York Public Library—let’s put stories on Stories.
So began the creation of the Insta Novel.
“It was really absurd that it didn’t exist, in a way, because it’s where people are already,” said Corinna Falusi, chief creative officer and partner at Mother New York. “And instead of looking at pictures of their cats or food, it just makes so much sense that they would be able to use it also to read.”
The second Insta Novel published this week on the New York Public Library’s Instagram account, and it’s a trippy, graphical follow-up to NYPL’s first Insta Novel, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The latest release is Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1892 proto-feminist short story, The Yellow Wallpaper, featuring animation and artwork by Buck Design.
Mother teamed with three designers—Magoz for Alice, Buck for Wallpaper, and César Pelizer for the unreleased Metamorphosis—to produce Instagram-friendly versions of the three classic stories selected from the public domain. In the process, Mother may have found an intriguing new way that readers can interact with the ever-evolving book.
As standard e-book sales have declined sizably in recent years (score one for print, sort of) publishers have endeavored to meet audiences where they are in various ways. Mobile-based books like Breathe build stories influenced by your environment, via your phone’s data. VC-funded companies like Radish and Serial Box are now releasing serialized works of mobile fiction for its users, often ending as episodic television does, with cliffhangers. It’s all the rage in China. With Instagram all the rage everywhere, publishing experts believe it makes sense to explore that space, too.
“The Insta Novel is a great example of ongoing experimentation that publishers are doing to find out what it is they need to be doing,” said Bradley Metrock, who operates the Digital Book World (DBW) conference.
As standard e-book sales have declined sizably in recent years, publishers have endeavored to meet audiences where they are.
This week, many industry types from the publishing world will gather at the DBW conference in Nashville to learn about the latest endeavors on the forefront of publishing. In many cases, they are driven by design intended to draw readers deeper into what they’re reading, whether it be by building soundscapes around classic children’s tales or reinvigorating a definitive guide to postage stamps.
To get an idea for how the Insta Novel attempts to draw in readers, consider the efforts of the first in the series, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
When you click on the Insta Novel, you are first presented with an animation of Alice striding toward an ever-morphing portal. The entryway shapeshifts from a cat eye to a pocket watch to a card deck’s four suits, curiouser and curiouser, as dreamy music composed by Elee Loop twinkles and Alice wanders deeper into the living book cover. Magoz said this choice was a purposeful one, as he views the Insta Novel as a gateway where infrequent readers can lose themselves and then perhaps find a renewed love of reading on the other side.
“I think the goal or the accomplishment that this project achieves is being like a door—a door to people who are not used to reading,” he said. “You don’t need much to get hooked to a story; maybe you just need to read a couple of lines and then you start thinking and maybe want to learn more. And you’re not aware of it but you’re actually reading and you finished the first chapter and then the second and that’s it. So I think that’s a good door. I don’t think usual readers would go there to read.”
The designers seek to delight readers by bridging classic book design and Instagram’s interface. The lines of poetry appearing throughout Alice emerge one by one once you lift your thumb off the animated page to do what the Mad Hatter could not—un-pause time. In the bottom right corner of each page, Magoz spliced an animation collaboration with Jose Lorenzo into about 150 stills.
It creates a landing pad for the thumbs of those pausing Instagram Stories long enough to read each page (about 180 words per page, in phone-friendly Georgia font) as well as a flip book effect for those readers who are rapidly tapping through the entire story—with teach tap, the animation morphs from a keyhole into a timepiece and then a tea set, etc. Buck takes a similar approach with The Yellow Wallpaper, using flip book animations in the lower righthand corner to mimic the effect of peeling, mutating wallpaper.
“It’s a terrific experiment,” said Dominique Raccah, the forward-thinking publisher at Illinois-based Sourcebooks. “And yes, I believe designers could create some extraordinary work this way, that would really engage many people.”
The Insta Novel is a gateway where infrequent readers can lose themselves, and then perhaps find a renewed love of reading on the other side.
The days that followed the library’s launch of Alice on Instagram were among the most active in the @nypl account’s history. The two sections of the book quickly became the tech-savvy library’s most-viewed Instagram Stories. Before the first part of the book posted on August 22, the NYPL had a little under 200,000 Instagram followers—now the account has more than 287,000.
“I’m not a numbers person, but I think (these have) been the most exciting numbers I’ve seen in my whole life,” Falusi said.
Of particular interest to library staff is that thousands used the opportunity to explore more reading possibilities, using Insta Novels as a door the way Magoz had hoped. Over 6,700 ventured from the NYPL Instagram account to the New York Public Library’s SimplyE reading app web link embedded in the library’s ‘gram bio. That service boasts over 300,000 free e-books on file, and 1,253 users downloaded it on their phones in the days after after Alice. The first four days that the Insta Novels were up are four of the five busiest this year in terms of downloading SimplyE, according to the library.
“We see it as a first step toward engagement,” said Richert Schnorr, director of digital media at NYPL. “We see it as a way to connect with new audiences and inspire them to live a life of lifelong learning. So that’s why we see it as being so successful, because hopefully it is the first step of people engaging with us or their public library.”
Schnorr said that a few publishing industry-types reached out to the library soon after the Insta Novel launched, but declined to go into detail about what was discussed. For now, Schnorr said the plan is to release The Yellow Wallpaper this week, then later Kafka’s Metamorphosis and take a breath before determining what stories, if any, the library’s Instagram account will publish after these transformative three.