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Figment.com mobilizes the next generation of teen writers

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Figment CEO Jacob Lewis, 39, started his publishing career in the New Yorker mailroom in the mid-nineties. He arrived in New York City with a "very romantic and writerly notion of New York and publishing," until he saw the closet crowded with unsolicited manuscripts for the fiction department; it was symptomatic of the "walled-off community" of publishing -- an industry disconnected from its readers. Lewis persevered, eventually becoming managing editor and spending 12 years at the publication. Now the closet is a distant memory and the Figment office is on the upper east side of Manhattan overlooking Martin Scorsese's house.

As part of the impetus for Figment's development, Lewis was keen to bridge the gap between publishers and young adult writers by providing a platform to facilitate this interaction. "The industry created itself far away from its readers, as if that communication and relationship were antithetical to what they were doing. There are ways to break down those barriers and engage with your readers or subscribers," Lewis says.

The concept for Figment emerged from a 2008 article written by co-founder Dana Goodyear about Japanese cell phone novels: young Japanese women were writing serial romances by cell phone ("keitai shosetsu") while commuting to work. Today, a Japanese cell phone novel website like Maho i-Land gets over 3.5 million hits every month and produces more than a million titles each year. The American equivalent, Textnovel, just launched in 2008 and its most popular novel Secondhand Memories has more than 30,000 views. This phenomenon represents a significant change in reading habits: similar to an e-book, the cell phone novel can be downloaded for convenience. This fluid genre can be five to 50 chapters and is now being dictated by device.

Goodyear and Lewis recognized a new genre of literature was emerging on mobile devices and the writing was now as much about the medium as the message. They fleshed out the idea for a "user-generated community" and targeted the teenage market. "Social networks facilitate the sharing of things we want to read, of ideas and interests -- part of it is engaging with authors and part of it is engaging with other readers. This is what works best with this demographic," Lewis explains.

The word "figment" is derived from the Latin word "fingere" meaning to form, shape or invent.The cartoonish aesthetic of the website -- which resembles a student's sketchpad with its doodles in the margins -- is as inviting as its slogan to "write yourself in." It encourages teenagers to write anything on any device -- laptop, cell phone, smart phone -- and upload the content for feedback. By putting their trust in this online community, members can collaborate to transform a first draft into a final one.

Being "cross-platformed" is of utmost importance to ensure the site's accessibility to every type of user. "We are on the Web so we try to work on any Internet-enabled device. It serves us well and the people on the site. Not all of them have smart phones or access to a tablet, but they very likely have access to the Internet or may move from device to device. The more we can be a part of that experience, the better off we are," he says.

Additional perks of the website include forums, author interviews, previews of new teenage fiction and contests. Figment also takes a page from the social media giants: members can limit public access to their social networking content like Facebook does and like Twitter, members can follow (or in this case "heart") writers they like. Members can even upload cover images for their works that range in genre from poetry to serial novels.

One of the most interesting aspects of the site is that writing has become a public and collaborative act. Although Lewis understands that certain parts of the writing process can be done alone, his advice for young adult writers is to find a way to share their work: "Don't forget that you're writing for an audience --what makes a writer is someone reading you."

In the publishing industry, a written work is incomplete until it makes the rounds from editor to publisher to marketer to distributor -- and then lands in a bookstore. Lewis describes this infrastructure as "an entire ecosystem that allows the book to be shared with thousands -- if not millions of people." Figment mimics this ecosystem for young adults by providing them with access to their peers, professional writers and favourite authors.

Since its launch on December 6, 2010, Figment has more than 17,000 registered users who have generated about 25,000 "books" that encompass everything from science fiction to sonnets. These numbers are higher than projected for two reasons: the influx of registrations from English-speaking countries like Canada, England and Australia and the interest shown by members in their early twenties.

Lewis believes Figment could have a transformative effect on the publishing industry by correcting a fundamental problem -- that they are losing touch with their audience. Figment can help dissolve the barriers between the two: "We can be a community which connects publishers and readers together. That's really our goal: to shrink that ecosystem and to have a more direct consumer model."

Although there is no banner advertising, publishers can promote new releases and book excerpts to the site. Figment also prepares marketing packages so that they can market directly to their consumers. As a result, publishers gain renewed insight into their demographic and are able to make more informed choices about whom they market to, how they market and what they are marketing.

Lewis sees that monetizing opportunities are continuing to evolve and he is determined to stay at the forefront of these developments. He is not plagued by the fear some publishers have of the complex digital future that awaits: "Does it make you more professional if you are published by Random House as opposed to self-publishing your book and selling 1000 copies out of the back of your car? Both are monetizing publishing and I think we can be involved in all of those parts of it. In the future, I can certainly see us becoming a real stepping-stone from aspiring author to real-time author."

Figment can also be a valuable resource for teachers and educational institutions: "It's a big part of the world that we're going after, because it's a way for us to engage individual organizations." They also work with libraries and writing organizations by running programming through the site like writing workshops or by providing a centralized location for written material. In early January, an entire secondary school in California registered on Figment and did classroom work through the site.

Lewis certainly would have benefited from Figment as a teenager: it might have alleviated some of the disappointment he felt when renowned author Philip Roth never wrote him back: "In young adult literature that doesn't fly these days. If you're on Figment, you're reading and writing, but you also want access to authors that you love, because you don't draw that distinction. You're going to write a letter to your favourite author, because you're going to expect -- or demand -- a response. That's an important part of the way literature and publishing is going and we can facilitate all of it."

Fortunately, members do not need to rely solely on their beloved authors for encouragement -- there is an online army to bolster their morale if writer's block or self-doubt materialises. Figment also reminds them that during the uproar of adolescence their literary endeavours have a refuge and a future.

Figment should have no problem staying current: Lewis is outfitted with an iPhone and iPad and confesses to being a gadget nut: "I'm not the most adept at manipulating or navigating the world of software, but I love new ways of accessing the Internet." He has a son who is six and daughter who is four and both are "technologically aware" of iPads and iPhones, but have not yet made the leap to social media. When they become teenagers, one imagines Lewis will be able to teach them a thing or two about social networking.

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