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Small Demons: Welcome to the storyverse!

Because these are the details we obsess over. The authors who write them and the readers who read them. They connect us with our stories and connect our stories with each other. And with these connections comes a whole new world of discovery.  Valla Vakili’s talk at the Tools of Change Conference. 2/14/12

In his talk at the at the February Tools of Change Conference, co-founder and CEO Valla Vakili described a new vision for the reading space, harnessing pathological obsessions around narrative and storytelling, the role of characters and settings, and the magic of being lost in a book.  According to Vakili:  the world of stories is connected, the elements in them deserve a life beyond the page, and those elements can now be easily accessible.

I am kind of in love with the potential for the relatively new start-up, Small Demons.

The LA-based company behind it believes that powerful and interesting things can happen when you connect all the details of books.

Small Demons is a web-based literary database that visually indexes, annotates, and connects the people, places, and things in books we read and love to the world beyond their pages.

And it connects those connections to each other, so that books themselves function as recommendation engines.

In a strangely beautiful way Small Demons creates intersections among story, brand, historical and literary allusion, immersive cosplay, fan devotion, geography, and big data.

It does on steroids what those of us experimenting with QR codes have been attempting small scale with our print collections.

For instance . . .

I got lost in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals when I read it as a bestseller in 2005.  This week, after seeing Speilberg’s Lincoln, I checked out Small Demons’ entry on the book.  Entering this new type of rabbit hole, helped me fill me with the background knowledge I wished I remembered while watching the film.  It also connected me with books I might read, and the movies I might see (or buy) to discover more about the characters and incidents involved, including 88 other titles in which the fascinating Mary Todd Lincoln played a role. It also reminded me of so many other Goodwin books I wanted to read.

In addition to browsing and crawling for hours through cultural rabbit holes, each registered user gets a Storyboard, on which he or she can create multiple Collections.  Collections may be built around books, themes, authors, places and things in a way kinda reminiscent of Pinterest boards.  Collections are easily shared on a variety of social media platforms.

Although the platform is not yet YA-heavy, it was fun exploring the vehicles driven around Forks by the chamy fledgling Storyboardracters in Twilight.  

I enjoyed rediscovering the musical and cultural references Rob and his buddies dished about in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity.

I started a Collection of Young Adult Writers, and hope to build further as the site grows.


In a recent interview with Forbes, Richard Nash, Small Demons’ visionary VP of Community and Content told Michael Wolf:

Long term, Small Demons sees itself as part of a new wave of companies created as part of the digital publishing ecosystem, where data, analytics and in-book commerce become a bigger part of an industry that had largely been fixed in the same structure for over a century.

Certainly, the concept for the for-profit Small Demons presents synergistic commercial opportunities reaching beyond the traditional market–making books, and the brands (shoes, beverages, albums, etc.) mentioned within them, as well as the movies made from them, more discoverable and more available for point-of-click purchase.

But, while you might look at the business motive of Small Demons simply as a beautiful product placement machine, it is far more.  It presents valuable new strategies for enhancing and prolonging our enjoyment of books beyond their pages, and for promoting reading and cultural discovery.

Currently, Small Demons fully indexes around ten thousand books and it has relationships with five of the big six publishers as well as quite a number of the aggregators that represent the independent publishers.  Small Demons indexes publishers’ digital files in exchange for metadata and site metrics to help them understand their audience.

I chatted with Nash, about the potential Small Demons holds for libraries and schools and the world of young adult lit and reading.

We discussed the value of connections and discoverability.  Nash pointed to studies of patron behavior that suggest the more people read, the more they listen to music, the more they watch movies.  It seems that people who engage in culture, tend to engage in it across media formats.

I hadn’t really thought of it before, but Nash noted that one of the major issues with connecting people and books is the sampling problem.  Book decisions are more about an investment of time than an investment of money. Books are often 30-hour units, a scale of investment far different than a decision about a song or a movie.  People hate wasting their time reading a book that you don’t like.  Sample chapters and limited book trailers may not be the solution.

So, what’s next on the feature level?

User-generated content. Over the course of the next year, enhanced public contribution tools will be in place and it will be increasingly easy for users to add their connections to books.  I can easily see my teen readers getting deeply involved in building content around the books and authors they love.

I can easily see assigning this type of activity around class readings, book clubs, and lit circles.

Planned for the immediate future are features that make Collections a richer experience and for allowing users to take pieces of site with them.  For instance, within four to six weeks, Collections will be widgets.  We will be able to embed our own, or the Collections of others, on library and classroom blogs and other websites.

I can easily see us grabbing Collections relating to author and genre studies.

Collections themselves will be more discoverable. According to Nash, the goal is not to compete with a reading community like Goodreads, but we don’t want to preclude people from seeing inside other users’ Collections.

And perhaps most important for us–Nash shared that Small Demons will shortly begin to index juvenile titles with a reading age of 13 and above. The plan: We will start with Simon & Schuster and Random House and add Harper Collins and Penguin, and then move on to the independents.

Joyce Valenza About Joyce Valenza

Joyce is an Assistant Professor of Teaching at Rutgers University School of Information and Communication, a technology writer, speaker, blogger and learner. Follow her on Twitter: @joycevalenza

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