From the author: I was interviewed for the 'Forward Thinking Founders' podcast about the future of tech and storytelling. Topics included: why algorithms are biased, how ad-based business models need to change, and the ethos and future of Curious Fictions. You can read the transcript here, or listen to the podcast with whatever app you like best. This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
An audio version is available for this installment. Listen online →
Mat Sherman: All right, how is it going everybody? I hope you're all having a great day and thank you for spending some of that day with the Forward Thinking Podcast. To remind you, the Forward Thinking Podcast is a show about people building companies, their visions for the future, and how the two collide. And today we have an awesome guest with us. We have Tanya Breshears, the founder of Curious Fictions. Tanya, how's it going?
Tanya Breshears: Hi Mat. I'm great, glad to be here.
MS: Awesome, super happy to have you on. Let's just dive right into it, tell us a little bit about your company.
TB: Well, my company is called Curious Fictions, and it's bringing modern technology to the world of publishing. We give professional authors the tools to connect with their readers and get paid directly for their work, as well as experiment with new forms of storytelling, short form, serialized, et cetera, alongside their traditionally published novels.
MS: All right, that's awesome, as someone who's been a writer for a long time, I'm interested in hearing: what was the motivation to get started with something like that?
TB: Well, I was working at Airbnb for years, and so I had a lot of background in online marketplaces and bringing new technology to existing industries. But while I was working there, I also wrote stories as a hobby, and as I started getting a few stories published, I learned a lot about the industry, the challenges facing it, and saw a lot of opportunity to bring some new tools, especially to authors. It started out as: wouldn't it be great if it were easy to read short stories online and pay the author? And it kind of grew from there once we saw a really excited reaction from authors who have been needing something like this.
MS: That's awesome. Would you consider it a different form of distribution so they can get their art out there into the world? Tell us about one or two of your authors. What's it like for them?
TB: Yeah, so there are tools out there like Patreon which are really neat, but they're not really optimized for the written word, and they focus on visuals, like art or YouTube videos. Plus, with something like that, it's not really a place for discovery, it's a place you go to support someone you already know about. So I was really interested in building this ecosystem where authors could come, use the site, and publish their content, and readers could come and find really great storytelling.
There are authors using the site in very different ways. Somebody named Premee Mohamed, she does a column on a regular basis about the writing process, and how query letters work and stuff like that. Another author Edward Ashton has several published novels through HarperCollins, and he puts his short stories on Curious Fictions as a way to develop a following and have another way for people to discover his work.
We also started doing things like: they can post their excerpts of the books on Curious Fictions, and then we link to the book either from the publisher or other online venues, or encourage people to go to local bookstores. Because something we're not trying to do is the traditional "disrupt the industry and start over," but instead give the existing players these new tools to reach readers, and do what they do best with modern technology.
MS: Yeah I can see why that would be very very intriguing for plenty of authors out there and plenty of writers. I'm curious, as this show is called Forward Thinking, how are you thinking of the future with this? Five years down the line, ten years down the line, where do you see Curious Fictions playing in the world?
TB: Yeah, so one of our big goals is to give authors more reliable control over their income. Right now it tends to be really unreliable, and it's a growing problem in something like the gig economy, where people are lacking healthcare, a pension, things like that, and we wanted to give people more predictable control over their career.
Another big issue we're seeing from the reader side, is that it's really amazing that you have the world's information at your fingertips, but at the same time it's incredibly overwhelming having to know what to pay attention to. You don't have infinite time, so we've found readers really love the curation aspect of things, so we do a featured story once a week. People really like getting told: here's why this story is great and you should read it, and getting exposed to a lot of different types of authors and stories that they wouldn't otherwise read.
So that's something we're looking to really move forward on both counts for the future, to develop really sophisticated curation combining what can be automated, like "a lot of people really like story and that story" but also letting people have the tools to do curation themselves.
I don't think we're at a point where algorithms can necessarily do a great job, and I don't know if they ever will replace something where... often machine learning is collecting the wisdom of a large volume of what's happened in the past, and that's not going to get us out ahead of what's in the future. So combining human judgment with modern technology is something we're really interested in.
MS: Yeah that's fantastic. I have to ask, I bought a book from a Barnes & Noble yesterday. It was called something along the lines of "The Fuzzies and the Techies." The subject line is "How Liberal Arts Will Dominate in a Digital World." And it's a thought on creatives and how everyone's saying "oh AI is going to automate everything" and this book's saying, "no actually, creatives might be the ones that have their jobs in a hundred years." And I'm curious, can you dive in on how you would respond to that, how do you think about AI and algorithms, and anything involving the future of AI and work?
TB: Yeah, I think it's really interesting. So yesterday, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez had a little bit of a flurry on the internet because she had commented to say that algorithms can be biased, machine learning can be biased. And there was some pushback on that. People treat it as if she had said, "science is biased." But I think a lot of people don't realize algorithms aren't magically smart. They're taking a whole lot of human past decisions and then learning from that, which means you're going to be subject to any kind of bias those humans already made.
MS: Yeah, that data comes from somewhere.
TB: Yeah! So I think we're seeing a lot of growing pains right now in the tech industry and what that means for humans, and the future too. I do think we are subject to a lot of change. There are a lot of jobs that are going to get automated away, there are a lot of jobs that are becoming smaller and more gig-focused, so how we're going to adapt to that is a good question. If you look at the future, the optimistic future would be: we will eventually have universal basic income and single payer healthcare. Because we used to rely on employers to provide that, but if employers are essentially decentralized, you can't really function as a society without some way to take care of people in those ways.
At the same time, there's still a lot of capacity for art and that human touch. And I think people really do want that connection to other people in a really meaningful way, not in a "I just browsed through Twitter for eight hours" kind of way, but something really personal and meaningful.
MS: Yeah, absolutely, I can get behind that 100%. When looking into the future ten years, fifteen years out, what other innovations do you foresee happening, and what are you paying attention to? You can be focused on healthcare, education, government, tech, the future of work, anything. What's interesting about the future to you right now?
TB: I think in general we're going to see a breakdown in this concept that there's tech companies and regular companies. To some extent, every company, or most companies will be tech companies in that they use technology. If you think about the industrial revolution, yeah there are only certain companies that are manufacturing companies, but it really had repercussions across the way society works.
In the future I think we'll see a lot more crossover, rather than saying, "this is pure technology," saying, "this is technology applied to these existing industries." I think there are interesting things happening with govtech right now. There's a company Remix that's handling a lot around public transportation and enabling governments to have these tools that really haven't penetrated that industry as much. So how can we bring a lot of these industries forward -- not overhauling them and getting rid of them, but giving them these new tools.
MS: Yeah, yeah absolutely. I think it goes along the lines of: technology doesn't automate out humans, it augments humans, so it does the repetitive stuff in our daily tasks so we can spent more of our time on the more thoughtful and problematic and challenging problems that maybe algorithms can't solve. So I'm a fan of augmentation.
TB: Yeah, I like that way of framing it. So we think about with Curious Fictions, we're not trying to be prescriptive about how people use it, or what their stories look like. We're trying to say "we're giving you these tools and you can experiment with them in ways we could never really imagine. We'll automate things like handling payments, and updating your profile, and you don't have to be thinking about updating your website from scratch." Things like that, we play to our strengths so they can play to theirs.
MS: Yeah, absolutely. I did want to jump back a sec to Curious Fictions. I'm more curious how the product works in this sense. Do you let anyone that wants to write a story onto the platform? Do you have a vetting process? And my third question along these lines is: if someone is pretty good, but not amazing, how would you handle a situation like that? We run into that all the time at Publoft, and I'm curious as another company that handles writers, how you think about that stuff.
TB: Yeah, that's a tricky question for a couple of reasons. Right now the way it works is: authors can request an invitation, and then we accept essentially any author who's been traditionally published before, whether that's in a short story magazine or with a book. The reason we do that is because we want to make sure that we maintain high quality across the site and set expectations to readers that this is worth paying for.
The down side of that is that you're still gating this experience for authors on the existing industry, which has its own issues with representation, and who's considered worthy of telling these stories. So that's something we're thinking about a lot and want to keep an eye on in the future. We do let authors invite other authors, so that's one way to mitigate that. Probably in the future we'll look at things like: will we proactively reach out to authors in workshops that are recommended, potentially by people who are teaching them, or in classes? Any way we can get a line on especially underrepresented authors.
MS: Yeah, absolutely, that's fantastic. Well cool. So I always like to ask in this show, what are companies that ten years from now are going to be the giants, and specifically are there any that are unassuming, like obviously there's Apple, Google, Facebook, all those that may or may not be around. But are there any companies that you know of, either from YC or from your knowledge that might be the next Google, the next Apple, that people might not be paying attention to yet?
TB: The next Google or Apple... those are such big ones.
MS: Or just the next meaningful company. Like it doesn't have to be the next Uber or Apple, but what's something that may not be on the world's radar yet that should be?
TB: So I mentioned Remix as doing something with public transit, Valor is a company that does stuff with water analytics. I don't have any personal insight into how they work exactly, but I think that kind of technology is really interesting. I know that Y Combinator has very recently started looking for companies that are addressing climate change, which I think is going to be really important in the next years, hopefully, really a growing industry.
I do think there is, again wrestling with “what is our industry and what responsibility do we have for the things we're creating,” I think we’re hopefully going through some growing up processes in terms of: what are we focusing on? How do we responsibly create technology and combat the things that can cause problems?
I do really think -- sorry, this is a bit of a tangent -- I'm hoping we get away from this idea that 'click' is the most meaningful thing on the internet. So right now we really prioritize something that gets clicks and gets eyeballs, because we're so advertising-driven on the internet in general.
I think we're starting to see pushback with that, in terms of people getting increasingly oversaturated with ads. They're not necessarily performing as well as they have, there's a limit to the amount of ads we can show a person in a day. And as people start to become more accustomed to the internet and don't necessarily see it as… I think there used to be this idea, like Napster, that everything on the internet should be free. But now that our entire lives can be very internet-driven in a lot of cases, there's some growing recognition that, okay, I'd like to pay for something that's high-quality and not see a million ads at times.
So I think companies like Google and Facebook might have the biggest changes facing them. Something like Apple, you never know what's going to happen, but as long as they keep creating this hardware people like people will buy it. But if people become growingly jaded in terms of ads, then that's a different thing. Facebook has changed quite a bit over the last years, so they're probably going to keep changing in the future. I wouldn't be surprised if they're pretty unrecognizable in ten years. They'll probably still be around.
Google is interesting, because they have so many different technologies, things they've built, but their core business is still ad-driven. So I'm curious to see how that plays out in the future.
MS: Yeah, those are some great perspectives. I'm also interested to see what happens with Google, because they've been putting out so many products to see what's their next home run after ads, and they obviously have some great products, but until that can start generating a really good portion of their revenue, they gotta keep searching I guess.
TB: Yeah, they do seem to have the "try all these things and see what sticks" sort of approach.
MS: Well cool, I have one last question for you. So you're engulfed in the future as you're building a company right now that's aiming to tackle many problems that face authors and take on, somewhat, the advertising industry, which I also am very much in favor of. So you're building the future every day while you're working on your company. So what would you tell someone listening to this podcast, who may be 10 years old, 38 years old, or 50, it doesn't matter the age. If they want to start a company and change the future and build something great, what advice would you have for them?
TB: I would say, they should definitely do that. I think... consume as much information about what you're trying to change as you can. Read all you can about the topic, what's been done before, who the current players are. Ask a lot of questions and do a lot of listening.
There's a bit of a stereotype that sometimes Silicon Valley companies will come in and Kool-Aid Man through the wall and say "we're disrupting your industry!" and then spend a lot of money and go out of business because they don't necessarily understand the forces at play. Sometimes it's common to think, "I can offer this thing cheaper, therefore everyone will use that." But it turns out there's a lot of other factors that go into the decisions people make.
For example, in publishing, there's a really important psychological perspective to getting traditionally published as opposed to self-publishing. And it's not just about the money, it's this sense that people who have judgment have judged your thing to be good. And then there's this huge amount of work the publisher does to advertise your work that a lot of people who are self-publishing don’t know goes into the process. So really understand the factors at play, and try to come in with a new perspective that works with those factors.
MS: Yeah, absolutely. Well thanks so much for hopping onto the podcast. I think the listeners got a lot of value and learned different perspectives on the industry of the future, and I really appreciate you hopping on, so thank you for coming on.
TB: Thanks a lot for your time, and it was great talking to you.
MS: Yeah, absolutely. And thank you for all the listeners, thanks for tuning in. I look forward to bringing you another episode of Forward Thinking in a week, and until then, I hope you all have a great day. Bye.