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A Virtual Bookshop: Behind the Scenes at Inkflash

Writing.ie | Magazine | General Interest | Interviews
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By Vanessa Fox O'Loughlin

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Inkfash is a new online resource aimed at readers and writers – a Goodreads with virtual shelves where authors, book bloggers, publishers and readers can set up virtual rooms, mini bookshops of their own. The real strength of the site is that once a book is added to a shelf, any reviews that have been posted online will be aggregated and linked to it – reviews don’t have to be posted on the Inkflash site, but will be tracked down by its very clever bots.
Creator Matt Stephens told writing.ie “It’s completely free for authors and publishers to set up a room (or rooms) on Inkflash. We really want as many as possible to sign up, as every additional author on there breathes that much more life into the site. There’s a “drag-and-drop” editor so authors have complete control over each room’s appearance and contents; and the rooms can be themed to evoke the world that their books are set in. We also provide “premium rooms” with additional features, such as in-room video walls – so you can show book trailers, interviews or promotional videos on a big wall inside the 3D room. Premium rooms also get more visibility (regular front-page appearances, permanent doorways from the main “hub” room etc).”Authors or publishers who’d like a room on the site can contact Matt at: matt@inkflash.com.
Rooms aren’t limited to authors and publishers – book bloggers or book fans can also create a room, and will be able to link it to their Twitter account or RSS feed to show content within the room. As Matt says, “The sky’s the limit really. Talking of which, “rooms” aren’t necessarily just indoors – they could be set against a cityscape, on a small island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, or in outer space. It’s all “virtual”, so why not!”
We asked Matt how he came up with the idea for Inkflash – he revealed, “I started to think about a ‘3D bookshop’ a couple of years ago. But the ideas didn’t really gel until a friend pointed out how far WebGL has come (WebGL is a technology that allows 3D apps to run directly in the web browser without requiring additional software to be installed). After an early prototype, it became obvious that simply doing a ‘3D bookshop’ wasn’t reaching high enough; I needed to look at it more as a connected website, a social network – an extension of authors’ book marketing activities on Twitter, Facebook etc; so in other words it’ll end up being a combined sort of Goodreads, Facebook and WordPress for authors, in 3D. Quite lofty goals, and ‘version 1’ gets us *some* of the way there – but there are lots of features planned for the near future. I had to weigh up just getting the site live and then continuing to add features, or waiting waiting waiting until every feature is complete before releasing anything. Luckily as it’s a website, we can keep adding new functionality incrementally, instead of waiting 6 months or whatever for the next release. So there are lots of exciting new features just around the corner!”
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Like all small enterprises, Matt’s team is a tight one!  “People on the team? That’s an interesting one… it’s pretty much entirely been me developing the software. Some developer friends have been providing invaluable feedback, and acting as Quality Assurance. My wife’s been doing the business admin side of things and providing endless cups of tea. Actually, even my mother’s been helping out (she’s a book editor and keen reader), she’s been providing ‘mini-review notes’ – a bit like the cards you see on shelves in bookshops – for featured books.

I’ve led something of a double life, working both in publishing and as an IT consultant in the Finance world in London; so it made sense to eventually combine the two. So in January I took an extended hiatus from the finance world and stayed at home to develop Inkflash. I had to learn 3D programming, as I hadn’t done any of that beforehand (though I’ve been programming commercially for 20 years).”

Bord Gais Book Club - win books every month!What could be the key to Inkflash’s success, is Matt’s understanding of the publishing business. He told us, “I set up Fingerpress.co.uk (a London-based book publisher) a few years ago; initially as a sideline, though it’s taken on a life of its own. For example, the historical novels by Fredrik Nath – such as the Roman ‘Galdir’ saga and his World War II novels – have been selling in the tens of thousands on Kindle. Using Fingerpress as Inkflash’s first “customer” – to eat my own dog food, in other words – has helped to guide the site’s development, so that it’s based on what publishers and authors would want from a site like this.”

Without question one of the sites strengths is its ability to aggregate what may be random reviews from different areas of the web. As Matt explains, “I know there’s a certain level of disgruntlement in the industry (and among readers) about ‘crowd-sourced’ book reviews. It’s something Amazon does try to clamp down on every now and again so this isn’t a criticism of them; but just the nature of crowd-sourced reviews means that it’s rather easy to game the system. That, plus ‘non-professional’ reviewers who post a 1-star review because they didn’t like that their favourite character died, or zombie books aren’t their thing (so why were they reading a zombie novel in the first place?). So it all becomes rather misleading. By contrast, carefully adding review sources such as book blogs and review websites makes it virtually impossible to game the system. We developed an in-house web-crawling engine that links reviews, author interviews etc back to their respective books, and it works really well. Inkflash shows a series of review excerpts and activities next to each book – it gives people a sense of the ‘Internet zeitgeist’ for a particular book – and in return the reviewers/bloggers get inbound link traffic to their site.

The review aggregation could turn out to be one of those quiet innovations that ends up being more important than the Virtual Reality (VR) stuff – although I’m pretty excited about the VR stuff too.”

To set up your own room, that can contain your own books as well as your favourite reads, pop over to Inkflash.com.

(c) Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin

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