Is personalised publishing empowering or egocentric?

By Molly Flatt 3 November 2015

Personalised publishing promotes the reader from passive consumer of a book to the star of their own story, but is it creative or cringeworthy?

Biography is big business. Of the current Sunday Times top ten bestselling non-fiction hardbacks in the UK, six are either autobiographies or biographies.

But what if, instead of reading about the lives of Sue Perkins or Steven Gerrard, you could be reading about… your own?

Today sees the launch of StoryStarter, “the world’s first social group gifting platform that brings friends and family together to create a ghostwritten biography for a loved one.” Touted as a hybrid of Kickstarter, Unbound and GiftStarter, StoryStarter allows people to create a campaign page where they can raise funds as well as share their own stories and images about the lucky recipient. Once the funding target it hit, the giftee is contacted and matched with a ghostwriter who will work with them to craft the raw material into a memoir, autobiography or family history.

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Packages start from £800 for a 50 page book, so it’s not exactly a stocking filler, but founder Rutger Bruining – who has a background in private equity – is confident that demand is strong.

“Response so far has been overwhelmingly positive,” he says. “In user testing people have wanted to start campaigns for friends’ and parents’ birthdays as we expected, but others have come back with more creative ideas such as books about a Welsh rugby legend from the 80s, the experience of a group of volunteers in Kenya and a tech business that just went through a year of unprecedented growth.

“Who doesn’t want to read a carefully curated book about the people they care about?”

Or, indeed, about themselves? Over the past year, personalised publishing – which promotes the reader from passive consumer of a book to the star of their own story – has become one of the industry’s biggest tech-powered trends.

This is partly due to the success of Lost My Name, a London-based platform founded in 2012 that creates personalised children’s picture-books. Since securing £100K investment on Dragon’s Den last year, Lost My Name has become a word of mouth juggernaut, selling more than 800k personalised copies of its original book since launch, and this June the company secured $9 million in a US Series A funding round led by Google Ventures.

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The Curved House, a ‘print and digital hybrid’ publishing house founded in 2011 with offices in London and Berlin, also offers a “make-your-own” series of kids’ books, and Canadian startup Together Tales is currently fundraising on Kickstarter for interactive “adventure kits”, which combine personalised print books with digitally-connected games and videos to create a parent-led experience the whole family can enjoy.

But this isn’t just a kid’s game. Last year, charity Freedom From Torture organised a Literary Immortality auction giving people the chance to become a character in the next novel from top authors such as Margaret Atwood and Ian McEwan, while interactive storytelling experiments such as Portal Entertainment’s The Craftsman allow adult readers to determine how the plot of the story unfolds, in a high-tech spin on the old dice-roll ‘choose your own adventure’ paperbacks.

Certainly, this focus on personalisation is part of a wider movement in the arts, fuelled by the popularity of gaming and the advent of virtual reality. The mainstream adoption of immersive theatre (see the ecstatic buzz around You Me Bum Bum Train’s current London revival) and the renaissance of interest in interactive performance artists such as Marina Abramović are just two examples of how putting your audience at the heart of the action is becoming de rigeur.

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Marina Abramović, The Artist Is Present, 2010. Pic: Flickr/Andrew Russeth

But isn’t the whole joy of books that they offer us escape from the burden of control? And doesn’t that joy become ever sweeter in a world where we are expected to customise everything from our Converse to our M&Ms?

Reading traditional author-led fiction, in which we must subject ourselves to other people’s lives, perspectives and modes of expression, has been proven to increase our empathy, not to mention bring numerous other benefits such as reducing stress and boosting memory. Make it all about us, and surely those benefits – hugely important in our self-centred, attention-deficit age – evaporate.

Of course, in a country where more than 23% of children and young people say they “rarely” or “never” read, anything that encourages kids to get immersed in a story, and to feel excited about creating their own, is great. But when it comes to grown-ups, isn’t personalised publishing just another example of the egocentricity of the social media age where our lives are our greatest concern – and our greatest masterpiece?

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“With StoryStarter,” Bruining insists, “you’re not creating a book about yourself for yourself, but for those who will enjoy reading your story, and some of those will be from generations to come. I think that is at the other end of the egocentric spectrum from, say, the selfie-stick.”

What’s more, he believes that the growing marketplace for freelance publishing professionals will only see the trend increase. “There is a lot of potential. Consumers and small businesses have to date been hesitant to hire writers and editors directly, but we’ve now got an amazing pool of freelancers who can take care of editing, design and printing, and who work on the basis of transparent, attractive pricing. This significantly reduces the barrier to have any book or other writing service commissioned.”

Much Ado About You: The Novel – coming soon?