Librarian-Publisher Dialog: Kate Sheehan Talks to Valla Vakili of Small Demons

In the summer of 2011, Library Journal launched its Librarian-Publisher Dialog series, which has included conversations with Madeline McIntosh, president of sales, operations, and digital, Random House; Josh Marwell, president of sales, HarperCollins; Dennis Johnson, publisher of Melville House; and Bob Harras, editor in chief of DC Comics.

Here, we take a slightly different tack, matching returning librarian interviewer Kate Sheehan with Valla Vakili, CEO and cofounder of Small Demons, not a publisher but a web startup that bills itself as ground zero of the storyverse. Like libraries and bookstores, Small Demons is deeply invested in discovery (the buzz word of Digital Book World 2012) and, even more than that perhaps, deep connections across immersive content in a way that recalls the mission of readers’ advisory experts like LJ‘s Neal Wyatt.

Read on for proof that the publishing ecosystem is outgrowing its boring verticalness. And long live the esprit of Serge Gainsbourg, however you find his Gallic ass.‚ Heather McCormack

KS: What is Small Demons?

VV: It’s a way of discovering all the cultural references inside a story and everywhere they can take you. At Small Demons, we index books‚ fiction and narrative nonfiction‚ for references to people, places, and things. For every book, we create a visual index of all these references, every person, place, song, book, movie, food, drink, gadget, gun, event, and more mentioned. From there, you can dive deeper into the story or use any of those references as a way to find other books that share the same context.

KS: How did you come up with the idea for the site?

VV: A couple parts frustration and one part inspiration. I’m a heavy media consumer, but I found recommendations from both friends and retail sites‚ the main ways I’d discover new things‚ increasingly unsatisfying. On the one hand, the criteria used to recommend new media was often not the one I cared the most about. It’s from around the book‚ ratings, reviews, similar purchases‚ and not from within it. On the other hand, nearly every if you like this, you’ll also like that would take me from a book to a book, a song to a song, a movie to a movie. But I’ve just spent all this time engrossed in a story, and that story isn’t limited to any one dimension. It’s rich and varied, and I want more from it.

It really felt to me that the story itself was the missing ingredient in discovery. I’m reading a book, it’s full of details, and I want to know more about so many of them‚ context. And that next step doesn’t exist‚ there’s nowhere that’s gathered up all these details and made them accessible to me. The specific book that tipped me over the edge was Jean-Claude Izzo’s Total Chaos. Between the covers of that book there’s a world of music, food, drink, books, and places waiting to be discovered. In my case, it led to new jazz, new whiskey, and a trip to Marseilles. Some time later, inspired by that particular experience, came Small Demons.

KS: I’ve been thinking a lot about discovery lately. You’re right that it’s usually a vertical enterprise. However, I think many of us have sort of assumed that verticalness exists for a reason. Just because I like a story and a character doesn’t mean I’ll like the whiskey s/he drinks. Do you think every story has the potential to be immersive in the way you’re describing? Or, maybe a better question is, do you think every reader has the potential to be immersed?

VV: Verticalness in discovery exists for all the wrong reasons. It has very little to do with narrative, which is integrative and sense- and meaning-making. It seems to me it’s much more about how we categorize, package, and promote cultural works‚ the books go here, the music there, the movies elsewhere, and the food and drinks in an entirely different building‚ than how we experience them. So I’d say the assumption is misplaced.

So back to your example of the character and the whiskey. When we say, In this book you’ll find this character and this whiskey, we’re not making any assumptions about whether you’ll like the whiskey or not. It’s why we index comprehensively across people, places, and things to avoid exactly those kind of assumptions and let the reader and user choose. Does every story have the potential to be immersive in this way? Our approach isn’t for every book, but it sure works well for a very long list of them.

I don’t think there’s a magic bullet in discovery. There’s no single solution that will work for everything, and resisting the urge to find that solution lets us come up with tools that work exceptionally well in a great many instances and where the reward far outweighs the sameness that a one-solution-fits-all approach brings.

Does every reader have the potential to be immersed?: this is much less about us or any other discovery platform than it is about the power of narrative itself. So my answer is, of course! Who wouldn’t we want to be immersed? Why spend time on a story that you can’t lose yourself in when there are so many out there that you can?

KS: Would you describe the process you’re using to aggregate the data on your site? How do you find the links between the books, places, things, etc.?

VV: When we started Small Demons, it was entirely manual: reading books and marking them up for references to people, places, and things. That helped us build our initial taxonomy and prototype the site. Today, we start with an automated approach, using entity recognition tools to parse publisher-provided ePubs for these references. This means we use digital books as the source material for entity recognition and specifically that the digital books come from our partners.

Refining the entity recognition is an ongoing process. Additionally, we invest quite a bit in making sense of the terms extracted. And by making sense, I mean structuring and presenting them in a way that conveys narrative context and drives discovery.

KS: Publishers are working with Small Demons. Do they see the site as a way to increase sales directly, or do you think they view it as generating word of mouth?

VV: Both, I hope! By adding layers of contextual data to each book, we’re creating connections between books and a very broad range of reader interests. Those interests exist in a lot of different places online today‚ your movie queue, your music playlist, the places you visit, the restaurants you like‚ and just about none of them ties back to the books you read or could be reading. We think all of these interests should lead you back into books‚ into buying them and talking about them.

Additionally, a key part of our relationship with publishers is sharing the data we create around their books. Our hope is that access to that data provides greater flexibility in merchandising books, putting more tools in the hands of publisher marketing teams.

For the record, we’re talking with just about everyone, including all the major U.S. and UK publishers. So far, we’ve inked deals with Simon & Schuster, Random House, Sourcebooks, Unbridled Books, Europa Editions, Rosetta Books, Berrett-Koehler, Douglas & MacIntyre, ECW, Dark Coast Press, and Open Letter Books.

KS: So do you see publishers, booksellers, and libraries promoting titles based on very specific topics?: books for whiskey drinkers or stories featuring jazz?

Small Demons VP of content and community Richard Nash and I just returned from ALA Midwinter in Dallas, and this is a topic that came up frequently in our discussions with conference attendees. Our plan is to make it very easy to do just this sort of thing, across a very broad range of interests.

KS: Are people connecting more strongly to one kind of element over another? When I look at the type of things being linked, I find myself drawn to, say, finding out the drinks of favorite characters, but I’m less interested in knowing which books mention Ford Mustangs.

VV: We’re finding it varies by user, just like you’ve described. It’s why we index broadly across people, places, and things‚ so you have multiple ways to connect to any text, author, or character. I think this can be particularly interesting over time, as you change and your relationship to an author, text, or character changes. There’s a huge aspect of discovery that’s rediscovery, after all. Going back to a text and finding new things in it, seeing the story and yourself anew.

It’s funny you mention the Ford Mustang reference. Last night I was listening to Serge Gainsbourg’s Comic Strip, and there’s a great track on there, Ford Mustang. Like you, I’m not much of a car enthusiast, but I do love learning about a character’s favorite drink. Hearing a reference to Ford Mustang twice in two days intrigues me, so I search for Ford Mustang on Small Demons to see where it takes me. I get a row of books with snippets that mention Ford Mustang, including this from Poppy Z. Brite’s novel Prime:

On one side of the restaurant was a Mercedes-Benz dealership, on the other a Jaguar showroom. Rickey had driven here in the brand-new Mustang coupe Frank Firestone rented for him, the nicest car he’d driven by twenty thousand dollars or so.

I have always been a sucker for characters with first names and last names that start with the same letter (maybe it reminds me of myself). So I click to see more about this book with a character named Frank Firestone. And I find that Prime is just brimming with drinks references. I’m intrigued, and reading the book’s description and snippets associated with the drinks only increases my curiosity. I’ve found something new to read, thanks to Serge Gainsbourg and your reminding me of it a day later.

Long story short, I’m convinced that there’s a whole world of discovery just like this that hasn’t happened yet because the connections between our interests and the stories that speak to them haven’t existed before. It’s starting now, however.

KS: If you went into a library and said you were looking for something to read, you’d probably end up in a discussion about what you’ve liked recently and what you’re in the mood for. Content at that level of detail might never come up, unless you said you like hard-drinking protagonists. When I first heard about Small Demons, that was the part I didn’t get because I generally don’t pick books that way. Does it work as a recommendation engine? Will you come back and tell us if you liked Prime?

VV: If Small Demons wasn’t very different, I’d be concerned we weren’t doing what we set out to do. A very big part of our mission is making it easy to talk about and discover books in new ways. There’s a great line in a Mad Men episode where the lead character, Don Draper, says, If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation. I really think the discovery conversation needs new vocabulary; far more whimsy, impulse, and context.

So one word we’re not using is recommendation. There’s a normative implication, a should in recommendation that I want to get away from. By contrast, discovery lacks this dimension; it’s lighter, not normative, open-ended. For us, it’s not if you like this book, you’ll like these other books. It’s here’s this book, with all these people, places, and things (including other books) in it.

KS: A librarian question: how are you handling controlled-vocabulary issues? If one book mentions the Macallan and another mentions the Macallan 12, how are you reconciling those two data points? They’re clearly related but not quite the same thing.

VV: It depends. In the case you’re describing, we’d have separate topics for Macallan and Macallan 12 because in the first book and instance, the reference is always to Macallan without any qualification. But let’s go deeper into the second book‚ if the first time we see Macallan, it’s the Macallan 12, and then future references, although clearly to the same drink, only speak of the Macallan, we’d group those all under Macallan 12. Here they’re both the same topic, so we treat them that way.

The next step for us would be to relate the Macallan 12 back to the parent brand, Macallan, to improve the discovery experience. We have the ability to do this, and it’s a level of refinement that matters to us. You’ll see more on that in the future.

Another interesting thing would be if an author, at some point, tells us that in a certain book when s/he wrote about the Macallan, it was really about the Macallan 12. Would we augment or supplement the reference in some fashion then? Maybe. After all, it’s more context, isn’t it? Something to think about, as that kind of added information from authors is often available in interviews, annotations, and the like. It’s information that would find a very welcome home on Small Demons.

KS: How do you decide what warrants a page, e.g., Q-tips, yes; pudding, no?

It’s a fine line, one we’ve resisted having a hard and fast rule for yet. We typically favor named over generic references, but even that isn’t set in stone. Ultimately, it comes down to relevancy, which is something we’re thinking a lot about‚ how to surface the most relevant references in a book and how to make it easy for users to help indicate which references carry the greatest relevancy.

Now, back to pudding. One of the most popular comic book villains, the Joker, is known by a bunch of other names, and we’re pretty into capturing those at Small Demons. The Clown Prince of Crime is the most popular, but there’s also Pudding. Only one character dares to call him that, Harley Quinn, but the last thing anyone wants to do is offend the Joker, so I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss pudding!

KS: The What’s Coming Next section of the site indicates a plan to incorporate more social features. Any plans to release an API?

VV: Yes, definitely.

KS: What about a product that libraries could integrate into their catalogs?

VV: This is another topic that came up often over the weekend at ALA Midwinter. Something new and welcome for us to think about! Definitely an interesting application of the data, and it’s on our radar now.

KS: There’s also a Preview or Purchase feature in the works. The sites that make it easiest to buy content dominate their markets. With Amazon, it’s possible to buy books, publish work, and store documents in its cloud drive‚ all of your output and intake managed by one company. Do you think this kind of cultural domination changes our cultural consumption?

I think culture is just too varied and kinetic to be contained this way. It’s subject to a whole range of forces that have little to do with where one shops. Even the retail component by itself varies greatly across countries and cultures.

In fact, I think we’re in one of the most exciting periods for the discovery and rediscovery of cultural works. We’re moving discovery upstream from the shopping cart and back to the text. Today we have a nearly limitless supply of cultural goods and near-instant access to them. The challenge is how to navigate it all. Context becomes incredibly powerful here.

Let me give you an example from the world of movies. For years, I’ve consumed most of my movies from Netflix and AppleTV. Combined, they’ve completely dominated my consumption, but they’ve had very little to do with my discovery. It wasn’t Netflix that introduced me to John Carpenter’s They Live; it was Jonathan Lethem’s book on the movie and an essay I came across on J.G. Ballard and B movies on the web while I was reading Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition. From there, Netflix makes it easy to get to the rest of Carpenter’s works, but that first impulse can and should come from absolutely anywhere.

And to circle back to your question, on the preview and purchase across the site‚ we’ll soon be linking to a broad range of retailers for that.

KS: It’s easy to grouse about how Amazon always recommends books based on what we’ve purchased, not what we’ve enjoyed, but I’m more interested in the recommendations it gives me that are there because a huge number of people linked those two books. In other words, it’s not just that Jonathan Lethem’s book and the essay you read gave you context, it’s that curated link.

VV: I think it’s both curation and context. The essay that led me to watch They Live is 6500 words long, full of context on Carpenter and the film. But I found the article because at the time I was seeing the world through the eyes of J.G. Ballard, and that influence curated the other kinds of media I sought out.

As for the shortcomings of Amazon and Netflix, I really don’t know. It’s what I meant by changing the conversation‚ I can struggle to think of how they might be improved, or we can just take an entirely different approach.

KS: Right now, most of our experiences with ebooks are simply digitized versions of what we had in paper, so it seems as if we’re changing how we can parse and interact with those works (as Small Demons has done), but only in a third-party venue. As enhanced ebooks take hold, with video, location-aware features, and other app-esque qualities, do you think people will have the same deep relationship with ebooks that they have with books?

VV: For the kind of books we’re focused on at Small Demons‚ fiction and narrative nonfiction, books that tell stories‚ I think this format distinction doesn’t really matter. What matters is the story. The deep relationship is between reader and author, story, character. These are all elements that transcend format.

I know there’s a lot of investment in format today, and this is likely an unpopular statement, but I think in narrative this misses the point. A focus on making the digital reading experience stickier tends to overshadow the fact that stories are already incredibly sticky. They grip you, they cast a spell on you. We follow our favorite characters across books into other media (television, movies, comics). We dress as them (cosplay). We write their ongoing adventures (fanfiction). We can’t let go of them. Their worlds enter our minds and take up space there.

That space and how we relate to stories in our minds is so much more personal than the format we encounter them in. The challenge is to provide ongoing ways of continuing the relationship with the story; not just keeping that space in the mind alive but also adding to it. And we’re hoping that’s what unpacking the details of a character and his or her world does.

Let me give you an example from the world of comic books and graphic novels. There’s a series by the writer Matt Fraction named after the lead character, Casanova. It’s a fantastic mix of adventure, science fiction, and espionage genres. And it’s filled with pop culture references, especially music.

In one issue published last year, Gula #4, Fraction divided the 28-page book into 14 chapters with each chapter named after a song title. I checked my music library and saw that I had half the songs already, so I went out and got the other seven and created a playlist for the issue. I put it on my iPod, and every day for a month after reading that book I’d run for a half hour in the morning to the playlist from that issue.

In those 30 minutes over those 30 days, the story from a 28-page comic I’d read in minutes took up new space in my mind. Every time a track changed I’d remember the chapter it related to and the highs and lows of that issue. I had a new, deeper relationship with the story. And this is where I think digital is at its strongest‚ by gathering up all those details from a story and making it easy for us to make them part of our world.

KS: Small Demons is very book-oriented right now, but by focusing on the word story, you’re leaving the door open to a lot of other possibilities. How do you see the site expanding in the future? What other kinds of stories would you like to include?

VV: Excellent question! We like the word storyverse because the story as a unit of culture and narrative as a space of its own is incredibly powerful. What we’re most interested in is the logic of how stories relate to each other and to the world. Right now, you see that most clearly in books, and we have much work to do here in opening up that world. As we do, I think we’ll see that this logic leads very naturally to other types of stories, and by then hopefully we’ll have built up the tools, learning, and community to help unpack those as well. I have some ideas on where we might go first but part of the excitement is seeing where the story takes us.

KS: One last question: why Small Demons?

VV: Our name comes by way of Jorge Luis Borges, specifically a passage in Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius: the history of the universe‚Ķis the handwriting produced by a minor god in order to communicate with a Demon.

A lot of the thinking behind Small Demons comes from another Borges short story, Kafka and His Precursors. But our name comes from that passage, which I read like this: the history of the universe is quite literally all the stories ever told. Minor gods are the creators who tell the stories‚ rule makers of the narrative world. And the Demon is what compels the writer to write and the reader to read. It’s where the two meet.

I played around with variations on minor and Demon, which led to Small Demons. So in many ways you could say, a librarian named us.

Interviewer/Interviewee Information

Kate Sheehan is open source implementation coordinator, Bibliomation. She blogs at Valla Vakili is CEO and cofounder of Small Demons.


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