The Litfest Story (AmbITion case study 2009)
26 July 2009
Lancaster’s Litfest is a publisher, a literature festival, a development agency and a wide-ranging literature organisation. In a nutshell Litfest puts on events, runs workshops, delivers projects such as work in prisons, publishes books through e-publishing as well as print and runs an annual literature festival with programmes of events through the year.
Litfest Director Andy Darby has led the organisation’s work on AmbITion, and it is his infectious humour, can-do attitude and hands-on approach that has defined the way Litfest has grown in its technological ambitions.
Based in the shiny new Storey Creative Industries Centre in Lancaster, Andy is upbeat about the future. “AmbITion was an opportunity for us to spend time working on developing how we worked with digital technology. Before, we were unfocused. We weren’t skilled digitally, although we were already beginning to investigate what it meant to work as a digital organisation.
“There are things that we can do now after AmbITion that before would have taken us years and years. I think what we have got within our reach now is a much more coherent strategy for our digital development. We are more aware of what we want and where we want to go with what we are doing digitally. We have got a clearer idea of why we have a distributed content strategy, what we are trying to gain from that, how it benefits our search engine rankings – those kind of really simple things – and on top of that just being more fervent believers in the power of digital distribution channels to provide variety in other ways and added value to the work we do.
Marxism in action
Initially the vision that the organisation aimed for was, if anything, too big and too remote. It later changed into a more immediate, tangible approach. “We went through quite a tricky process with AmbITion. To start with, with the help of our consultant, we ran straight up a blind alley. We had to eventually stop ourselves and say “this isn’t what we need to do right now”. We have to stop trying to create a major online bookselling space which had all the jingles and bells of Amazon and return to a more basic version of what we actually want, which is an organisation that uses all the digital tools at its disposal, efficiently and cleverly to pursue its real mission.
Actually, we are starting to play with those ideas of an online bookshop again, but in a more controlled and clearer way, without having spent thirty grand on an external company developing that. But what we have done instead has been more just developing our own work slowly, with a real belief in open source and in getting there yourself. What was clear from our perspective, is that there’s a Marxist thing, of ownership of the means of production, which is a really valuable thing to have and that’s one of the key things we wanted. We wanted to be able to do it ourselves, not have to always pay someone else to do it. So, I learnt how to do the back end of websites, our designer worked on the CSS [Cascading Style Sheets – a web language] things, we got our heads around the conversations of Search Engine Optimisation [SEO]. And that was a really vital piece of training we did, where we all got the value of the ways in which we can transmit our message about literature to a wider public”.
Being prepared for change
Whereas many AmbITion organisations have used their funding to build or buy a product – Litfest have taken a unique hands-on approach, and changed themselves, the ways they work and their skillset.
“We went for process instead of a product”, Andy laughs. “It was a massive upskilling process of our skills. The thing is, everything you do with AmbITion is about change of one kind or another. It’s about changing the organisation. But digital things will always be about change. The next thing will be around the corner. So what we did was prepare ourselves to understand change, rather than prepare ourselves to just do one step and then go ‘Ooh somebody else has to come in and deal with the next thing thank you, coz I don’t know how to do it’. Well, now we know how to do it. We don’t necessarily do it as perfectly as a professional developer, but we do it efficiently for a small arts organisation”.
The key realisation of wanting to “own” the results of the AmbITion process gave Litfest a goal of being able to deal with change, in perpetuity. As generic as that sounds, it has produced a number of concrete benefits already.
“We put together the website, we got it DDA [Disability and Discrimination Act] compliant to a basic level. The next level is getting all of the organisation hands-on in terms of how we do alt tagging [the practice of captioning photos to make them understandable to screen readers for visually-impaired users], all those kind of basic things. But on top of that is the e-commerce platform, which we are developing. The next step of that is to go through all the certifications on that. I might actually outsource that, rather than go through that myself, because there is a limit on how far you want to go and shoot yourself in the foot by not doing it right, but we can go a long way down one road before you have to draw in professional input. I’ve taught myself a bit about MYSQL and PHP and knowing enough to do damage is not a bad place to be in so you can have conversations about it with people. Otherwise, if you know nothing yourself, you are in hoc to whatever people tell you, you make yourself dependent on expensive experts”.
An open-source philosophy
“What I’ve always been concerned about, in all of this, is proprietary ownership. Insisting on being locked into designers and web companies builds a relationship which you don’t have the scale to command. You do not have the scale with most arts organisations to have an efficient relationship with those people, so you are at their mercy. It is just dumb. So, returning to what you can do, from websites, to developing your own blog, to integrating all the things like Twitter and the blogs into your website, all those things are do-able through open source technologies if you take the time to apply them and decide what you want from your site, or your web presences shall we say and how you are going to use them, and those are the conversations we’ve had. We’ve talked about what is important about the narrative in Twitter, that is different in a blog, that is different from the informational sites of your web presence, so that we have a more clear understanding of how those different bits segment, and then you can use them, both to pursue projects and marketing goals.
“From the outset we wanted to research what we could do. Lots of the experiments that AmbITion facilitated were like: “What would we do with audio? What can we do with video? How would we work with a writer overseas and with a writer locally and with writers with disabilities?’ All these things were in our minds to experiment with and we did all those things and we’ve learnt a lot about the process of creating works that inhabit digital space. Some things we felt were more successful than others and some things we had a more natural affinity to. Certainly we had a more natural affinity to audio than video. I think we realised that we didn’t have the in-house skills to develop video. But other opportunities come along and we’ve just been talking to an external production company and so last week I said that I’ll never do video again and this week I’m saying, ‘Well, someone else can do it externally, there is a way of making this work’, but it won’t be with us doing all of the hands-on stuff because we don’t necessarily have all the skills in-house. We build on what we have. Sarah’s into audio, Jonathan’s a great photographer, and you find that output in our work”.
To start off with, Andy and his team were not even asking practically how to do a certain thing, they were discovering whether or not they wanted to, and whether certain things were for them.
“You learn by doing. There are things that I’ve done and thrown away; one of the project workers said “I want to be able to tie SMS into the blog and I said ‘Alright I’ll work out how to do it’ and then we never used it. Maybe we’ll use it in future. But it was time to experiment, it was time to learn. You have to play to know whether you want to use stuff. Otherwise how do you know? AmbITion was exactly about playing really”.
A homemade website
As part of Andy and the team’s exploration of digital technologies, Andy decided upon the open-source Content Management System (CMS) Joomla for the Litfest website.
“Joomla is a very mature open source platform. The advantage is there are lots of little plug-ins that you can very simply add in and build on, there’s e-commerce applications you can add in and build on. Lot’s of people are doing it and therefore there’s lots of people to ask questions of. There’s a relatively steep learning curve in terms of understanding the basic concepts of how you fit pages and containers of information together but once you’ve got that, then it’s a pretty quick setup and easier than Drupal [another open-source CMS], although Drupal has probably got the edge for most people, but I’ve found it harder.
“We host our own WordPress blog as well, and that’s a much cleaner installation, much easier to play with and again and plenty of mature plug-ins to add functionality, so relatively easy to play with. Then again it’s easy to mess up as well, if you look at our website blog now, I’ve just messed up the CSS and killed it, so I’ve got to go back and re-do that. There are disadvantages” he laughs.
“So we’ve got Joomla and WordPress and then it’s simply out to distributed content such as Twitter, Flickr, Facebook, Myspace, You Tube… we do use Vimeo for some stuff, we are looking at broadening some of those things, but we haven’t got there yet. We should use more than one video site to distribute our work. We use AudioBoo, which is an iPhone app that connects into the website, so we use it to play with iPhone and how that works is I can update the Joomla website off my iPhone, update Twitter off my iPhone, update the WordPress blog off my iPhone, so all those things can be done on the run, as well at home. Even if you’re about, running up and down the country doing other things, you need the time and space to do that.
Running the organisation from an iPhone
In fact, Andy’s iPhone is an all-singing all-dancing website and blog editor, a rich media machine, as well as being his work mobile phone.
“It’s my online diary, so I’m always findable, but it’s the usual thing with iPhone and smartphones, it does what it’s supposed to do, it keeps you connected and keeps you able to be able to work in all situations. Thankfully they have finally got cut and paste and tethering will make life a lot easier as well – now I can use my iPhone like a modem to connect my laptop to the internet”.
Even with the amazing usefulness of this one tool, Andy is cautious with his organisation’s money: “I have to say I’ve got mixed feelings about it. It’s been very good, but I don’t know whether it’s a good as it costs. That’s my payoff. It’s been an interesting experiment, but I don’t know whether we’ll renew it.
However one of the things we are doing is experimenting with developing an iPhone app with a local developer. So there is an extended use of that and we will look to play with that over the new few months. So it’s about being up for those challenges. So, when I say it’s about being open to change, well that’s just one opportunity we can do. It’s about delivering content to different media and playing with that. The iPhone again is used quite extensively as a screen reader, so we can play with that. In fact, I’ve used my iPhone for everything, from finding meetings, to taking photos of events, then putting them straight up onto Flickr. I’ve not found a decent spreadsheet on it yet. That’s the only thing I’ve not been able to do”.
Andy’s enthusiasm for technology has led to exploring a number of online facilities, one such being Scribd, an online repository of PDF publications.
“We had an interesting success with Scribd for distributing some of the stuff that we produced. Scribd.com and other such PDF platforms are the perfect extension of the kind of distributed content stuff for us. We designed six posters last year – three prose posters and three poetry posters – we produced two physically, but then we put all of them out on those other channels and one of them just took off – within three days it had 1500 plus views and downloads. It had got re-posted by the moderator of some forum… and it just took off. But the others certainly had a very, very good number of hits as well. So, that just went crazy. We weren’t going to print all of them, but of course on the internet you can put stuff out for free; it’s another way of testing things.
The posters were originally put on the website and made available as posters you can download, posters you can buy and I think a couple of them were large format ones. They were also put out digitally basically on Scribd and Issuu which is another PDF distribution site. We also had digital copies available at the festival and launches of course.
Scribd was getting lots of press at the time in the national press for people pirating Harry Potter. People were basically scanning and uploading entire books and putting them up for free and it got picked up as a news story. So we thought ‘Excellent, whilst it’s getting some press, let’s put our content up there!’. But actually these are big enough platforms to just put them in and see who looks. In an ideal world, you’d build more time in to follow that and engage with others and talk up your product, but we simply don’t have the time to do that. We’re not a big enough organisation to do that. We can’t spend too much energy on all the multiple platforms, so some we just have to accept that you throw it up there and see what’ll occur and check back in now and again”.
Mapping the web
Andy has not done all his exploration of the different facilities the web has to offer single-handedly, although he does say “It’s about putting your head above the parapet and looking. AmbITion encouraged that but we were beginning that process anyway. One of the best places I found was the trend map that Information Architects compile each year. It’s a fantastic, clickable underground tube map for what’s on the web. So instead of having a Bakerloo Line, you’ll have a ‘if you’re interested in social media’ line or a line of ‘if you’re interested in photos’, that’s kind of how it goes. They map what’s hot. Well quite usefully that gives you a picture of what an information architecture specialist consultant in Japan, with global reach, thinks of what is upcoming and what is really cool. It’s got Google and all of the variants of it. So the map itself is a nice way of being able to say this or that tool has arrived.
The Web Trend Map is an interesting case in itself; they do this thing of multiple channels of distribution, so you can buy one or just download it. They’ll give it away for free, but they’ll also sell you one. If you want to be known to have one, then you go out and buy it! But it is also available freely online, and this is exactly what we do with our posters. So you can use it as a way to investigate what’s hot or at least hottish. It also opens up stuff that you don’t know about. It’s got individuals on there too, so you can check out bloggers and that kind of thing. So you can check out all kinds of interesting stuff. If you look at that as a research tool as a basic look around the web, someone’s done that looking around already. It shortens your time. But there are other great tools, it’s about drawing enough of them together to get through what you need in a day. And then it’s back to reviewing what you are doing and using the online communities that you are part of.
“The Web Trend Map has influenced me a lot, because it gave me a picture of the broader framework of the kinds of activity going on along the way. There are things I can do and things I can’t do and things I can engage with and things that I can’t engage with and it became really apparent what was possible.
It gives a sense of the direction that things are going in as well, so you can see there’s a move towards doing more with this kind of thing and see where it was going. After all, not all internet phenomenons will be enduring or worth investing in.
“I was frustrated for a while that I couldn’t find a decent way of using my Flickr images in my website. I wanted to host them on Flickr and build them into a website but no-one had created the open source coding that I needed. So sometimes you’ll be ahead of what other people are wanting, just out of the nature of your circumstance. But that’s ok, you’ll wait around a little while and it catches up, or you encourage other people on conversations on the community forums to begin that thinking. I’m no coder, I can hack but I’m not a coder and I don’t want to be. But I can get what I want, and now I can embed Flickr photos in the website with a little bit of code”.
Using the power of the web
Andy doesn’t just use online tools for communicating over the internet. The growing ubiquity of online office tools means that Litfest are structuring their entire office round them.
“As well as the server in our office we all use Gmail; we all share our calendars and Google Docs. The fact is, despite the drawback that Google is hacking your privacy to bits on a daily basis it still provides quite a useful tool and therefore we do use it.
We do a lot of sharing via Google Docs, so if we’re reserving seats, we’ll use the spreadsheets to keep a tally on reserves for a workshop or something like that, so we’ve all got direct access to it, even from out of the office. Just put a shortcut in your toolbar in Firefox (a web browser) and you’re away.
I’ve used Adobe Buzzword as well quite a lot and again it’s a lovely sharing mechanism and it’s a much more developed platform than Google Docs.
Most of us are signed into our Gmail accounts all the time, we’re not having to do that flip in, sign out, flip in, sign out and all that. The benefits of that is that you can do joint working on documents in quite a good way and also you can have conversations off the side with webcam and audio as well. So it’s a really neat system for that kind of collaboration”.
Andy does not have glowing things to say about everything on the web.
“We played with Basecamp but found it bloody nightmarish overall. I played with 30 Boxes http://www.30boxes.com/ which is basically a calendar but I found it inappropriate for our usage. It’s quite good if you want something that fits in with Facebook and Twitter and tells everyone every aspect of your life, but I didn’t really need that. But for some project somewhere down the line I will. We’ve done a lot more with RSS feeds; certainly it’s great to use feeds for keeping ourselves informed and stuff.
I played with Ning for a bit, which is a site that lets you create your own social networks, but wasn’t that taken with that.
Audio Boo is quite a good one off the iPhone. That’s quite a handy one. I’m going to use that more now for basically just doing our audio captioning. So when we put up a page of information around an event, I’ll just do the audio for it on my iPhone and then upload that in the place, so that you have an audio version of the same text. So an interesting way of re-delivering the same content and very, very simple, because you just do the record, play back to see if you like it, save it to the server and then cut and paste from the URL the server gives you, into your website.
Happiness is hands on, not handed on a plate
All in all, Andy and his colleagues are very happy with the approach they’ve taken, because they feel it has empowered them. They certainly don’t regret not having paid some outside ‘expert’ to come in and sort their problems out for them… “Two years later when things have moved on, you’ve got to spend it all again to try and keep yourself up to date. I think we work more effectively by learning how to do it all ourselves. I think that if you’re going to engage in your website, someone in your organisation is inputting information on that website anyway and somebody has to know what that means. Now in terms of DDA compliance down the line, doing disability access well, you are going to have to be much clearer about what is needed in that framework. So knowing that decent alt tagging is not just typing “image”, you can use other ways of framing a description to make it more useful for a text reader, those are useful pieces of information to have. I find myself slightly frustrated that I can’t iron out all the problems in the world and solve it, but at the same time it is good to know what impediments your customers are facing to accessing your work.
It isn’t perfect yet; every couple of days I find a new problem and I’m not sure if I’d have those issues or not had I gone with a company, but at least I’ve got a relatively decent idea of how we are going to fix it ourselves and at least it’s not going to cost us a lot of money to do that”.
In fact, Litfest are a small enough organisation to not have their own dedicated technical person. “I am the dedicated technical person” says Andy, “and I am also the person who runs up and down ladders when we’re doing events and I’m the person who programmes it! We are all our own technical team and that’s it. We’ve all built specialisms, and different people have different aptitudes. Google Analytics is something that for some reason completely continues to perplex me, but Jonathan gets it and understands it. For doing the search engine optimisation thing, Google Analytics is very, very good. I think we’ve all picked up what that is but we’ve got to implement it and then we’ve got to look at how we want to collect information from all that”.
Having this experience of such a broad range of technologies makes Andy feel prepared, especially for when the next big thing comes along. “As prepared as you’re likely to be, at least. I think that nobody knows what is going to happen next but at least everyone should be open to what that experiment is. The question for us is, how what we are doing adds, not just value, but a real way and an energy to our day to day mission to promote literature. Getting people to have better experiences with the written word, the spoken word. It is just a part of the continuum, it’s not about saying these things are big and different. They’re not; they’re just the world we’re living in now. So, we just have to work out what they do. Mobile phone technology is something we have to engage in. It’s being used for massive amounts of reading, so we have to think about how it’s going to be used. Music organizations are going to say that it’s being used for listening to massive amounts of music, so they are going to have to work out how it’s going to be used and what they want to do with it. It’s just another platform. If someone suddenly says to you, here’s something else to play with that’s good for your art form you don’t run away and hide! You can’t say ‘I can’t deal with that because it’s too technical’. You don’t have to understand it all; you just have to understand that it’s worth having a play with.
“I think the reaction from the audience has been quite good. We’ve understood that it’s not just about giving audiences one experience; it’s giving them lots of experiences. Flax for example is a PDF, it might have audio content, it might be audio, it might be film, but it is also a physical aesthetic experience. Each one of those audiences will go to what they like, what they want to be engaged in. They might go first to the PDF and down the line they might go to the print, but it’s about options. It’s not about dictating which way your audience will take their literature; it’s about saying these are the options. Therefore if given options, we all tend to be quite happy with that. We all tend to say ‘Oh right! They’re not saying I have to have it one way, they’re saying I can have it many ways’”.
Litfest’s online activity certainly means that more audience members can access their work. “Before we did e-book publishing we were producing a small anthology of poetry every year as part of our competition; we could only afford to print 300. Now all of the books that we have as e-books have had more than 300 downloads. So, immediately there’s a bigger audience… And it doesn’t stop being available. It keeps on going. We are not constricted by economies of scale. We can’t go “Oh, I can only print 300, that’s me”, because people also buy them as well, so it’s great. You can still have them to hold in your hand and to love if you want. So for our audience, online technologies are about choice, and freedom of access”.