Binpress Podcast Episode 20: Keith Blount, creator of Scrivener
This week we talk with Keith Blount of Literature and Latte, the creators of the award-winning writing software Scrivener . Keith covers Scrivener’s origins, tapping into the NaNoWriMo community, accidental content marketing and the psychology of discounts. He also discusses developing software with a profit-share model, estimating release dates and much more.
Alexis: Thanks Keith for coming on the podcast.
Keith: Thanks for having me on!
Alexis: Well I understand that you’re probably taking a break from NaNoWriMo [chuckles].
Keith: [Chuckles] I’m not actually doing it this year. I did it last year, but this year I’ve become busy coding, so I can’t actually get involved in NaNoWriMo, unfortunately.
Alexis: Yeah, as someone who has always thought to themselves, “Man, National Novel Writing Month – I should do it this year” and never get around to it because x number of things always are going on.
But before we get into NaNoWriMo and how that dovetails into Scrivener – actually, you know what? If folks aren’t familiar with Scrivener yet, if they’re Mac users and now, as of maybe a year or two ago, if they’re Windows users and they’re writers, they should be familiar with it. But if they’re not, give us a low-down of what it is.
Keith: Okay, so Scrivener’s basically a content-generation tool. It’s a writing program; it’s a writing software, but it’s not like Word. It’s designed specifically for long pieces of writing, long texts, so if you’re working on, say, a novel or a thesis or a script, or anything where you might have a good deal of research, a good deal of organization you need to put into it.
You wouldn’t write, say, a newsletter or just a letter and a really short piece; it’s more for finding your structure of a long piece. You might work in it – it allows you to work on a long text in small pieces, basically, so you can look at small pieces of your text on their own, whether that’s a scene or chapter, or even smaller, or you can view it as part of a whole. I mean, you can easily move those different sections around, and each of the section is associated – well, optionally you can associate either each of the sections with a synopsis and then view that synopsis on a corkboard or an outline, so you can get this kind of top-level view of your work and rearrange it either in an outline form or just delve in and work on the individual parts.
It also allows you to bring in research documents like .pdf documents and images and view those alongside your writing to reference. So it’s kind of this big toolbox for writers, basically; it’s kind of like a writer’s desk in one piece of software.
Alexis: And exporting documents is a whole another rabbit hole with all sorts of options and [chuckles].
Keith: One of the ideas is that you don’t have to format your text as you want it to appear, because these days you take one long text and it might be sent out to various different formats. You can take your book or your thesis and you can compile it into, say, an e-book or you might compile it for self-publishing so it creates space, or you might export it for printing – send it off to, say, an editor or something – and all those would require different formatting and different layouts. You deal with that sort of stuff at the export or print stage.
Alexis: Before we dive into Scrivener a bit further and Literature & Latte, tell us a bit about your background.
Keith: Okay, my background. Well I wasn’t trained as a programmer; I’m from a Humanities background. I did History at university – I’m interested in medieval literature at that – and then I was a primary school teacher for a few years. Why I got into Scrivener was I always kind of had an ambition of writing a novel, and I basically was looking for a software to help me with that.
I was just really disorganized, the way I worked on computers; I want a software to help me with that and I ended up teaching myself to code in order to write a piece of software that I wanted, basically.
Alexis: The classic “I have an itch to scratch and dammit I’m going to scratch it myself” [chuckles].
Keith: Yeah, that’s basically it.
Alexis: So how did you go about learning Objective-C?
Keith: From books, basically. I mean, I’d had the idea for Scrivener before I was even on a Mac. Years ago, we’re talking – I don’t know, 10, 12 years ago when I first had the idea and I was using Windows at the time – I kind of dabbled with BASIC when I was a teenager and HTML and things like that before, and I figured, “Okay, I’ll have a look at some programming books.” I went out and bought books on C++ for Windows and the various different frameworks that were available for Windows, and they were just doorstoppers and I just couldn’t get through them, with a full-time job and everything as well, it wasn’t something that was feasible.
And then when I moved to a Mac about 10 years ago, I just saw that Xcode – the development platform for the Mac – came free just with every Mac whereas on Windows you’d have to pay a £1,000 if you really want to get into development seriously at the time. I think it’s different now, but certainly that was the case at the time.
I just had a look at some online tutorials and it kind of clicked with me, and then I went out and bought two great books: Programming in Objective-C by Stephen Kochan and Cocoa Programming for Mac OSX by Aaron Hillegass. Just from those – the Programming in Objective-C book gave me basics in using C and the basic frameworks and coding, and then the Aaron Hillegass book gave me the interface layer.
It took about three months to go through those at weekends and evenings while I was working. I was working for NHS at the time before teaching, training to become a teacher. It went from there – once I’ve gone through those books and really clicked, then everything else was mainly just online resources.
Alexis: Now a quick shout-out to Aaron Hillegass. We went to the same undergraduate school, but many years apart though.
Keith: Oh okay [chuckles].
Alexis: This more of a personal question, I guess. If you told family or friends, “Yeah, I’m starting to build this word processor from the ground up” what was their response? I imagine there is a “You don’t know how to program” or “Are you really going to do this?”
Keith: Well I think my wife was used to me being a computer geek in general anyway before I was coding. She didn’t really say much about it [chuckling] to be honest.
Alexis: It’s just that thing you’re doing.
Keith: I think she was as surprised as anybody when it actually started selling, because it was just a hobby that I was plugging hours and hours into at first.
Alexis: So how did you first spread the word about it?
Keith: Well that was actually during National Novel Writing Month. Back in – I think it was 2005 when I got this really early piece of code, a version which never really went on sale. I ended up giving this version away free for a while.
After learning to code, I might have spent a year putting this really early, clunky version of Scrivener together and I just posted on the National Novel Writing Month forums just before it came up to November, being the NaNoWriMo month, just asking people to come on board and just beta test it.
It was going to be free for a while, just test it, and I got a really good response from there. Lots of people tried it out, gave me good feedback and we had the forums. We had some good forums aligned and lots of people started taking part of the forums, and they started telling other people about it, really. So it was just word of mouth to begin with, from NaNoWriMo forums.
Alexis: Now you said you didn’t charge for it back in 2005 when you had the early release. What was the point where you decided, “I’m ready to charge for this”? Was that always something that you were planning on doing?
Keith: Yeah, even on my early release I was saying, “This is an early beta; it’s free for now but we were going to charge for it when it becomes a piece of software that I feel is ready.” The plan was always to charge for it, yeah. It was just a process of getting it ready and getting it to a stage where it was a commercial application.
Alexis: So when you had the initial seeding of the audience with NaNoWriMo, how did that grow and what did you do to make sure that the word of mouth had spread and what kind of marketing work did you do afterwards?
Keith: To be honest, it wasn’t an awful lot. We didn’t do much marketing at all; it was really surprising. It was more of “build it and they will come” in those early months. Because National Novel Writing Month is – I mean, we sponsor it these days, and it’s quite massive. For our audience, it was just perfect.
There are thousands of people who do it every year – it’s tens of thousands now. These days we sponsor it and we have a thread in their special offers sponsor area which draws people to Scrivener. We get that, and back then we didn’t have quite so much there, but we had software forums. Thousands of people go into these forums looking for different software; I think a lot of writers try different software to change things up occasionally.
Just by having thousands peek through there then spreading the word to begin with was really useful. One thing that inadvertently helped spread the word a little bit was we – from the beginning, I’m not a big fan of a hard sell, so I want to make sure that people trying our software are also aware of other software packages that were doing vaguely similar things so they could try different things and choose.
We had this linked writers’ page on our website, which was just a list of other software that people could check out. Some of them were rivals, but we still get them up there. Completely, much to my surprise, that page ended up being a number one ranking Google page for a long time for software for writers. And so that was bringing people to our site, to the extent that eventually I had to put our own software at the top of this page. People were finding this page through Google and was telling them about competitor’s software [chuckles] but it still brought people to our site, so that was unexpected but great. So it was word of mouth and a bit of Google as well.
Alexis: It was unintended content marketing and [chuckling] –.
Alexis: And content marketing at its finest at the same time.
Keith: Yeah, we were very much learning as we went along.
Alexis: And we should give you a plug here. Since it is NaNoWriMo, there’s a NaNoWriMo Edition trial and even a discount code. Give the listeners a bit about that before November’s over.
Keith: Sure, yeah. All through this month – all through November up to the beginning of December – everyone buying Scrivener – which is normally $45 for the Mac version and $40 for the Windows version just because the Windows version is still catching up a little bit, because it’s younger – all through this month there’s a 20% discount by entering the code NaNoWriMo on our website when you go to buy.
But also if you’d taken part in National Novel Writing Month, we have a trial available which will last right up to the 7th of December. And if you get your 50,000 words to National Novel Writing Month, you get a winner’s code via the National Novel Writing Month website, which gives you 50% off the normal price.
I should say that we have a regular trial as well, which, if you’re not doing National Novel Writing Month, our regular trial gives you 30 days of use – non-consecutive – so you can use it for 30 actual days, not 30 calendar days.
Alexis: So when it came time to say, “I’m drawing a line in the sand. From here on out, I’m going to charge for Scrivener” how did you come to your pricing?
Keith: I looked at other software that was doing vaguely similar things. It’s quite a niched market, this software targeted at long pieces of writing, because often most people will use Word or Pages; a lot of people don’t even go and look for other pieces of writing.
We looked at the few other packages out there that did things like this. Also, I really wanted to make it affordable – not so cheap that I wasn’t going to make a profit and able to carry on running it, but I want to make it affordable so that even a student could buy it.
The initial pricing was supposed to be – it was just one piece of price. I set a price with the idea that struggling writers or students would be able to afford it. I think it was $35 – I think it was $39 to begin with or something like that. What we’ve seen and found was that no matter what you price things, students want a discount anyway. It’s just a psychological thing, “I’m a student, I haven’t got much money, please give me a discount” so initially we did add a student discount as well. It was mainly to be affordable; we wanted to make sure that many people could afford it without going to a rock-bottom price there.
Alexis: I have to wonder – you mentioned that it is niched software. How do you sustain yourself? You’ve got Scrivener and you have – help me out in pronunciation here if I’m butchering it – Scapple, right?
Keith: Scapple, that’s right, yeah.
Alexis: It’s a scary thing – at least to me, and I guess for other folks that are used to more of a subscription model where there’s recurring revenue. Can you give us some insight into how you’re keeping – I don’t want to make it sound bad – how do you keep the ship afloat? Not that it’s in dire straits or anything, but it makes me wonder what with the potential customers out there. How do you make sure that you keep sales going and that kind of thing?
Keith: This is the strange thing — well, it’s not the strange thing – we are a niche piece of software and we’re doing well, but it’s not like we’ve sold millions. We’re a long way from reaching saturation point. When I first started selling Scrivener, I expected to sell maybe a couple hundred copies, a nice little bit of extra pocket money while I also was teaching.
We were looking at the sales coming in over the first few months, which were nowhere near to what we have now – these were small sales, really, to begin with. But I was looking at it, “Oh, this has got to end any day now. Surely, surely this is it” and it just kept going. As word of mouth goes around – I mean, we have a really good Twitter following and Facebook following. We try to be really active on there, so a lot of people do spread the word on Twitter and Facebook and that’s great.
We found that every month – I mean, for the first year or two years, I was, every month, checking the sales thinking, “These numbers are going to go down. Surely the same number of people can’t keep buying this every month. We are going to run out of people who are going to want to buy it.”
But in actual fact, when we looked at the figures we’ve sold, it’s miniscule. I remember when I first started out, I watched this great video by Wil Shipley who does Monster Delicious. He had this great video, something about hyping your applications; it was on Viddler. I can’t find it now, but he did this –.
It was full of great advice actually for developers who are starting out. One thing he said is that, he was saying, “Don’t be scared to give out free copies to people. Don’t be scared about promoting it that way, because you can give out hundreds of free copies – there’s millions and millions of Mac users out there; you’re not going to reach saturation point. You’re not going to get to them all.”
And so people are still hearing about us. We’re still find niche people every day learning about us and coming to us. We found that it just keeps snowballing and keeps going along. What we found is we had fairly consistent sales with version 1.0 of Scrivener, and when we released version 2.0, it was a real bump. The initial bump went down a bit, but then we are now consistently selling more than we ever were with Scrivener 1.0.
That’s our other stream of occasional revenue, is that we do paid updates. We had version 1.0 about four years ago; we did version 2.0, we upgraded to version 2.0. There will be a version 3.0; I can’t say when that’s going to be, but that’s definitely going to happen. That will be a paid upgrade to people.
We make a bit of extra money there because we can’t afford just to give all updates for free, but mainly the money is from just more people hearing about us and keep on coming to us.
Alexis: I think it’s one of those classic misconceptions. I guess another one of those, not necessarily related is, “Yeah, I’m not going to tell people about my idea because then they’ll take it.” The classic response is, “Nobody will steal your idea” [chuckles]. But in this case, you always had room to grow even if it may not seem that way. Partly the reason I ask that question is because to me, Scrivener is the thing you use to write long-form documents on a Mac.
Keith: Thank you.
Alexis: It’s not meant as a, “This is a paid sponsorship by Binpress” – it’s just, you hear that when you’re listening to Mac podcasts. Again, I keep stressing the Mac side of things because that’s where Scrivener was born. The word of mouth makes it seem like it’s always been here. It’s the North Star of long-form writing.
Keith: Yeah, that’s right. We’re really tiny, but we’ve been really lucky with word of mouth. I think part of that is – when I first started out writing with software, I based it on the things that I wanted, like I said. And so I kind of thought, “There is probably going to be somebody else out there who kind of works similar to me, who was disorganized and wants some similar structuring features.” And it turns out, I actually know quite a few people who were looking for something similar. It’s not perfect; we seemed to have lots of views and suggestions all the time, but in actuality there just seem to be quite a lot of people that it clicks with. Yeah, so that’s great.
Alexis: So what is Scapple and what was it born out of? Was it born out of my suspicion of, “Well, we might as well have a new product which we need to scratch, and hey, it might also bring some extra revenue”?
Keith: Actually, it was another piece of software that I wanted for myself but just didn’t fit in Scrivener. Scrivener’s a big piece of software and it’s got lots of features, but there are certain things I’ve always said that would not fit in it because they’ll just be thrown on top rather than integrated into it. Everything that goes into it has to be integrated into – it has to feel as a part of an organic whole.
Whereas Scapple was born out of the way of I just throw ideas at a piece of paper before I go to things like Scrivener, which is just – I think it’s some sort of technique called clustering, basically. I would just write ideas on a piece of paper – in random pieces, all over the piece of paper. I might put them in a circle, draw lines between them. I was always just looking for this software that did that, and there’s a piece of software you can do that with, but it tends to be a part of a much bigger package where they’re looking at building big, structural relationships.
Another equivalent software is mind-mapping software where you’ve always got to have a connection and a structure between things. I didn’t want that; I wanted it to be completely free-form. It didn’t have to have lines between anything; you can just drag anything anywhere. It’s just what I did on paper, but the advantage of having it on-screen is that you can move things around to make more space to put in extra notes and you can kind of delete and rearrange things more easily.
So it just came like that. To begin with, it was just a really small application I’d written for myself, which I was just using and I’d put it in the forums to see if anybody else would find it at all useful. It was something a fair few people seem to like, so I just put some time into brushing it up, polishing it up, getting all the extra code in place so it had decent undo and things like that.
When we put it out – as you know, fairly inexpensively – the idea was, yeah, it’d be nice to have something to supplement Scrivener, but it had to be something that was fairly self-contained but wasn’t going to take too much time away from developing Scrivener. It’s a much more self-contained application; it doesn’t involve as much work to maintain it.
Alexis: The first early release of Scrivener came out in 2006, right?
Keith: First we went on sale at the beginning of 2007, but we had a beta test before in 2006. There was the really early beta in 2005, then the proper beta of version 1.0 in 2006. That’s right, yeah.
Alexis: At what point did you go full-time?
Keith: That was – I’m trying to think now. It must have been about six years ago. It’s been on sale for over seven years, so nearly eight years; eight years this January. Just six and a half years ago, about a year after I started.
What happened was, I was living in London at the time and I moved to Cornwall with my family about a year after developing Scrivener. I was initially going to find a teaching job down here and just realized that it’s quite difficult to get a teaching job in this area. I also realized that Scrivener was bringing in more already than my teaching job was earning me, so it just made sense to go full-time and try and take it up to the next level. So yeah, that was the main consideration.
Alexis: What’s changed over the years when interacting with the community? What have you learned in general when it comes to community?
Keith: One of the things that changed is that I was always interacting with the community. I still do; I was always on the board constantly and answering all. To begin with, it was just me, whereas now I spend more time on the code and I’ve got other people who interact with the community and pass things on to me. But I still make a point of going on the forums regularly and checking out our Twitter page to make sure that I’m still in touch with everybody.
One thing that’s changed is we’ve got more people onboard now. One thing I’ve learned over the years is to not take things too personally. When it’s just you working on a piece of software or anything really, and it’s kind of your baby and your creation, and then someone comes online and is criticizing it, it’s very easy to take things personally. In those early years, I possibly didn’t react in the most professional manner. I don’t always now, but [chuckles].
One thing I’ve learned is try and be a little bit more professional about these things and take criticism. Not criticism – constructive criticism is great, and actually we have a really good community of suggesting improvements and a lot of those improvements have gone into Scrivener over the years and it’s fantastic to get that feedback. But someone comes aboard, “This is rubbish! I don’t like this!” and I was “Argh!” [chuckling]. Yeah, just not reacting to things like those and taking things on my chin a bit more, I’ve learned over the years.
Alexis: Is there any other advice you would give to folks who are currently trying to build a community or dealing with a community themselves?
Keith: I guess with me, we’re really just kind of being upfront and honest about things and not doing the hard selling. Maybe that just appeals to that particular audience that we pander to – it’s an audience of writers; I don’t think they appreciate you trying to hard sell. But also as a consumer, I don’t like, for instance, things like if you got to download a trial, I don’t like having to enter my email address and feel like I’ve got to – “I’ve got to give you my email address and receive lots of spam from you just to get a trial.”
I’ve been receiving a billion emails saying, “Hey, buy our software!” So I try to do more of a soft sell; that’s definitely worked, and I think that’s worked for us as well. I know, on occasions where we’ve maybe tried to be a bit more pushy, people haven’t really responded so well.
I guess it’s just communication with the community. Because once you’ve got a community on board that is enthusiastic about your software, they will evangelize without you doing anything. People, if they really like your software and you’re upfront and honest with them about what’s coming, or “Okay, we’re going to fix these bugs.”
Actually it was in that initial beta test, we had a whole group of people who came on doing the beta. What I’d do is I look out on our forums, for instance, for anybody who’s really good at reporting bugs or giving good feedback, whether that’s critical or not, then ask them to be a private beta tester so a lot of people are going to be beta testing our iOS version and the mythical Scrivener 3.0 [chuckling]. They will be people that I’ve just picked from the community and if you have these people then – these people have helped over the years. I think if people feel they’re part of helping develop a software, and they are in a very real way, and they go and tell other people about it. I think it’s fostering a really good online community – I think it really works well.
Alexis: Literature & Latte is all completely bootstrapped; there is no flying out to San Francisco, schmoozing with investors and saying, “Hey, I can change the novel-writing world with my software,” right?
Keith: Yeah, it was built from nothing, basically. It was just me and Xcode on my iBook 10 or whatever it was at the time. It was just me to begin with, yeah, and it’s just grown from there. There’s a few of us working on it now, but yeah it was all –.
Alexis: When it comes to financials or otherwise, what are some things that you’ve learned from bootstrapping a) just Scrivener itself and then with a larger company? What advice could you give to folks?
Keith: Well, we’re quite unique. We’ve done some things in a bit of a different way – not always the right way. For instance, when we wanted to develop our Windows version. In fact, I wasn’t going to develop a Windows version to begin with; I was just quite happy to do the version because I like having control of the Mac version. I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to go on in coding the Windows version.
When this developer came to us who wanted to do it, we do things on a profit share. We do things a little bit – rather than just hiring this Windows programmer and paying him, he works on a profit share for us on a sliding scale. The great thing about that is we still make a good profit from that and he’s really invested in it. We did the same thing with the iOS version to begin with, but we’ve changed that now — we hired our iOS coder now.
We’d been careful not to throw money away. One thing we learned early on was that advertising, for instance, didn’t work massively for us. We’ve had lots of different magazine adverts and we were always careful to put discount codes with magazine adverts and things like that so we can track how many people seem to be coming from these kinds of adverts.
We found that advertising works very poorly for us, whereas sponsoring events like National Novel Writing Month where people get discount codes work really well for us. And also things like being involved in bundles – Mac software and things – they tend to bring more people. Even outside of the bundle, people hear about you.
Again, in terms of financials, we mainly put our financials back into staff and hiring people who can actually help support users.
Alexis: Speaking of staff, how large is Literature & Latte?
Keith: I think it’s 10 people now. Some of those are part-time. We’ve got about four or five staff, and then we’ve got some contractors as well who work on an as-needed basis. I have 10 people that are regularly working for Lit & Latte at any one time.
Alexis: What qualities do you look for when hiring? And that goes both for full-time folks and for freelancers.
Keith: I don’t know. With all the people that are onboard, I’ve been screening users to start with [chuckling].
The first person I hired actually was a friend who I’d known got an experience in sales and other things, so I thought bringing him on would help with getting our social media and everything up on board. Everyone else has been people who I’ve met through the community.
The second person I got onboard was one of the very first users right back in 2005, and he was a person who was just bombarding me with suggestions – and he still does. But they were good suggestions and they really helped refine it.
Alexis: Just do it yourself [chuckling].
Keith: Exactly, exactly. I mean, he still doesn’t do any coding, unfortunately, so he’s still bombarding me with ideas and I have to code them. He’s our Head of Support now and also does a lot of QC testing and tests all our versions.
When it came to finding someone just to help with support and things to begin with, it was just an obvious thing to contact him and say, “Hey, do you want some part-time work to begin with?” And then it became full-time.
The same happened with a couple of other people. When we’re looking to get a couple of part-time people on to help out as well, we just post it on the forums to begin with, to see if we could get any decent feedback – and we did. We got people – we basically set them up with some sample questions, sample support questions that we knew were kind of tricky support questions that we had from users in the past. We had several people who wanted to join our support crew and we just gave them sample support questions and saw how they handled them. That just turned out to be a really good way of getting people onboard because we’ve got some really good support people onboard.
Alexis: How do you handle support?
Keith: It’s all online. We don’t do any phone support because we sell Scrivener for $45 – that just would not cover phone support [chuckling]. Online works really well.
Obviously we’ve got forums, so people can contact us on our forums. We also use a Tinder app online support system. People email us, and the Tinder app system then has this long queue; it automatically breaks down depending on the email address that it’s sent to – break it down to a Windows/Mac sales question. Our support team goes on there and picks up a question. When they pick up a question it gets assigned to them, and if any of the support team need further help, they’ll contact me or the Head of Support.
It’s all done online; it works really well. We always aim to get a reply to people out as soon as possible, within two days at most. So yes, it’s all done online.
We also get support questions through Twitter and Facebook, and we are always monitoring those. We try to balance things there – if the answer’s longer than 140 characters, we direct them to the support site.
Alexis: In your eight or nine years of doing this on your Literature & Latte adventure, what’s one mistake you’d rather not repeat?
Keith: [Chuckles] That’s an easy one. I wish I had not said two years ago, “The iOS version is coming, it’s being developed, it’s going to be here in a year’s time.” That’s been the biggest mistake and everybody’s like, “It’s late now, you said it was going to be hear a year ago, and then you said it was going to be this.”
I guess giving users an estimated deadline is a massive mistake – and I should know as well because when I was developing version 2.0 of Scrivener, for instance, I remember I sat down, I got the list of things I want to do and I gave estimated dates and when they will be done by. One that’s supposed to take a day would end up taking two weeks. It’s just the way with software development that is impossible. You look at something that you think is going to be simple and it turns out there was a bug in OSX you got to work around or whatever. A small feature could end up taking a month.
Estimating release dates – I’m not going to give the release date on anything from now on. We’re working on it; it will be out sometime, maybe.
Alexis: So maybe that’s why Valve and other folks say, “When it’s ready.” [Chuckles]
Keith: Yeah, exactly. I think that’s definitely the best approach – when it’s ready.
Alexis: Honestly, I should’ve seen the answer to that question [chuckling] but for whatever reason, I did not anticipate it [chuckling]. I have to take this moment to poke a bit of fun. When’s the Android version coming? [Chuckling]
Keith: Well you know, the funny thing is, our Windows developer is really keen to develop the Android version.
Alexis: Interesting, okay.
Keith: He uses this Qt – how do you say it? — the framework, and so they can use a lot of that code that they have used in Scrivener for Windows, and then transfer that over to the Android version actually. Certainly for the data model and things like that, we’ll need a whole new interface based on the iOS version.
So he’s nagging me as much as our users about, “When is this iOS version going to be ready so that I can start building the interface for the Android version based on the iOS version?” I want to make sure the iOS version’s done and tested and really solid before we start any work on the Android version. I don’t want him to start work on something that then changes, although we’re kind of that out as – we’re more than getting there. We’re heading towards a finished product on our iOS version and beta testing hopefully – internal beta testing.
We’re hoping to start development on our Android version next year; our Windows developer will kill me if we don’t. The Android version is definitely something we want to do. But when it’s ready [chuckles], obviously.
Alexis: That’s a good plan [chuckles]. On the flip side of the earlier question, what’s the decision that you’re most proud of?
Keith: Decision I’m most proud of – wow. I guess just picking Scrivener in the first place. That would be the best decision, just actually deciding to stop dreaming about making a piece of software and actually sitting down and teaching myself to code and writing it. And sticking with it even through times when it was really difficult, with a full-time job and my first baby. My child was born around the time I was first working on Scrivener. I’m really proud that I stuck with it.
There’s been other proud moments. We got a Macworld award; actually receiving an award was fantastic for it. Just sticking with it to begin with and actually sitting down and being able to write with a software that I’ve created is a really good feeling. I don’t think about it anymore, but to begin with, it was just amazing sitting down with a piece of software I’d wanted and dreamed of and writing in it. It was great.
Alexis: While that feeling has worn off, I have a suspicion that when you hear other writers are using it – that probably has a good feeling associated with it.
Keith: That also has an amazing feeling. Any writer using it is brilliant; it’s great. I mean, when it was at first in beta, Michael Marshall Smith – who is an author that I’d read – he wrote to me. He said, “This is obviously the greatest advance in writing software for writers ever,” and that’s still on our site, that quote. It’s just amazing to receive it – a writer you’d heard of and knew and respected, saying they like your software.
We had a lot of different writers that have used it and seeing some of them are Booker-nominated – I see people review it in The Guardian and Times. “This is a Scrivener user!” Or like the kids were particularly excited when a couple of Doctor Who episodes in the last series had been written in Scrivener. I could finally boast to them about something they’re going to recognize. “This episode has been written in Scrivener.” [Chuckling]
So yeah, I never get tired of hearing about people using Scrivener.
Alexis: This is your chance to name-drop a little bit. Who are some of the [chuckles] writers that you know of and that are happy to make it known that they use Scrivener?
Keith: I’m going to get their names mixed up now, that might be embarrassing. The sort of people like Michael Chabon, who was talking about using it recently; we got Neil Cross, who wrote the series, Luther; John Lanchester, who wrote the book Capital recently. There’s Erin Morgenstern, who wrote The Night Circus – a very popular book last year, or a year before. There’s quite a few [chuckles]. We’ve got quite a few writers now.
Alexis: I thought I’d give a shout out to TeeMorris and Pete Valentine, who write some pretty awesome Steampunk novels. I know they use Scrivener as well.
Keith: Yeah, there’s quite a few people like Charles Dross – some people use it. And Neil – oh no, it’s gotten out of my head – Stevenson, thank you. Neil Stevenson, yes [chuckling], have used it.
Alexis: Enough about other people’s books. What about your books?
Keith: [Chuckles] I knew this question was going to come [chuckling]. I’ve gotten a lot further in writing with Scrivener but I still haven’t finished a novel I like. I used to get chapter or two in; nowadays I’ve got 90,000 words in before staring at it and going, “You know what? Structure’s okay. I’m getting my chapters done, but the quality is still not where I want it.” One thing that Scrivener can’t do is turn that prose into gold, unfortunately.
Alexis: I will say though that you’re probably underestimating yourself [chuckling] because nothing will ever be where you want it to be.
Keith: That’s true, and it’s going to get finished at some point. I’ve been saying that for a long time, but it is going to happen.
Alexis: Now can you spill the details on a genre, maybe?
Keith: It’d be science fiction, probably. The one I was working on most recently was science fiction. It varies between mainstream and science fiction. I’ll end up writing something in science fiction and I’ll go, “I want to go back and do something mainstream.” And then I’ll do that, and then I’ll crave to go back to something a bit more science fiction-y, so it’s a bit of both, really.
I guess it’s kind of the Kurt Vonnegut – somewhere in between would be my ideal, what I kind of aim for.
Alexis: Now as somebody who’s working on writing software full-time, I’m curious what you think about this kind of interesting writing services that are popping up – writers online. For example, being able to write collaboratively online and also write in the public and say, “Okay, this is the first draft of chapter one” and people can see the entire book and kind of preorder it ahead of time and comment on it. I’m just wondering what you think about those kinds of services.
Keith: I think it’s all just interesting, seeing different forms of writing finding a home online, really. Writing’s always been fluid, and people have always done things in different ways. It’s just interesting seeing new ways of writing and doing things.
Back in the Middle Ages, having an original story wasn’t seen as a good thing; you need to be rewriting other stories in original ways. And now, you’ve got this culture where it’s online – you can come up with an idea and say “This is my idea; here’s my first chapter. Fund me to get the book” or whatever, and these sites would do that. I think all of this is just interesting and bring about different forms of writing.
Collaborative services are something that we get asked about occasionally actually, just because obviously people do collaborate in writing. To be honest, I haven’t explored too many of them because I’m more of a sit-at-my-desk-with-Scrivener-and-write, so I haven’t explored too many of those services myself.
Alexis: As a business owner – keeping in mind that it’s software-oriented in this kind of thing – what is the one pain point, the one problem, that you really wish could get better that for whatever reason is always a thorn on your side?
Keith: Do you mean, just in general?
Alexis: In general, yeah.
Keith: Without wishing to bit the hand that feeds, I guess would put improvements in the Mac App Store would be a big thing, but I think would really help us at the moment.
For instance, if the mythical Scrivener 3.0 every happens, there’s no upgrade processing in the Mac App Store. The only way of selling a new version of software is you either give these things away for free forever, or you make people buy it and pay all over again, the software.
You can’t say, “Hey, you bought this for $45. Get the upgrade for $25.” There’s no way of doing that, and there’s no way of offering free trials. Keep hoping that Apple will do a bit more to the Mac App Store.
And the submission process is always slightly painful. Whenever we have to upgrade or submit a new version, they keep changing the rules and regulations around the Mac App Store. You always have to change something, or maybe disable something in your application.
That’s it, it’s a fantastic platform and we would not want to not be on it because it really is great for exposure and it just provides a really good platform for Mac app developers in a way that there’s no equivalent on Windows or anything. I wish I would see them work on a few more improvements. I know they’ve improved a few things in the iOS door, like allowing to provide videos now, showing off a little demo of yourself on a video – I’d like to see some more things like that coming from the Mac App Store. Those are the little sorts of things that do affect us.
The other thing on there is also, because our business relies a lot on communication with customers, there is no communication with Mac App Store customers unless they find you and come to you. When you’ve got, say, reviews on the Mac App Store, and sometimes you get a bad review from somebody who actually just hasn’t found a feature, or has made a mistake – not made a mistake, but maybe he was saying “Oh, it doesn’t do this and therefore I’m giving it two stars” – there’s no way of just contacting that user and saying, “You know what? Actually if you try this –.” Maybe they’ll still hate you and still want to give you two stars, but at least you could contact them and let them know that there is something that might help them, and maybe it’s worth giving a chance.
We just have no way of contacting the user, no way for –. This would be another thing I’d love to say on this – a way for developers to reply to reviews. Reviews are all moderated by Apple anyway, so developer reviews would be as well, so you wouldn’t be able to just tell the users they’re speaking nonsense or anything. Obviously, it would have to be constructive – constructive, but some way of being able to constructively reply to people, help them out, or just say, “Hey, you know what? Just contact this on our support address and we’ll help you out with this.” Just so we’ve got a bit more – so it wasn’t all one-way on the Mac App Store. If we’ve got a bit more ability to communicate with a user, that would be great.
Alexis: I’ll admit this next question probably isn’t all that great, but [chuckling] curiosity is too high. The cork board in Scrivener – what with Apple, particularly in iOS, getting away from skeuomorphic design and going more for flat things and very simple – will you forever be attached to the corkboard and its kind of basis in –.
Keith: Real-world look?
Alexis: A real-world look, yeah.
Keith: I will forever be attached to the cork board, but not in its real-world look. I mean, you can already – in the existing version of Scrivener, Scrivener 2.0 – you can already change that. You can go into the preferences and you can get rid of the corkboard background, you can turn the shadows off, you could choose whether the cards are rounded or square.
You can come up with a really flat look on the corkboard already. But yeah, in the future version, it will, by default, have a more flat look. Actually, our iOS version’s already got that iOS version. We’ve had a graphic designer called Janik Baumgartner, who does all our icons in Scrivener. He has helped a lot going through our iOS version.
We had our iOS version ready; it was functional, but the interface was just not perfect. We had him go through everything and come up with suggestions for making it really into iOS 7 and iOS 8; it looked like a problem on that application, and that’s what we’ve done. The corkboard on our iOS version has already got this very modern flat look, and in the future version of Scrivener for OSX, that would be the case there as well.
Alexis: I noticed the badge on the Scrivener website that says, “You know, for writers!” I have a suspicion that’s from a Coen brothers movie?
Keith: [Chuckling] That is absolutely right. Yes. “You know, for kids.”
Alexis: Now I haven’t seen that movie, but Shay Banon from ElasticSearch – we interviewed a few episodes ago – has the same kind of slogan for ElasticSearch at the beginning: “You know, for search.”
Keith: [Chuckles] Really?
Keith: It’s all a coincidence [chuckling], no — The Hudsucker Proxy is a great movie, yeah. Worth seeing.
Alexis: Alright, let’s see. A question I ask everybody – or at least programmers – what’s your text editor of choice…for you, now for code [chuckles].
Keith: Oh, for code? I just use Xcode – everything is done in Xcode.
Keith: If I need to use a text auditor and anything else like Text Wrangler.
Alexis: Alright. I wonder if there would be a Vim or— [chuckles]
Keith: No, no.
Alexis: — Sublime Text in there
Keith: No, it’s all over the UI of Xcode for me.
Alexis: So is there anything I missed that I should have asked, or something you’d like to get across to the listeners?
Keith: Buy Scrivener would be mine – Go to Costco, buy Scrivener. See? He says he didn’t do a hard sell. Oops. That was about as hard-sell as it comes.
No, I don’t think so. I think this has been refreshing because you haven’t actually said, “Wen is the iOS version coming out?” So that’s good. It will be coming out, by the way [chuckles].
Alexis: And I promise, I wasn’t saving that for the last question or anything like that.
Keith: Yeah, that’s what everybody’s asking at the moment, and it’s next year — we wrote a blog post about it back in August explaining that we expected it to be next year, but it’s getting closer. We’re in kind of a full-interface area. The same code is written and is about to be inserted back into the iOS version. It’s coming along.
Alexis: So if folks would like to learn more about Scrivener and Literature & Latte, where should they go?
Keith: They should go to literatureandlatte.com. Actually you asked about mistakes – there’s a mistake right there. [Chuckling] When picking a website address and company name, I went for the ridiculously long one rather than something like xtech or something. Now, every time I have to tell my email address, I write it down or say it. “What? What’s that? Literature – that sounds like – is this a software company?”
But yes, it’s literatureandlatte.com, which is going to be why I wanted to name a coffee shop. When I was younger, I’d always go inside a coffee/bookshop called that, so my company got named that as well — literatureandlatte.com.
Alexis: Well that’s what I was going to ask again about the name. Where can we find out what you’re eating for lunch or what you’re doing around your hometown on twitter?
Keith: I don’t have my own – we have a Scrivener Twitter feed. We’re just at twitter.com\scrivenerapp. Someone else has already got the scrivener name on Twitter – this poor guy in Hawaii. It’s actually brilliant – he gets Twitter messages to him every day. “I think you’re meant to contact Scrivener.” He’s always really humorous with them; he’s brilliant. But yeah, it’s @scrivenerapp on Twitter.
I don’t have my own Scrivener feed and my blog on Literature & Latte is always pertaining to Scrivener. I don’t tend to bore people with my own kind of lunch and what I’m having for tea and things.
Alexis: We’ll have to change that [chuckling].
Keith: It’s not a done thing, is it? Damn it [chuckles].
Alexis: You can follow Binpress @Binpress and you can follow myself and find out what I’m drinking for tea – probably Earl Grey, like Captain Jean Luc Picard — @alexissantos.
Thanks again, Keith, for taking time out of your busy support schedule for NaNoWriMo. I assume you get a flurry of, “This isn’t working!”
Keith: Oh yeah, we get more people this month, but it’s all good fun. Thank you for having me on!
Alexis: Not a problem. And of the listeners, we’ll catch you next week!
Author: Alexis Santos