Interview with Michael Schmitt, creator of the Serial Reader app

Bearded Book Boys (BBB): First off let me just say thank you for taking the time out of your day to chat with us. We’ll start with an easy one: what inspired you to create Serial Reader?

Michael Schmitt (MS): I was inspired to build something like Serial Reader out of a growing frustration with how I read. I think I’ve always read way too fast and as a result I miss things. The best example I can remember is years ago in college, this gruff English professor broke down in tears over a passage in Willa Cather’s “My Antonia.” It was remarkable both because it was so out of character him and because I had completely blown past that section of the book without noticing or feeling the emotional weight.

So I wanted to experiment with slowing down my reading and in turn try to be more thoughtful and mindful the text. Being a nerd I over-engineered the solution with what was the prototype of Serial Reader: a mobile app that provided me with 15-20 minutes of a book per a day and nothing more. I started with “My Antonia” and found it worked really well! It slowed my reading and let me stew in the story. “Don’t you remember me, Antonia? Have I changed so much?” It wrecked me.

That experience – plus encouragement from friends – convinced me to add more books, build out the web API, and polish the app into something releasable.

BBB: When you started the project had you always intended it to be for classic books i.e. ones from the Project Gutenberg?

MS: I think so. Obviously books in the public domain give you more freedom to release something like Serial Reader for free, but I gravitated towards those classics regardless.

It’s classics like “Anna Karenina,” “Moby Dick,” and “Pride and Prejudice” that a lot of people *want* to read, but often have trouble getting through. I think those books work well in Serial Reader because you face just 15 minutes of it a day, not this 800-page tome, and the daily encouragement/reminders keep you on track. The format addresses many of the challenges readers tell me they face when reading classic works.

BBB: Did you have prior app development experience before Serial Reader or was this your first venture?

MS: I did have some prior app development experience. At a past day job I built mobile apps for a music streaming service and I’ve built a few pretty simple iOS apps. Serial Reader is definitely the most complex thing I’ve tackled.

BBB: What does the process of selecting and adding new books look like?

MS: In the early days it was whatever books I could remember or liked, but nowadays I rely almost exclusively on requests and suggestions from users. Readers can submit requests from within the app; I tally them up and try to add what’s on the top of the queue. Adam Smith’s “The Wealth of Nations” is actually the most requested book at the moment, followed closely by Charles Dickens’ “Hard Times.”

I find the best available source of text and run a script I’ve written, which downloads the text, cleans it up as much as possible (removing page numbers or odd formatting), and takes a first pass at dividing it into 15-20 minutes sections. Finally I go through the book manually and usually adjust most if it not all of where each issue begins and ends, trying to find nice narrative breaks if possible.

BBB: Do you have any plans to implement other features?

MS: One feature I’d definitely like to add is to have different subscriptions arrive at different times a day, so you could have one book deliver a new issue in the morning and a second book arrive in the evening. Or let readers change the “every 24 hours” delivery to shorter or longer durations. That might be an “advanced user” feature, so the trick would be presenting it in a way that doesn’t over-complicate the app for everyone.

I also have a long list of relatively minor upgrades: I wrote my own sync system for premium users and that always needs polishing, and I’d like to bring the themes you can select while reading to the entire app.

A lot of the new features come from reader suggestions, so if there are any Serial Reader users out there please let me know what you’d like added!

BBB: Do you think we will ever see books outside of the free public domain enter into Serial Reader?

MS: Probably not anytime soon. For now, Serial Reader is a weekend project for me and I honestly don’t have the time or interest to jump into the world of licensing books or charging for them.

I have thought of improving my script that serializes books, maybe turning it into a separate app, so that you could bring your own books and it would serialize them for you. I think this sort of daily serialization works best like that: as a method for digesting books, not as a silo to own books.

BBB: Would you be willing to share your user numbers? What it was when you launched in the fall and what sort of increase you’ve seen to now, especially with all the press? 

MS: I launched Serial Reader for iOS in late December 2015. Usage was pretty darn low, with just around 10 new serial subscriptions per day, until when Apple selected it as a Best New App in February 2016. Overnight, daily subscriptions rose to more than 7,000. Things leveled off from there, with occasional bumps from kind press coverage and then launching the Android version in fall 2016. Currently the iOS version sees about 10,000 monthly users and Android is climbing to around 6,000.

So far users have subscribed to more than 200,000 books, received 7.3 million daily issues, and read more than 1 billion words.

BBB: What books are you most looking forward to in 2017?

MS: I’m a big sci-fi geek, so most of the books on my radar are from that kind of realm. “Six Wakes” by Mur Lafferty, Scalzi’s “Collapsing Empire,” and “Thrawn” by Timothy Zahn (which I fully expect to make me feel like I’m 11 years old again – don’t let me down Zahn!). Also curious to see what “Dragon Teeth” by Michael Crichton will be like, and hoping for a new Ancillary-universe novel from Ann Leckie.

I’m also anxious (dreading?) to see what happens this year with “Saga” and am really excited to read Antony Johnston’s “The Coldest Winter.”

My grandmother gave me her collection of ’50s and ’60s era sci-fi books over the holidays and I expect I’ll spend quite a bit of the year devouring those.

Serial Reader is available on the iOS and Google Play stores. The app is free to use with an optional one time IAP of 2.99 that allows users to read ahead instead of waiting for the next installment, add highlights and notes to the text, pause serial delivery and more.

In addition to this interview we will be giving away two premium upgrades for Serial Reader, one for iOS and one for Android. To enter yourself in this drawing either comment on this interview, comment on the tweet of this interview or just generally let us know you are interested and in which platform you would prefer. We’ll select one winner for each and send them a code. Entries will be considered until Sunday, January 29th at 6pm.

You can find more information about the app on it’s page on the app stores or on it’s website here.

Also worth checking out is Michael’s Medium post that expands more on the reasons he created Serial Reader.

6 thoughts on “Interview with Michael Schmitt, creator of the Serial Reader app

  1. This is a great idea. I’m downloading the free app now and I’m putting my hand up for one of the free premium versions. I’m Android — well, I’m human, but I use a Nexus 6P 😉

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