From an incredibly young age, Ali Albazaz was immersed in computers. He was writing code by the age of 10. He knew he wanted to design apps long before he could afford his first iPhone.
About a decade ago, Albazaz dropped out of college to create his first startup company, an online marketplace for freelance services.
That project sputtered, so he pitched a second concept. This time he planned to design a rideshare in Germany, where he lives. Uber and Lyft were not yet household names. He thought he was onto something, but German taxi regulations got in the way. Despite raising a significant amount of investment money, the project was, he says, a massive failure.
The young entrepreneur was despondent. He fell into a deep depression.
Then he came across The Alchemist.
A slender little book originally published in 1988, written by Brazilian author Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist is a parable for the age of self-fulfillment. A shepherd boy named Santiago sets out on a journey to the pyramids. Along the way, he learns that the meaning of life is to follow your own “Personal Legend.”
“Without that book,” says Albazaz, now 31, “I would not be here today.”
And so he decided his own Personal Legend would involve the life-changing potential of storytelling. Though he had “no clue” about the publishing world, as he puts it, that didn’t stop him. He built a website and invited unpublished writers to upload their stories. With his quantitative mind, he began to envision ways to evaluate reader engagement with the writing he published: What kinds of stories drew the most readers? How much time did a reader spend with a text? How quickly did she finish it? He named his third startup Inkitt.
At first, the traditional publishing industry was skeptical. Albazaz recalls a typical reaction: “How can you measure creativity with numbers and algorithms?”
Seven or eight years later, however, perceptions have shifted. Video games have helped normalize the idea of interactive fiction, in which readers can influence a story’s trajectory. The past few years have seen the rise of so-called chat fiction, with a mostly young audience raised with mobile phones in their hands gobbling up short stories composed entirely of text messages. And fan fiction, created by amateurs inspired by existing characters and story lines, has blossomed online — and even sometimes “graduates” into old-fashioned books you can hold. E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey series, for example, famously started out as online fan fiction inspired by Stephenie Meyer’s vampire-and-werewolf Twilight series.
Just as BuzzFeed devised a way to optimize headlines to attract the most clicks, and Netflix personalizes recommendations and movie thumbnail art to attract viewers, Inkitt has developed a method of identifying which stories will appeal to the most readers.
“What we know,” Albazaz says, “is that we don’t know everything. The market knows a lot more than we do.”
But there’s one thing he and his Inkitt colleagues can say for sure: “A lot of readers really, really love Sapir’s stories.”
Sapir Englard came to Boston in the fall of 2019 to study in the electronic production and design department at Berklee College of Music. Twenty-four years old at the time, she’d been studying music for years at home in Israel, in the comfortable Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat HaSharon. A classically trained pianist, she attended Rimon School of Music, a prestigious modern conservatory established in her hometown in 1985 by a group of Berklee graduates.
By transferring to Berklee, Englard had hoped to complete her education and begin composing scores for movies and television. In Boston, her student budget has covered a lot more than just ramen noodles: She has enjoyed a steady stream of direct deposits for the stories she’s published through Inkitt. At the height of her success, she was averaging $15,000 a month in royalties.
A little over two years ago, Inkitt unveiled Galatea, a sister app named for the ivory statue in Greek mythology that comes to life when the sculptor falls in love with it. The app features Inkitt’s most successful authors, whose work is presented in bite-size installments. Readers already habituated to the constant tapping and scrolling of social media on their smartphones are prompted to click through the work, as sound effects, vivid visual cues, and haptic feedback — vibrating and shuddering — enhance the storytelling experience. It can be addictive. Inkitt and Galatea now have a combined 6 million readers.
“The innovation that is coming out of Inkitt is something I’m not really seeing much elsewhere,” says Jane Friedman, former president and CEO of HarperCollins Publishers Worldwide, as well as cofounder of Open Road Integrated Media, which helps publish ebook editions of classic literature and nonfiction. She became an adviser and shareholder at Inkitt after Albazaz cold-called her. “Sometimes the audience tells you what it wants, rather than you telling it,” Friedman says.
With her fantasy series, The Millennium Wolves, Englard has become the top earner for Inkitt (followed by romance writer S.S. Sahoo, a young woman who lives in India and studies civil engineering). Albazaz says the four stories in Englard’s series — she has 14 titles in all, including a couple of short story collections — have grossed more than $6 million in sales to date.
As a teenager, Englard kept her writing from her parents. It’s not surprising. Her stories — essentially, traditional romance novels cast in supernatural realms — can be pretty suggestive. (“He seemed to be lost in thoughts, his face gloomy and serious and his greenish-gold eyes a little glazed. His jet-black hair was disheveled, almost as if he’d been in bed before coming here.”)
“Apparently she has a very rich inner world, an endless imagination,” says Sapir’s mother, Tova — her biggest supporter, they both say — on the phone from Israel. “You can see it in both her writing as well as her music, which is quite a rare combination.”
Englard wrote the foundation of The Millennium Wolves to stave off boredom during her mandatory Israeli military service after high school, when she was 19. Stationed in an army “war room,” she was charged with monitoring a particular region for suspicious activity. There wasn’t much, so she wrote.
In her series, the Haze is an annual mating season in which werewolves take part in a sexual frenzy. All, that is, except Sienna, the main narrator, who is 19 and harboring a secret: She’s a virgin. But then Sienna captures the attention of Aiden, the handsome Alpha of the werewolf pack. What happens next makes clear why the stories come with the advisory that they’re intended for readers 18 and older.
Englard uploaded her rough drafts on various outlets online, before she stumbled across Inkitt, which now offers storytelling from more than 250,000 authors. The Millennium Wolves quickly became one of the site’s most popular, surprising even Englard.
Inkitt had initially proposed publishing The Millennium Wolves in traditional bound copies, but then the company introduced the Galatea app. Englard’s story, it decided, was perfect for the platform. Just months into its debut on the app, it was earning $100,000 a month in revenue.
Writing “wasn’t something I saw as a career path,” Englard says. Then, almost overnight, it was.
“A month after I landed in Boston, suddenly there was all this hype around my books,” Englard says. “The whole experience has been out of this world. I’m still kind of in shock.”
By then, less than a year after its first appearance on Galatea, The Millennium Wolves had passed the $1 million mark in sales. The stories, like others on the app, are broken into 5- or 10-minute episodes; users are generally given one episode a day for free, but can make in-app purchases to get additional installments quicker.
Since the success of her series, Englard has fielded a steady stream of inquiries from traditional publishers. “A couple of weeks ago, I got a private message on Instagram,” she says. The woman described herself as “content hunting.”
One of the many ways Inkitt distances itself from conventional publishers is that it doesn’t require exclusivity of its clients. They’re free to publish wherever they choose. (Contracts for Galatea contributors are more complex.) For now, though, Englard has no plans to leave what Albazaz calls the “reader-powered book publisher.”
“I know the people, and I get my money on time,” Englard says. “Especially with the genre I write in, it’s what sticks now.”
A year ago, just before the pandemic shutdown, Englard traveled to Berlin, where the 60 or so members of the Inkitt staff feted her as their star content creator. The trip came on the heels of Inkitt’s announcement that it had received $16 million in a round of fund-raising led by Silicon Valley venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins.
In a toast, Albazaz called Englard “the Mickey Mouse to our Disney.” That day, her series reached a milestone: 25 million reads.
They put together a special cocktail menu based on the themes from The Millennium Wolves — the White Wolf was a shot of peppermint liqueur; the Haze, basically a tequila sunrise.
“I drank all the cocktails,” Englard says with a laugh.
Despite her success, the center of attention is not really where Englard prefers to be. “I’m a person who works best in a quiet environment,” she says. “My room is kind of my safe zone.”
On a drizzly day in late April, she ventures over to the Berklee campus, which she has seen only sparingly since the pandemic began. In stylish plaid slacks and a big, cozy cardigan, she meets with her department head, Michael Bierylo, who doubles as an unofficial adviser.
“Oftentimes if somebody has literary interests, they’ll go into songwriting,” says Bierylo, sitting with Englard in a Berklee classroom filled with recording equipment. “In Sapir’s case, she’s thinking a little more abstractly.”
If The Millennium Wolves gets adapted as a movie or a TV series, Bierylo asks, would she like to write the score?
“That would be my dream,” she replies. For her, seeing the latest Hollywood hit usually means digesting a new soundtrack: “I like the music more than the movies most of the time.”
In fact, Albazaz and the Inkitt team have big plans to adapt their most popular stories for movies, as well as various other platforms — television series, video games, virtual reality.
“We will continuously expand in different formats,” says Albazaz, who was born in Baghdad, grew up in Tehran, and moved to Germany with his family when he was 10. His company has already achieved global reach; Inkitt recently added German translations and is adding Spanish and French translations soon, with more to come. And genres, too: From the pulpy romance and fantasy fiction that has sustained the company so far, Inkitt plans to publish horror and thriller, science fiction, and potentially nonfiction.
“Good publishers have to be curious, number one, and also fearless,” says Friedman, the former HarperCollins CEO. She’s an acknowledged innovator herself, a pioneer in the audio books sector. She’s also credited with the concept of the author tour, which she launched back in the 1970s with Julia Child.
“Reading is civilization,” she says. “I care about people reading books. If people want to read horror stories or mysteries, page-turners or cliffhangers or romance, let’s give it to them.”
Though she might prefer a more highbrow form of literature, Friedman’s primary concern throughout her career has been to deliver reading material to readers, in whatever style and format they like. She was initially “dubious” about the special effects of the Galatea app, she admits: “I would say that when I think about reading, I think about it being an entirely pure experience.” But she has come around. “I want to watch it develop, and see how far they go.”
Englard is set to graduate from Berklee with the class of 2022, after completing her capstone project (an electronic sonata, she thinks). Later this spring she’ll head home to Israel to spend some time with her family. Her older sister is about to have a baby boy, and she wants to be there to help.
This fall, she’ll relocate to Berlin. She and Albazaz are talking about what role she might take on at the company. Once a story has been published on the Galatea app, Inkitt dispatches a team of writers to develop sequels, with the original author’s approval. Englard can see herself joining a writing team and composing music for the app.
“I’d love to give my input,” she says. “I believe I can make stuff good, if I do say so myself.” At just 26, she may have already determined her own Personal Legend.
Albazaz knows there are some folks who will question the concept of producing fiction with the help of a team of writers. He has a quick reply to that: No one asks why their favorite sitcom or drama is mapped out in a writers’ room.
“That’s a concept we copied from TV,” he says. “Obviously we have to explain it to our authors — make sure they understand that they still have veto power and full creative control over their stories.”
His disregard for the old model of publishing is one of Inkitt’s biggest advantages, he believes. If blockbuster authors including Stephen King and J.K. Rowling famously suffered so many rejections before finding a sympathetic publisher, Albazaz asks, “How many authors are out there right now all around the world who have written an amazing story but never got a chance? We want to make sure they are read by the audience they deserve.”
A couple of years ago Albazaz was making the rounds at the Frankfurt Book Fair. He was standing in a backstage area when the writer who changed his life suddenly walked by.
Wide-eyed, Albazaz gathered his courage and approached Paulo Coelho, the author of The Alchemist. He introduced himself and told Coelho about the concept behind his “talent discovery platform.”
Albazaz laughs as he recalls what happened next.
“He turned to his assistant and said, ‘Look at this guy. He’s the prophet. He can predict bestsellers!’”
James Sullivan is a frequent contributor to the Globe. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.