July 11, 2012

The efficient new way to pay Margaret Atwood to sketch your dog


Just like this pen, but longer.

Margaret Atwood, beloved writer, and self-appointed high priestess of the science fictional, has just launched a campaign on crowd-funding site Indiegogo to help fund a new venture called Fanado.

Fanado is, in the language of its nascent website, “an innovative company dedicated to providing truly unique experiences and official autograph connections” for fans. In practice it seems to be the ill-fated union of a social network, a very expensive Skype session, a one-way game of  online Pictionary, and Margaret Atwood’s ever-hilarious Long Pen.

The Long Pen, for those not privileged enough to have seen it work, was a project unveiled by Atwood back in 2006. It involved Atwood sitting somewhere, presumably in Toronto, with a stylus and tablet and video chat window open. A mechanical arm was then toured around the continent and booked for signings.

When it worked flawlessly, the customers of various bookstores where it was set up could watch Atwood through a screen and then pay for a book painstakingly signed by a very lovely robot. It did not, needless to say, always work so flawlessly. Bookstores—widely renowned for their technical savvy—were sometimes left to scramble with dropped signals. Fans, well, fans got to watch a woman look at her desk through a screen while they stood next to this thing. At the time the Long Pen was meant to be an innovation that would be taken up by authors everywhere and eventually used for a whole slew of other applications. Indeed, a few authors did put it to use but, perhaps undermined by issues with connectivity, it never really took off in the way Atwood may have hoped. The LongPen site now is little more than a shell with a few tumbleweed .gifs blowing through.

Fanado, then, is meant to build on the Long Pen technology, but with a moneymaking aspect worked in. Fans would log in to a Fanado event. They could chat with other fans while waiting to videochat directly with the talent. Presumably that latter part is what would cost a fee.

Fanado also highlights the ability to have things digitally signed, including ebooks. Fanado executive Daniel Edelman makes much in the pitch video of the idea that these signatures are “official” and that they would go “straight onto your Fanado collectibles wall, and into your email.” Their authenticity is upheld by the video of your chosen celebrity holding the stylus, the motions of which were in turn represented in fuchsia pixels on your much-cherished jpeg of their face.

I am, you may have surmised, a skeptic of this project. It has its appeal, yes. First, Atwood herself is a great author, and her willingness to embrace new technology is laudable. And what fan wouldn’t like a moment of time to say a few words to her idol? It feels unkind to criticize too harshly an idea before it is fully borne out.

To be unkind: part of what I dislike about Fanado (even beyond the name—one imagines authors and fans, melded together in whirling agony as Virgil and Dante whistle, hands behind their backs, and stroll past) is that it seems, even more so than the Long Pen, like it was created with only itself in mind, a thought experiment taken a bit too seriously, but not so seriously that it be done well. Even skirting the yawning ontological sinkhole this opens up in regard to authenticity, we’re still left with two questions: Does this not seem like preying on your fans rather than rewarding them? And, if Atwood and Edelman cannot even be bothered to re-record their pitch video to say “Indiegogo” rather than “Kickstarter“, the company with whom the project was initially meant to be funded (the latter site doesn’t look kindly on projects that emphasize founding businesses), then why should they have money thrown at them?

Nevertheless, the project seems on a trajectory to be fully funded long before its deadline, meaning Fanado will have a good opportunity to prove doubts groundless.


Dustin Kurtz is the marketing manager of Melville House, and a former bookseller.