ForgeFiction website screenshot

Quartet Forges Ahead with Online Collective Writing Platform

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YEREVAN – It doesn’t sound like an unusual story in the US. Four friends graduate college and come up with a great idea for a business. Their software platform takes off and becomes wildly successful internationally. In the case of ForgeFiction, what is unusual that this story is set in Yerevan. ForgeFiction is an online platform allowing people to write stories collectively which may eventually turn into published books.

The Origin Story

Hrach Toneyan, Gayane Gasparyan, Karen Shahnazaryan and Areg Vardanyan are the quartet. Hrach explained that the four are all 27 years old now and have been friends for a long time. They are all from Yerevan. Hrach and Karen knew each other from the age of ten, but the rest met later in various ways.

From left to the right, Gayane Gasparyan – Co-Founder & CTO at ForgeFiction, Hrach Toneyan – Co-Founder & CEO at ForgeFiction, Karen Shahnazaryan – Co-Founder & COO at ForgeFiction, Grigor Hovhannisyan – Director at BANA – Business Angel Network of Armenia, Vazgen Hakobjanyan – Partner at SmartGateVC, Areg Vardanyan – Co-Founder and CMO at ForgeFiction and David Bequette – Vice President of Innovation at Foundation for Armenian Science and Technology (FAST)

Hrach said, “I would say what made our friendship and united us was the different worlds in fiction— Lord of the Rings and the Game of Thrones are good examples. There was a passion in the four of us to make something that would be appealing for people like us.”

They all got their bachelor’s degrees in 2013, but are from different professional fields. Areg has an MBA now and teaches marketing at the American University in Armenia. Karen also has an MBA but is more involved in business management. ForgeFiction’s chief technology officer Gayane has a background in mathematics and spent years in different software development companies, including some larger ones in Armenia. Hrach defended his doctorate in experimental physics before switching to the ForgeFiction project.

Hrach said, “We came up with the idea in the spring of 2018.” The “Game of Thrones” show had two seasons left. There was a really large community of fans, Hrach recalled, creating amazing theories about how the story might continue and what different things in the story meant. In fact, Hrach said, “It actually turned out later that the show did not even come close to the things the community imagined.”

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This was what gave rise to the idea of bringing together this community and providing them a place where they could create original concepts and get recognition for it. Hrach continued, “There is great potential. The platform itself is not targeted to professionals, but rather for communities of people who are passionate about sci-fi and fiction.” Most of the writings in progress are science fiction or fantasy, with a lot of superheroes, some of whom are based on comic books.

Areg noted that there are no restrictions on genres, so there are also romance, detective and many other types of content being written. There are, however, a list of things that are not allowed on the platform which are pretty standard for such websites, Areg said, including certain types of violence, pornography, promotion of hatred or violence, and revealing personal information about people.

Assuring Financing

At first, the four relied heavily on the help of their friends, Areg said, for things like the initial design of their website. Gayane designed the architecture of the backend.

Karen Shahnazaryan of ForgeFiction making a presentation at the Armenian University of America demo day for the second batch or group of Armenian Startup Academy graduates on May 30, 2018

The four were accepted into a pre-accelerator program called Armenia Start-up Academy as part of the latter’s second group, which graduated in the spring of 2018. This program was initiated by the Catalyst Foundation with support from the European Union and Germany. It brought together 12 startup firms, with founders all roughly in the same age group as those of ForgeFiction, to help them move to a minimum viable product. Hrach said, “It was really interesting for many of us. There were many mentors.”

After finishing the program, the quartet continued to work on ForgeFiction, but they could not work fulltime on it and launch their product until they received a European Union (EU4Business) Support to SME Development in Armenia (SMEDA) Science and Technology Entrepreneurship (STEP) grant in January 2019. This allowed the hiring of one technical and one designer employee, and the ability to now pay their friends who had been helping them as volunteers to develop their platform. The money lasted around six months.

ForgeFiction won prize money at the Sevan Startup Summit in the summer of 2019. During that same summer, Hrach said, they received their first investment as part of a pre-seed round from the venture capital firm SmartGateVC, which was run by the same people who organized the startup program. SmartGateVC was joined at the start of October in the same round by angel investors from Armenia and the diaspora from the Science and Technology Angels Network (STAN) initiated by the Foundation for Armenian Science and Technology and the Business Angel Network of Armenia (BANA).

From left, Hrach Toneyan and Areg Vardanyan of ForgeFiction accept the Armenian Tech Community first place prize in 2019 at the 23rd World Congress on Information Technology, with second place recipients at right

Furthermore, ForgeFiction won the first prize of $25,000 for the Armenian Tech Community Prize, fundraised by BANA, at the World Congress on Information Technology in Yerevan on October 9, 2019. By October 2019, the ForgeFiction platform had 150 weekly active users, over 1000 pages of user-generated content, and 25 ongoing books.

By May, 2020, according to Hrach, the platform increased its usage to approximately 1,500 active weekly users. This includes people who read, submit chapters and vote on the website, not just an overall quantity of users. A large percentage, around 300, have written, whether through chapters or other items on the platform.

How It Works

When you enter the ForgeFiction website you are invited to either start your own story or write a chapter in one of the existing books. Sometimes competing versions of the next chapter in a story are submitted and members of the ForgeFiction community can vote to determine which of these chapters will stand as a part of the final work. Writers get both positive and negative feedback on their works in the process. Community members can also suggest ideas for books.

Once a book is finished, it will be edited by the ForgeFiction company, and then put up for sale on the ForgeFiction website as well as other eBook sites. Every contributor to a book will receive a proportional share of royalties.

It is also possible to make “universes” to enhance a story, or share in this process. In these universes you can create locations, characters with biographies and physical descriptions and other categories of things by submitting detailed pages on which voting takes place. Books can be linked to universes.

Hrach stressed that ForgeFiction is not primarily targeting professional writers but fans. At present, he said, ForgeFiction is working with a company in New York which helps edit the fan-created books to be ready for publishing.

The first book published through the ForgeFiction platform advertised on Amazon.com

The first finished book, True Darkness, written by J. C. Phelps and Lorenzo Jones Hillman, was released several months ago. It is a supernatural detective story. Unlike most ForgeFiction contributors, one of the two authors, Phelps, is a professional author who already has an entire series of books published.

There is a second book which has been finished and is being edited at present. It is a fantasy book.

There is no cost to use the ForgeFiction website and platform. Monetization comes from selling the content in the form of books, and in the future, media partnerships. According to Hrach, at present, ForgeFiction is not profitable but it already is generating revenue through its first published book, and more are in the pipeline.

Areg added that though some of the books or “universes” created are fan-fiction, these are not monetized in any way and no aspect of the original work is claimed. Consequently, this is considered fair use legally.

The Future

ForgeFiction is looking to collaborate with streaming services and other companies once it has developed enough finished content, such as books, and license its stories to them. It has an advisor in Los Angeles who has worked with the film industry (though not in it) and will help to make partnerships in the film industry in the future.

The ForgeFiction platform will also be expanded beyond books to comics. Areg said that many of the current ForgeFiction members ask about this. He explained, “We are planning to do it, but we didn’t start yet because we expected it to be a bit harder to find users. We would need two types of users, those who write the story and those who illustrate it.” The “universe creation tools” on the platform already allow doing visual art such as drawings building upon a story.

A drag-and-drop system for characters is planned for the future that will help provide illustrations for people who are bad at drawing and can’t draw the characters they create. It will also easily create maps.

Hrach said that they were considering a function allowing for adding theme songs to stories or creating audio books of the stories. These might all be added in the universe creation tools section to help make the created worlds more immersive, he stated.

The present platform is all in English. Hrach and Areg explained that the cofounders all learned English in Armenia in school and by doing things like watching English-language shows on Netflix. The current platform material is written primarily by Areg along with the other cofounders but ForgeFiction recently hired an Armenian who spent most of her life in the United Kingdom but moved to Armenia. She is starting work this May and will improve the platform.

There is no Armenian-language version of the website is because the market for Armenian eBooks is really small right now, Hrach said, and the focus is to create content to be monetized. While there are requests from Armenians who wish to write, the main community of users is from Anglophone countries like the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States, so there would not be much interaction with Armenian-language creations.

Of these countries, the largest number of users is from the United States and it is being expanded through marketing. YouTube channels, for example, create content in sci-fi, fantasy or other genres in English, and then invite their own fans to write stories together.

Even potential Russian-language users would offer a relatively small market at present but Hrach said that they were planning to make parallel sites in different languages such as Spanish, Japanese and Chinese. The latter two languages in particular would offer entry into growing large markets both for books and comics, which are called illustrated novels. First, he said, it would be necessary to perfect the English-language website and then move to new languages. The founders will face some natural barriers, said Hrach, since without knowing a language it may be harder to understand the dynamics involved.

Although the platform is not targeting Armenians specifically, there still are some connections being made. For example, Hrach said that ForgeFiction, based on advice received from Armenian Americans, will be soon contacting Armenian schools to see if they can use the website’s fiction for their English and literature classes.

COVID-19

It is nearly impossible to escape the effects of the new coronavirus in all realms of life. Even the members of the fictional worlds of ForgeFiction are affected. As a consequence, Areg said, ForgeFiction launched a new campaign called quarantine fiction. He said, “The idea behind this is to help people to overcome their anxiety during lockdown with the help of the arts. People share their stories, write memoirs and whatever fictional ideas they have in mind. With the help of these stories, people also are able to socialize together and cope with this situation easier.”

These stories later will be published in books available worldwide and all proceeds will be donated to charity, said Areg.

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