When the lockdown was announced, we were still recovering from our trip to Goa. Our team had just returned from our bi-annual writers’ retreat three days ago. By then, we knew that the spectre of the virus was looming, but had no idea how serious it would become, and had decided to go ahead with our pre-scheduled programme.
During the week-long event, hosted in a Portuguese villa on a remote island in Goa, the virus did indeed seem far away. Dinner-time conversations revolved around our favourite books, publishing, writers’ block, the day’s workshops and just sharing stories about each others’ lives. We were more focused on getting to know one another than on the news.
We flew back home, invigorated, excited, and ready to start preparing for our next few in-city workshops. Maybe even a weekend writers’ retreat. Then the lockdown was announced and we had to cancel all our plans.
With the events called off, we had to cancel with our venue partners, withdraw from events with teachers we had already booked, and send refunds to participants who had signed up for workshops.Ironically, we had been planning a travel-writing workshop, which suddenly held no meaning anymore. All these cancellations meant an immediate loss in revenue. It was time to shift focus. And we had to do it pronto. No phasing. Or we wouldn’t survive and our two years of work would come to a dead end.
Before the pandemic we often met up with our community members in Mumbai and had reunions for our alumnae – there would no longer be any of those. We had also been working on our first book – a compilation of interviews with India’s best authors. We were planning to release it physically – but now, those plans too were scrapped.
We would have to move to online events and classes. But what about our mandate of building communities?
What we did before
We started Bound two years ago with a vision to help creatively talented people to build their skills. We help writers hone their craft by providing offline and online writing workshops, writers’ retreats, mentoring and editing services, and more. We started the company because we saw that there was a lack of soft infrastructure for aspiring writers, not enough quality education, and we wanted to bridge that gap. Bound is two years old, and in this time we have come to understand quite a bit about what aspiring writers want, the questions they have, and the kinds of skills and careers they want to build.
We are a team of three, and together manage pretty much our entire operations.
And indeed, we have managed our fair share of “catastrophes”, though none as severe as a pandemic. For example, there was the time when a mentor for one of our retreats couldn’t make it because of an emergency, or another time when a venue partner raised prices on us at the last minute. So what did we do? We rallied and asked our community for help where we could.
Obviously these were moments of panic, but we are driven by the fulfilment we feel when we find brilliant new voices and like any other group of passionate people, found a way to solve our problems and keep going. Our work has many limitations. How to keep costs low while maintaining our rigorous quality standard and how to scale up while giving personal attention to our community members are some of the issues we think about constantly. Like any other platform, we constantly ask ourselves how we want to grow and become a voice for writers. To this end, we had slowly started promoting our online classes portfolio even before the pandemic.
A new portal could help us answer these issues. But with the launch of our podcast and the offline events we had already planned, the team simply did not have the leisure to go full steam on this. And with competitors like Udemy and Skillshare, was there room for more?
The offline events and retreats had been our bread and butter, but because of the pandemic, and even before the lockdown officially started, all the events which made up our monthly schedule promptly came to a halt.
A quick pivot
The team worked over time to launch our online classes and promote our podcast. So, within five days of the official lockdown, we were up and running. We started with fiction, non-fiction and poetry and launched a variety of courses under those categories. We kept prices low, while ensuring that both the student and the teacher benefitted. And we put careful thought into our curriculum and structure – managing online communities need different skills. We decided to keep these classes live and cap the class size, so that the instructors could get to know the writers.
We love getting to know our community members personally and are present in all our physical programmes. But as a team of three, we could not attend every workshop conducted online – and so our social media presence became more important. The team focused its efforts on reaching out to writers on social media, and building relationships there – we started virtual book clubs and weekly Instagram lives.
Once we launched, the first few classes were full of our alumnae, but as we kept going we started reaching newer audiences. We found that we could both conduct classes and give our writers individual attention by building one-on-one instructor feedback into the framework of the class.The classes are six to eight hours long, and have 15-20 students. Every class now has its own WhatsApp group in order to keep the conversation going and make sure that everyone participates in the exchange of ideas.
Previously, our offline workshops took place in Mumbai and Pune only. Only our small cohort of 12 at the retreats was more diverse and from all over India. Now, we were interacting with many writers from all over India, and even internationally. In a way, we have become a lot more accessible. I have lost track of all the Whatsapp and fb groups we are part of. Luckily our ambassadors are managing them on our behalf.
We can now reach out to people who may not have been able to travel for a workshop or a retreat due to physical, social and economic restrictions. We are also able to reach new audiences – children, for instance, with creative writing and comic-book making classes.
This is how we shifted our community-building agenda online.Without the push of the pandemic, we wouldn’t have made the jump.
The rise of digital communities
So, can writers’ communities survive and even thrive online? We were one of the few organisations to begin such classes in the writing space, launching almost as soon as the lockdown began. And because of this we had a surge of sign-ups and filled our classes easily. But we can’t take credit or pretend that we foresaw this happening. Our objective for the past year had been to create a digital marketplace for literary skill building.
Since then, and especially at the beginning of the pandemic, we have seen advertisements for online classes almost every day. Most were offered by writers who wanted to teach online, and a few were from community organisations. Some were even members of our own community who had branched out, and some, like Aditi Rao and Rheea Mukherjee who had also been mentors at our retreats, started their own online workshops.
Along with individuals, creative communities and start-ups like Kommune and India Film Project also successfully shifted online. We saw some interesting start-ups use online classes to make up for the loss in revenue – among those were MyStemLab and Magic Crate, which started online hobby classes for children.
As the rush for productivity wanes, it has become tougher to maintain the volume of sign-ups, though we are still doing well. Our mandate has always been quality over quantity. So, we have had to ask ourselves how we will differentiate in an increasingly crowded market.
Are online teaching and the associated community building going to be the new normal? Will every education and skill-building business have to adapt to it for good? Was the pandemic the perfect disruptor for an otherwise stale system? We think so.
Tara Khandelwal is the founder of Bound.
This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.