Florence, By the Book conference, May 2014: The digital book (r)evolution: barriers to innovation

I’m preparing a paper for this conference, and looking for any views on the topic – feel free to leave a comment, or get in touch for a conversation. Conference details:

http://publishing.brookes.ac.uk/conference/by_the_book

The draft for the proposed paper

Publishers do not (yet) see a market for inventive digital publishing […] But what if the reason we have not seen any real success in innovative ebooks is not a lack of market, but something else altogether?

(Independent publisher David Wilk, digitalbookworld.com, 24.10.2013)

Developments in mobile technology have recently led to the extensive adoption of e-readers and computer tablets. But whilst ebooks (essentially a remediated form of printed books) have become normalised, the often anticipated spread of media-rich ebooks, enhanced ebooks and story apps – which keep structural affinities with printed books but also add features that are gradually transforming reading experiences – has been rather challenging, and often driven from outside publishing.

Publishers have been very careful to invest, and high costs of production mean that it is difficult for self-published authors to drive innovation. Additionally, divergent production formats, fragmented channels of distribution and inconsistent supply chain classifications (leading to discoverability issues) make any breakthrough difficult and threat innovation and creativity.

The paper investigates recent industry contexts and developments, drawing on the analysis of innovative works, industry websites and publications, and interviews with publishers, authors and digital producers to interpret the current state of affairs for innovation in digital books.

Nature Mage #2 – a little more detail on context and goals

Nature-Servant

I am currently doing a PhD collaborating with the UNESCO Chair project ‘New Media Forms of the Book’, by looking at how books and stories can make the most of new media and the digital sphere, to develop models for audience involvement, cross-platform adaptation and transmedia storytelling. Or at least one of these things!

Supervisor: Prof Alexis Weedon, Research Institute for Media Art and Design, Founder and Editor of Convergence: The Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, published by Sage.

I’ve been interviewing and working with authors, publishers, digital developers, industry leaders, thinkers, innovators, anyone I can learn and think with! To get a picture of what’s happening at the convergence of books, stories, digital and transmedia storytelling! It’s a long and exciting journey, a bit like the quest for the Holy Grail. I hope I’ll get there, and back again… for another journey! As part of this, there is a ‘map’ of ‘new media forms of the book’ being produced as we speak – for a next post, soon.

The PhD involves a strong practical component: in short, I am working with Duncan Pile, a self-published YA fantasy author, to spread his story across digital media, harnessing fan and audience involvement.

We’re creating an online community where readers can send ideas (fan fiction, back stories, parallel stories, artwork, video enactements, etc.) based on the Nature’s Mage third book (to be soon launched, serialised digitally). I will then work with the author to manage the online community, where people can read/see each other’s works and rate / comment, and select the best material for an ‘enhanced’ version of the story mixing the original text with images, parallel stories, author interviews in video, etc. – probably on iBook. The digital experiment will also count with the collaboration of visual arts students that will create illustrations, animations, etc., and creative writing students, who will contribute to the expanding story.

There is finally the intention to produce a printed version of the book, linked to AR, so that the multimedia content present on the community site, or a selection of it, can also be seen on mobile devices when reading a print copy.

Both Duncan and I have bigger ambitions for the story, and would love to explore the production of games and TV / film adaptation. The online community of readers / fans will have special sections to start discussing / informing such adaptations. We have also approached a screenwriter who is interested in attempting to write a film script.

Audience involvement is at heart of project, as well as potentially providing showcasing opportunities for students of creative writing, design and visual arts (illustrators, animators, programmers, etc.).

‘Adaptable’ books – publishers as cross-media-brand-nurturers

In one paragraph: stories are increasingly selected for publishing depending on their adaptation potential. Publishers can add value acting as cross-platform, cross-media curators of stories. Some writers becoming ‘cross-media-story-creators’? Are publishers becoming ‘cross-media-brand-nurturers’? Is ‘artistic’ creativity at risk?

Changes in the Media Landscape

In the last few decades, cultural production and the ways in which the media industries operate have been disrupted by a vast growth in the use of digital media. This was accompanied by phenomena of media convergence (as described by Henry Jenkins, 2006; 2009), the growth of global media conglomerates (Brookey, 2010), and an increase in strategies of horizontal and vertical consolidation (Kerr, 2006). These movements have given origin to changes in modes of media production, namely in the dynamics of transmedia[i] production and adaptation.

More specifically, the book publishing sector has been suffering important transformations, from falls in sales of printed books, to changing business models and distribution models, and the arrival of new players (for example Amazon); the growth of e-books; and the use of digital media not only as marketing tools, but also as new monetization channels, as new more organic forms of book production, and as integral parts in new forms of transmedia storytelling where books and other media jointly build wider stories.

There seems to be a strong desire – and a real need, some will argue – from publishers and authors to learn more about, and experiment with, digital media and transmedia storytelling. For the publishing industry, the digital space is seen as both a threat and an opportunity. Attitudes vary, but what is clear is that words such as ‘digital’ and ‘transmedia’ have triggered a strong level of interest from the industry, patent on the number of professional publications, conferences and new job titles arising to deal with these.

Interconnected Circuits of Cultural Production
Simone Murray (2012), elucidates the pivotal role of industries in the material production of film adaptations. Her model is particularly useful in that it shows how cultural capital – in her example literary prizes and international book sales – form a basis for commercial decision-making’. Murray also proposes that the ‘film-ability’ of a literary manuscript (its potential to be adapted as a film) often dictates whether publishers select it. The publishing and film industries often operate in tandem, in interconnected circuits of cultural production that influence each other.Professor Alexis Weedon, who is leading the UNESCO-sponsored project ‘Crossing Media Boundaries: New Media Forms of the Book’[ii], defends that useful historical communication models, such as that of Robert Darnton (1982), ‘need updating in the light of new research which maps the overlap of the communication circuits in literary production and other forms of storytelling including plays, radio, film and digital book’. In other words, traditionally separate media industries are increasingly converging and influencing each other.

What publishers say

I believe that publishers will increasingly be acting as cross-media and transmedia agents for authors; not just using existing properties to publish print and e-books, but developing and nurturing new properties for which they will hope to hold all the rights jointly with authors. This is part of a wider discussion on what is the ‘valued added’ by publishers in the current publishing climate. See this article for a recent discussion about ‘what is the added value of a publishing house in these times?’: http://www.futurebook.net/content/story-nobody-tells

Two weeks ago, at the latest Bookseller Children’s Conference, Eric Huang, Director, New Business & IP Acquisitions at Penguin Books, touched on this new role for publishers. In his insightful and thought-provoking presentation he explained the ways in which Penguin look at potential ideas / manuscripts from authors (often new emerging talents) with ‘transmedia’ (or cross-media if you prefer) lenses: ideas for new books, new stories and characters are analysed also taking into consideration how well they would work across other media. Besides books (whether printed, e-book, enhanced books, etc.), they are also assessed on how well they’d work as a cartoon on TV, a toy, or a game. Actually, many stories start to go public through apps / games.

The idea is that the potential of a story / idea is evaluated with regards to its potential for adapted versions in other media, as games, as toys, and so on. Often this means that writers have to go back to the drawing board and re-design parts of the stories or story universes. For example, one of the ideas that Eric showed would have different stories that always take place in different environments. For TV production this makes the brand / IP less attractive as the production costs for lots of different backgrounds could be very high. In another example Eric revealed how a toy manufacturer explained that a certain story aimed at young boys  wasn’t gender-specific enough: it needed to be more clearly ‘pink’, or ‘blue’, perhaps with the addition of cars to the story. As it involved stories about different types of foods (to help kids eat during their meals), it had cutlery, which made it plausible for the girls’ toy market – at that age you need the brand to be very distinguishable in gender terms.

So what?

Well, this won’t be news for many people, but it provides very important insight that is food for thought for many long discussions. Eric also said that at the end of the day these adaptation, cross-platform needs had to be balanced with the power of the authors, with the richness of the stories they create. Artistic creativity ought to be paramount. Easier said than done.

At a time when media industries converge and overlap; when books turn into films, which turn into toys, which turn into games; when games create brands that become the best-selling books for children (e.g. Club Penguin, Moshi Monsters); when the children’s media universe is increasingly a web of content in which wherever stories / brands start, they end up across virtually all media / platforms, the adaptability or the (brace yourself for a long, ugly word) transmediability (transmedia ability) of a story is increasingly becoming a factor in publishers’ decisions when it comes to selecting new ideas / manuscripts. The adaptable value (i.e. can be adapted into other media) of a story is becoming paramount.

Of course this does not mean that less adaptable stories will end, but it raises questions about creativity and authorship. Whether positive or negative – this can only be defined at a personal level, and there will certainly be lots of arguments about this – it is important to be aware of how different media industries operate in tandem. There have always been ‘external’ or industry-specific pressures on creativity, for example classic fresco painters would have to please their wealthy sponsors, and perhaps we have a tendency towards keeping somewhat ‘romantic’ views of authorship and creativity (the writer in the isolated log cabin feeling inspired by a beautiful lake or a bottle of whisky!).

The trick for writers, and other media producers is to create in a ‘transmedia’ way from the onset, and generate ideas that cut across industry silos. But there’s always room for more print-only wonderful books that no one adapts to the screen! Perhaps the most important is that writers and creatives feel good with what they’re creating, and do not simply place monetisation / expansion factors ahead of creative satisfaction, and produce stories that are able to enchant us all?

Have any thoughts? Please share them!

Want to read more? If you’re interested I can send you the references


NOTES

[i] The term transmedia is often (rightly or wrongly) used interchangeably with the terms multi-platform and cross-media. It is hoped that my PhD research will attempt to clarify the use of these and other terms employed to describe forms of cultural production where the same property (the same story, the same characters) exists across different media and platforms – whether the property is created from the onset across different media, or started on one medium, and then spread out to other media and platforms. This is relevant as an attempt to clean up some of the confusion, overlap and misuse of many of these terms, both in academia and in the media industries.

[ii] This is the project I am part of in my current PhD. For more information on Prof Alexis Weedon see http://www.unesco.org/en/university-twinning-and-networking/access-by-region/europe-and-north-america/united-kingdom-of-great-britain-and-northern-ireland/unesco-chair-in-new-media-forms-of-the-book-967/

books, digital and transmedia conferences and useful websites

You can find links to all these in the LINKS section of this blog

Conferences:

Useful sites for books and digital:

  • www.futurebook.net
  • www.digitalbookworld.com
  • www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/digital/index.html

These are the main publisher-focused I know of, with lots of news and interviews on digital in the book industry.

If you want to check some more experimental blogs, drop me a line, tell me what you’re interested in, and I’ll send you a couple

claudio.pires.franco@gmail.com