Friday, 11 November 2011

Transfixed By Transmedia

As we move further into a brave new world of digital publishing, so the number of buzzwords bouncing around the industry can only increase. Buzzwords help make people who understand them look clever and forward thinking, while making people who don't understand them feel stupid and out of date. Transmedia is one of those buzzwords that suddenly seems to be everywhere, but it's also surprisingly hard to find a precise definition of it. Here's a rather wordy one that the Producers' Guild of America have adopted:
The Guild defines a Transmedia Narrative project or franchise as one that consists of three (or more) narrative storylines existing within the same fictional universe on any of the following platforms: Film, Television, Short Film, Broadband, Publishing, Comics, Animation, Mobile, Special Venues, DVD/Blu-ray/CD-ROM, Narrative Commercial and Marketing rollouts, and other technologies that may or may not currently exist. These narrative extensions are NOT the same as repurposing material from one platform to be cut or repurposed to different platforms.

Ok, so I'm not sure that's much clearer, although I love the bit about "technologies that may or may not currently exist." Because a transmedia storyline spans many different delivery channels, this does make it hard to categorise. But here's my condensed version:
Transmedia is about going where the kids are.

We live in an aggressively multichannel world. Books used to have to compete with just films and TV, but now there is a plethora of other distractions. And, to be fair, a plethora of opportunities for telling a story. Gone author Michael Grant's new project BZRK is being launched in a veritable transmedia blitz. Much of this is clearly marketing-led, a way of leading tech-savvy readers towards the book itself. But their plans to make money out of the additional transmedia content reflect a publishing industry keen to find new revenue streams wherever they can.

As authors, we need to be prepared for a world where our material can be repurposed in many different ways. This seems to be something especially true of children's books, as this Observer article makes clear. The launch of Pottermore has inevitably changed the landscape in terms of how children will interact with stories and how they will buy new Harry Potter content.

Writing the word "content" there gave me pause, because it's so impersonal. The risk with transmedia is that our words become simply another part of the interchangeable media landscape, another paid-for item that Apple can shove down the digital pipe towards your iPad. A book is a tangible object and it's easy to express what makes it special, what makes it different from a film or a video game. But try that with an enhanced e-book, or a picture book app. Are we moving towards a gloriously mashed-up world of narrative without barriers? Or simply a formless mush of words, images and micropayments?

My feeling here is that the answer lies in maximising the potential of each channel. If you write an app, make it do things that only an app can do. Don't be tempted to make it simply a book with a searchable index or an e-comic that makes KAPOW noises. Equally, enjoy the benefits of the long-form experience that a book provides – don't be tempted to chop it into sections for easy consumption, but instead focus on spinning a deep and involving storyline. Children won't lose the ability to concentrate providing we give them compelling reasons not to. The good news for writers is that our role is just as vital in a transmedia world, if not more so. Because, at some point, every multi-platform franchise was just a vague idea on the back of a napkin.



  1. Very interesting, Nick. I read, the other day, some information about a competition to invent a story world, and it appeared to want something like "transmedia". I clicked it shut because at the moment it's not for me!

    But it is a very creative proposition and one I think I would need partners for. People with whom to brainstorm all the inventive ways of adding narrative/content through different channels. Some part of the process would resemble writing, but not all of it, and I think this is where the difference lies. It's not about one writer writing but a group of creatives assembling. Lots might get written down, but some of it would be more a way of telling some publisher what the other media would be introducing/doing/showing etc. Directions, in other words. I reckon a good transmedia project would be excellent, but totally different to a "mere" book.

  2. Transmedia just takes the good old days of multimedia into the future. When I started working I worked in multimedia - I thought and found it exciting, looking at ways of delivering the same message across mutliple platforms. Transmedia is the same principle, only going further because of new technologies and platforms.
    As you say, however, every idea begins with a scribble or similar on the back of a napkin.
    I think the key for writers is to still endeavour to write the best stories they can, but be willing to think and explore beyond the scope of "just a book". Transmedia has been happening for a while and it will continue to grow as publishers and others seek alternative revenue streams, taking the single idea and spreading across a broad range of platforms.
    I think Eleanor is spot in saying it introduces the idea of working partners - and it's one of the exciting aspects of working with multiple media platforms.
    Exciting times, bring it on, I say! :-)