Monday, 26 November 2012

Transmedia - Setting Stories Free

As promised, I'm going to provide a quick run-through of the material that we covered in the Transmedia session at the SCBWI British Isles Conference last weekend. I thought it was a really stimulating hour, and I wish we could have had more time to cover such a wide subject area. To provide some context, here's the session outline from the conference programme:
Transmedia is one of the hottest concepts in the entertainment world, allowing stories to break away from books or films and be told across many types of media simultaneously. These multiplatform stories are creating new opportunities for writers and illustrators, and challenging our traditional view of narrative. In this engaging panel, we'll be exploring what Transmedia is, where it's going and how you can get involved.
I was due to be joined by two guests – Eric Huang from Penguin and Cally Poplak from Egmont Press. Unfortunately, Cally had to pull out at the last minute as the rescheduled launch of a new app based on War Horse meant she would need to spend the day with Michael Morpurgo instead (it's a hard life). But we restructured the session and I hope you couldn't see the joins! I was helped by the fact that Eric was the kind of speaker we all hope for at these sessions – sharp, well-informed and passionate about the business of making stories.

We started with a brief definition of what Transmedia was. I provided a rather wordy analysis, taken from the blog of Henry Jenkins, who is a Professor of Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California:
Transmedia storytelling represents a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience. Ideally, each medium makes it own unique contribution to the unfolding of the story.
Eric was able to give a much more succinct definition - his contention was that a Transmedia story is one that is conceived for multiple platforms from the beginning. It is not the process of taking an existing book and making it into a film or an app.

So what kinds of media can you use to tell a Transmedia story?

 All of these and many more – in fact, anything you can think of. That's the really exciting thing about Transmedia, it's only limited by your imagination.

In Cally's absence, I talked about the Transmedia campaign for Michael Grant's YA novel BZRK, using it as an example of how a Transmedia story works in practice. Grant, of course, also wrote the Gone series, which has been a big seller for Egmont. BZRK is a new science fiction thriller series that revolves around nanotechnology, and has the characters learning to pilot microscopic robots to invade other people's bodies. It's very boy-oriented, a kind of heavy metal version of Fantastic Voyage.

The Transmedia story began many months before the launch of the book, and it was intended to build an audience and the world before the novel came out. The story was told live, building up day-by-day as it immersed the audience in a parallel world where the misuse of technology was threatening the very fabric of our society. Of course, the irony here is that this story could not have been told in the same way without heaps of technology like websites, blog feeds, digital comics, internet video, ZIP files and apps.

You can still see all of the material used in the campaign at For instance, here is a page from the blog at the centre of the campaign, supposedly written by an Egmont editor:

If you look closely, you can see a typical element of a Transmedia story, which is the number written on the woman's hand. This might have been an access code to unlock a completely separate site, allowing the reader to discover further parts of the story. This "treasure hunt" aspect is often used in Transmedia to increase audience immersion, encouraging readers to dig for clues and solve mysteries. Plot devices like this acknowledge that the role of the audience is changing – readers increasingly want to participate in stories, not just be passive observers.

Here's an interesting piece of media from the site – a message written on a coffee cup.

It's quite possible to see how this item could have allowed the story to cross into the physical world, that the storytellers could have left this in a real-life location and given the readers' clues where to find it.

A high-profile part of the Transmedia push was a mobile app that allowed you to play out some of the nanobot action from the book. You can see a trailer here, but be warned that it's intended for thirteen-year-old boys and may cause permanent damage to post-adolescent brains!

After this introduction to Transmedia, it was Eric Huang's turn to speak. Eric's role at Penguin is Director of New Business and IP Acquisitions, which puts him at the forefront of cross-platform publishing (see last week's blog for a useful glossary). What really struck me was his understanding of the continuing role of the publisher in the digital age, even in a market where they have to compete with film, TV and gaming companies. Eric was very clear that Penguin will not be pushing their brands as far as they can possibly go. If a story world is better served by staying in book form, then that is where it will stay.

Eric's first example was taken from the world of Moshi Monsters. For anyone without school age children, this is a massively popular online world where children can adopt and train their own cute monster, interacting with the monsters created by other players. Moshi Monsters is intended to be safe and welcoming for parents as well as children, so one of the first problems that Penguin identified when they started discussing a spin-off book was the lack of an antagonist. Penguin brought their editorial thinking to the table, creating a story around the world as well as a baddie called Dr Strangeglove. Subsequently, Dr Strangeglove popped up in the virtual world and is increasingly visible in Moshi Monsters books and other merchandise.

Puffin Rock is another property that Penguin have recently bought into – puffins are an iconic part of Penguin's children's publishing, and Eric was keen to do something with them. By partnering with animation studio Cartoon Saloon and children's media company Dog Ears, they will produce Puffin Rock for multiple platforms – books, e-books, an animated TV series and apps.

Edmund and Cecilie is a debut Transmedia property with a charming old-school art style and a world set in a forest where every tree has grown from the seed of a story. It also highlights the changing roles of creators in the Transmedia world – Chris Mould and Matt Howarth are an author-developer duo.

One really fascinating Transmedia project Eric talked about involves robots and was so new that it doesn't have a name yet! It will kick off with an app that lets children customise their own robots and send them into battle, Pokémon style. Then a book will follow, with a plot twist that turns the whole world upside down. The books will feed back into the app world and the most successful players will even find themselves featuring in later books, as celebrities of the robot world.

Eric and I briefly discussed the wider implications of Transmedia following his presentation and he then took questions from the audience. I wasn't taking notes during this part, so please add anything else you remember in the comments section. Besides, this blog post is already long enough!

Let me finish by thanking Eric and the attendees for their time and attention. It was a really worthwhile hour and I hope we can run something similar again. Here are a few resources to let you delve further into the brave new world of multi-platform stories:
OK, my work here is done. Now go reinvent the world of storytelling already!


P.S. If you want to follow Eric on Twitter, his ID is @dinoboy89


  1. Awesome session! Thanks for immortalizing it in this blog post. Ceej :)

  2. A brilliant blog Nick. It was such a fantastic session wasn't it? Your recounting of it is so accurate - almost like being there again!

    Thanks, Helen x

  3. Thanks for this, Nick. I was at another session so good to catch up with this here.

  4. I can vouch for an accurate and brilliant write up as I was there and my notes aren't as good as yours Nick's - big thanks for hosting and for this!

  5. Great post, Nick!

    So wish I'd been at the conference to experience your talk in person. So refreshing to hear someone speaking on the topic of transmedia, or multi-platform storytelling, knowledgeably and creatively! Thanks for your insights and your examples.

    All best, Sarah

  6. Thanks for sharing the post! its really helpful and experienced tips for me.I really appreciate a lot of your points. thanks a lot and I really like your thoughts.

  7. Nice to be visiting your blog again, it has been months for me. Well this article that i've been waited for so for moshi monsters