Friday, 18 January 2013

Going Global

I was pondering a post on story franchises yesterday, when, as luck would have it, a link to this article was posted on the SCBWI British Isles Facebook group. In it, Eric Huang from Penguin Children's (who I interviewed for the SCBWI Transmedia panel last November) talks about globalised story brands and his vision for the future of publishing. This is a topic that Eric touched on during our panel and Eric is a passionate defender of the place of publishing in a cross-platform world. As he says at the end of the article:
We [publishers] were the first storytelling industry and I feel that I am not going to let our sister industries be the ones that survive because I think we are the master storytellers.
Eric's approach to ensuring this survival is for Penguin to take on the role of brand curation for authors and other creators. In this model, the publisher becomes the guardian of the story world and is able to control how that story, its characters and settings are exploited across media. Not coincidentally, it also means that Penguin will control all of the rights to that property and will have a guaranteed slice of the revenue if it's a success. This kind of strategy finds the publisher putting a foot firmly into the world of the agent, who would normally seek to manage publishing and other rights for their clients. But then, if you look at how many agents are publishing books directly these days, perhaps it is just another example of traditional roles becoming blurred.

In the movie world, global consolidation has long been the norm. Movies are immensely expensive to both make and to market, which makes a worldwide business approach essential. Click the image below to see a huge infographic at Empire Online about who owns which movie franchise:

Franchises and global brands are now seen as being essential to the movie business, to the extent that it's much easier to adapt your ideas into a reboot of an existing property, than it is to strike out with a truly original idea. And that gets to the crux of the problem, because the vision of the future that Eric and others are promoting sounds terribly sterile. There aren't many creative people outside of advertising who get up in the morning and think: "I know, what I really want to achieve today is to create a globally recognised brand." But the paradox is that most of the major story brands in the world today were started by just one person. Star Wars, Star Trek, Harry Potter, The Simpsons, James Bond, The Muppets – the list goes on.

Large companies are rarely a good environment for the kind of original thinking that's needed to birth a franchise. But once that initial concept has been successfully launched, corporations are much better placed than individuals to take a story world and turn it into a long-term money-maker. They might also ruin it in the process, but the good news is that corporations like Disney are becoming much more adept at running story businesses without running them into the ground. There's even a chance that the new Star Wars movies might invigorate the franchise, rather than taking it still further from where it started. Here's hoping, anyway.



  1. What I wonder about is where the "original thinker" is left in all this. Once you start talking global brands and franchises, the money - though potentially very big - starts being spread very widely. Many authors already get a raw deal ito royalties, so, if the agent role is usurped by the publisher, who will really look after the original creator?

    That said, I do appreciate that on the flip side, the author could well stand to do a whole lot better - but that comes down to initial negotiation and how well the author understands the machinations of the business world - and few, I suspect, do.

    Interesting times, and I personally think the concept of global brands and cross platform marketing makes excellent business sense. Storytelling is, after all, so much more than just books.

    1. I think I would be more comfortable with an agent controlling the rights to my work, rather than a publisher, simply because of the dynamics of the relationship. An agent should be working for you, whereas with a publisher you are definitely working for them.

      Some agencies (such as the Blair Partnership) do have an acute sense of this brand curation role already, and Jodie Marsh of United Agents also spoke very eloquently about it at the SCBWI Agents' Party last year.

  2. Maybe we're going to end up with two extremes, the big international players and the little guys going their own way. With not much in the middle. It is a fascinating time and each person has to approach it in their own way. Which will lead to more innovation. I totally get the need for a creator to have a physical manifestation of their work (mentioned in the article. Maybe this is a kick back to childhood and the relationship we had with our favourite toys and books. We need to hold them.