Geoffrey Long
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The Future of Publishing.

A few months ago, I had the honor of organizing and moderating a keynote panel for the sixth Media in Transition conference here at MIT. Our title (and topic) was "The Future of Publishing", and MIT World has just published the video recording of it online. I've embedded a copy of it here (all 94 minutes of it, be warned):

My honorable speakers are described on the site as follows:

Small Beer Press, Gavin Grant's boutique Massachusetts publishing company, "is still in the business of producing paper objects." But new technologies are transforming his work in several ways: He licenses some books via Creative Commons; releases others as downloads in a variety of ebook formats (generating these can be an expensive "hassle"); and deploys social media, in the form of blogs and Facebook-enabled communication, to publicize and attract passionate readers to the firm's website. Grant sees Amazon and its Kindle as a bully driving readers toward best sellers, and is interested in the "hyperlocal" possibilities of the web for publishing: finding readers for his one-of-a-kind publications, and inviting them to peruse his non-mainstream book lists.

Agent Jennifer Jackson describes some intriguing direct marketing activities made possible by the web, including author-produced book trailers on YouTube, and an online media project undertaken by clients and other authors: a website consisting of episodes for a fictional TV show. Jackson also maintains blogs that she hopes provide "transparency" about her end of the business, a way to bridge "the great divide" between agents and authors. Her authors are concerned with digital piracy but Jackson feels wide distribution of an author's work ends up generating more sales over time.

Robert Miller's frustration with the trade publishing model -- in particular, astronomical advances to authors, and book return rates of 40% -- led to HarperStudio (a Harper Collins offshoot). His notion of "starting something from scratch" involves making digital and physical books available simultaneously to the reader. His first offering is a collection of previously unpublished pieces by Mark Twain that are available as individual books, or in discounted bundles with audio books and downloadable books. He celebrates the reduction in production costs in moving to digital, but he's wary of the small but rapidly expanding ebook market, which he anticipates will impose a "downward pressure on prices," a loss of revenue that will negatively impact his business.

Bob Stein envisions a wholesale evolution of the essence of books, from objects to "a place where readers and sometimes authors congregate." His Institute on the Future of the Book hosts experiments in publishing, such as one where an author essentially blogs and moderates responses around a particular subject. Readers could someday collaborate with dead authors, adding chapters to finished books, for instance. He sees ebooks as transitional: "The experiments which have to do with increasing sales of book are interesting, and will prolong publishing but won't invent the future of how humans work together to increase our knowledge, which is what publishing used to do." These new expressive forms won't emerge quickly. It took 300 years after the invention of the printing before the first novel was written, he notes, but inexorably, "we're shifting the ways humans communicate with each other."

My panelists delivered on the promise of the topic beautifully, providing terrific insight into the state of the publishing industry and what the future may have in store for all of us. A sort-of follow-up to the talk will be going down in November, when none other than Jeff VanderMeer will be coming to MIT to speak on a similar topic, which he addresses at great length in his upcoming book Booklife (Oct. 15, 2009; Tachyon Publications).

Added bonus: I now have a profile on MIT World. Next stop: TED...


On Vooks and Transmedia Resistance.

On April 4, 2009, the New York Times ran a piece by Brad Stone called "Is This the Future of the Digital Book?". In it, Stone writes:

Bradley Inman wants to create great fiction, dramatic online video and compelling Twitter stream -- and then roll them all into a multimedia hybrid that is tailored to the rapidly growing number of digital reading devices.

Mr. Inman, a successful Silicon Valley entrepreneur, calls this digital amalgam a "Vook," ( and the fledgling company he has created with that name just might represent a possible future for the beleaguered book industry.

Inman's been working in the digitally-augmented publishing space for a while now: he's the founder of TurnHere, which creates promotional videos for authors and publishers. In 2008, Inman wrote a thriller called "The Right Way to Do Wrong" and used his company to film 24 short videos to "augment the book's main mystery". While I haven't seen the videos or read the book, based on Stone's piece this sounds like an interesting piece of transmedia storytelling - and as a transmedia storyteller, Inman's in a good place to create a new way for multiple components of such transmedia franchises to be delivered together.

The catch is whether or not the key to transmedia storytelling is in keeping the components distinct.

Based only on Stone's piece, the picture being painted of a Vook is similar to an old multimedia CD-ROM experience. Imagine a book filled with the usual pages of text, but then instead of the occasional half-page or full-page illustration you have a QuickTime window that plays a short video clip, embedded right in the flow of the text. We've been down this particular path before a decade ago, and the results there weren't so magnificient. Such radically compressed switches between media forms felt jarring and largely annoying.

I've described this phenomenon before as 'transmedia resistance', although previously I've focused on this as the reluctance of someone to follow a narrative out of one media form and into another due to a prejudice against the new form. The example I like to use is of a fan of Joss Whedon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer who refuses to pick up the 'eighth season' of the story since it's being told as comics. Some possible reasons for such resistance may include:

  • comics are expensive
  • the fear of dealing with 'comic book guy'
  • comics are "for kids"
  • the stigma against comics as a culture is too great
  • they may not know the mechanics of comics
  • comics aren't television

When the transmedia experience is collapsed into one single delivery mechanism, such a CD-ROM or perhaps one of Inman's vooks, some of these issues are addressed and others remain inherently problematic. The first two simply vanish - the expense is absorbed into the cost of the entire experience, and there is no need to deal with 'comic book guy'. These are both progress.

The second two not only remain, but they may in fact be powerful enough to devalue the experience as a whole. If part of a story for adults is told as comics, then some heavily prejudiced audience members may no longer consider the story to be for adults, or the story may be designed for a 'geek culture' that the audience member wants no part of. These external forces are going to plague transmedia stories until they don't - which is a simplistic thing to say, yet is also accurate. Audiences were prejudiced against superhero movies until a string of really great superhero movies convinced the mass audience that superhero movies could be good; unfortunately comics as a medium is still struggling to prove that it is as accessible to mass audiences as its characters. Listing the reasons for that would make up an entire other essay, but it's possible that such a tide shift may have to be generational. Video games have overcome much of this stigma already due to so many twenty- and thirtysomethings having grown up with video games in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. When kids who grew up with Pokémon and other manga reach full adulthood, the stigma against comics and its associated 'geek culture' may dissipate in a similar fashion - but that remains to be seen.

The last two are particularly troubling, and for pretty much the same reason. An unfamiliarity with the mechanics of comics results in an experience not that dissimilar from trying to follow a conversation that lapses into multiple languages. Even if you're familiar with the multiple tongues, unless you're completely fluent in all of them there's still a mental 'grinding of gears' as your mind shifts from one language to the next. The same thing happens in transmedia stories - and when it happens in the course of an encapsulated experience such as these old CD-ROMs or, possibly, Inman's vooks, an audience member is jarred out of the state of narrative flow. It's a disruption that frequently reminds the audience that what they're experiencing isn't real, but is in effect a mediated experience. People don't like this kind of disruption when they're trying to lose themselves in a fictional world; this is one reason why we don't have concession vendors walking up and down the aisles of movie theaters the way we do at baseball games.

Such disruption is lessened when it comes between distinct chapters, such as at the transition point between the seventh and eighth seasons of Buffy, because the audience member's mind is already out of the narrative world and is simply preparing to re-enter it, but it's still there. When an audience member is used to engaging with the narrative world in one media form, switching to another (as from television to comics) frequently makes the brain whine. "I'm used to experiencing this in this one form," the mind whines. "Why do I have to do work to experience it in another?" This is an important part to note - like all translation, until complete fluency is achieved, such a switch is, in fact, work. People will do it when the perceived payoff is sufficient - and, in fact, they may eagerly anticipate such switches, such as when a television series like Firefly makes the jump to the big screen in a film like Serenity. Such anticipation usually occurs when the audience member is both fluent in the new media form and in the new media form's unique advantages. A fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer who loves the visuals may be thrilled by a move to comics or film, but a fan who's more interested in the internal workings of the characters and their relationships might be more interested if the series were to continue as novels.

Long story short, the key to such transmedia storytelling might be in maintaining a careful balance between consistently delivering good, quality content in distinct forms (always a good idea) and guiding the audience from one media form to the next without forcing it down their throats. Skillful transmedia storytelling, like any sufficiently advanced technology, might be indistinguishable from magic - until all the reasons I listed above are swept away by either fluency or some kind of a cultural shift, there is likely to be a subtle sleight of hand required to overcome such transmedia resistance. Delivering each component in a way that feels incomplete and then making the transmedia switch mandatory - such as reading one chapter of a vook as text and then having the next appear as a video clip - might run headlong into a concrete wall of transmedia resistance, with all the unpleasant results therein.


On storybots.

Yesterday I had an amazing meeting with several of my friends and coworkers to discuss a new possible project coming down the pike, and although I can't tell you what that project is yet, it wound up triggering some intense late-night thinking.

How do robots tell stories?

We've all seen robots as characters - C-3PO and R2-D2 in Star Wars, Data in Star Trek, the Cylons in Battlestar Galactica, Pixar's WALL-E, Number 5 in Short Circuit, and the kid in Small Wonder are just a sampling from Western stories, and the list explodes if you incorporate Eastern stories like Voltron, Robotech, Transformers, Mega Man/Rockman, Astro Boy and so on. But what about robots as storytellers? That list is significantly smaller - we children of the 80s remember Teddy Ruxpin, of course, and Disney's animatronic Hall of Presidents; newer models include the Robo-Mursaki from Japan's Robo-Garage, which gives a performance of The Tale of Genji, and now Violet's Nabaztag robot bunny is getting into the act with Book:z, RFID-enabled texts that apparently make the robot bunnies read the stories aloud. (I haven't tried this yet and the details remain sort of scant on the Violet site, so I may be getting this one wrong.) So far, the answer to "how do robots tell stories" appears, technically, to be "by playing MP3 or other audio files metatagged with particular triggers to activate limited motions and facial reactions at certain points of the story".

But what if?

Nabaztag nano
The new Nabaztag 'ztag' RFID chips enable the Nabaztag 'mother robot' to perform certain actions if a ztag is sensed nearby, such as those embedded in the new Nabaztag:nano mini-bunnies. I've written on toys and transmedia storytelling before (which led to the presentation I gave on a similar topic at the Toy Researchers Association in Greece last summer), which suggested a mechanic for the presence of RFID-enabled action figures to unlock certain episodes inside of a database which could then be streamed via a wi-fi enabled playset hooked up to a screen of some sort - but what if the robot itself was the performer of the narrative? What if the playset was a Ruxpin-like character telling a story triggered by the presence of the RFID-enabled figures - or a new story downloaded each week via podcast or RSS - which had the story chapters tagged with if/then branches dependent upon which action figures were in the presence of the playset? A certain degree of marketing could be embedded in this, of course ("To hear how Stratos wrested the Emerald of Jun-ka away from Trap Jaw, order Stratos and Trap Jaw online at"...) but not enough to be crushingly over-commercialized; educational components could be added to the system organically through the addition of optional educational characters, such as engineers, musicians, scientists and historians. Parents that wanted their children to get a dose of education threaded through their narratives could add those figures to the collection and thus activate the educational mode of the story. Similarly, parents that wanted to deliver strong female role models could load the collections with strong female characters. And not all figures could have their chapters delivered in the same media - one character may deliver its tale in comics each week, and another might deliver its story in a downloadable game. In its ideal state, a full collection of figures could result in a rich transmedia, educational experience, delivered in such a fashion that could deliver an element of performance through the animatronics of the storytelling robot.

The components need not even be action figures - they could be diegetic artifacts placed in the hands of the storyteller bot, like an antique placed in the hands of a kindly grandfather. The robot's eyes go up to the ceiling, one of its hands (the one not holding the artifact) lifts to its chin, the robot says "Let me see... My, this takes me back..." while the file is being wirelessly downloaded from a remote server, and then the storybot begins to unreel its tale. Taking a page from location-based entertainment, if the bot were wirelessly connected to other accessories in the room, it might transform the entire local space into a performance chamber by triggering those devices to come to life when appropriate, filling televisions and digital picture frames with images from the storyworld, or playing music and sound effects through wi-fi enabled radios or surround sound systems. Such performative actions might even be built into the story itself; imagine if the storybot were made to look like Gandalf or Dumbledore, using its magic to trigger these events in the child's own living room. We already see similar technology at use in universal remotes; a storybot could be programmed to work with the devices in a living room (or playroom) in the same fashion as a Logitech Harmony, or an entire platform of devices could be created inside of the storybot's parent brand. I myself have wired up my own living room with remote-controlled lighting using a simple Christmas tree infrared key fob I bought for around twenty bucks at Target; including dimmer switches in the system, or support for existing brands of home automation equipment, would not be overly complex.

On a more personal note, it's also possible that this idea could be mashed up with the Digital Storytelling Movement, using such performative recording devices to tell our own stories, such that a robot in question could be "haunted" by my ghost telling personal stories of my time at MIT to my great-grandchildren, or telling such tales remotely to friends around the world. The digital picture frames in the home could keep up the pictures from my time at MIT to keep the pictures from that particular story up for a week in order to remind the child of the week's lesson as they go about their daily lives. Recording such rich experiences may not be that complicated either - simple motion capture through Wiimotes could be used to 'tag' personally-recorded MP3s to encode the digital performances to be delivered through such storybots, and tagging the MP3s with photos to deliver to the screens could theoretically be not much more complicated than creating a slideshow or Flickr album.

So here's the question - this is possible, yes, but is it sound? That is, does storytelling through robots enable any kind of a advantage over storytelling through a television screen? Would an episode of the newly-renewed (!) Dollhouse be improved by Joss Whedon's voice narrating the whole thing, and being customized based on whether or not you had the figures of Boyd, Topher and Alpha? Or is this its own thing? Are we simply seeing the emergence of a new kind of storytelling, or - better yet - are we seeing the re-emergence of personalized, one-on-one, performative storytelling?

Where do we go from here?