Tip of the Quill: A Journal
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,” (vook.tv) 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.