The Book Is Not The Territory

March 11th, 2008 · 7 Comments
by Kassia Krozser

It’s like we invented the written word, and we decided to only write books.

Anyone cringing? Feeling a twinge of guilt? Sort of thinking “that’s me, that’s what I’m doing”? Then, “But, hey, books are the be-all and end-all of storytelling, I’m cool.”

No worries, mates! That quote wasn’t directed at you. Jane McGonigal was talking to gamers. Talking about the idea that they have, uh, confined their medium to the screen (or box, take your pick). During her fantastic (who knew there was a “Soldier Boy” dance) SXSW Keynote, McGonigal stressed the importance of bringing alternate reality as practiced in games to the reality the rest of us think we’re practicing. She believes the latter can lead to more happiness in the former.

Having experienced the latter, I think McGonigal’s approach makes sense. It is perhaps revealing that the leaders of the discussion about the future of storytelling are gamers. The gaming industry has not only grasped the necessity of good story as part of their future, but has made huge strides in incorporating new ways to tell stories into their world.

(As an aside, the gaming industry has also realized the importance of using story to build stuff like character, teach leadership skills, and find happiness.)

Television and movies, obviously, have a huge stake in storytelling (stop laughing, it’s true! Not everything is Paradise Hotel.), and they have certainly taken steps toward expanding their stories beyond film. While what was done with Lost worked really well (and that is a tribute to solid backstory leading into current story), most extended storytelling falls flat, doesn’t do the job of convincing the participant to suspend disbelief, or feels like an extended commercial. There hasn’t been a lot of telling in the stories perpetuated by these groups.

Naturally, another group that has taken a leadership role in alternative storytelling is advertising. Man, have they gotten the religion. Sure, it’s a messy, poorly executed religion, but you’re seeing advertisers take on storytelling as a way to sell stuff like never before. Like motion pictures, the clear object is selling, so the execution never quite feels organic. While I’m sure most advertisers will see the negative rate of return as a deterrent in the not-to-distant future, I expect we’ll see a lot of clunky attempts to merge storytelling with soap-selling before that happens.

One of the key problems with today’s Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) is that they are largely marketing driven. More on that in a moment.

Hmm, seems like there’s another group who could jump on that same bandwagon. Give me a minute…

Oh right. The publishing industry. Wow. Man. Think about it. An entire business focused on storytelling. Whether it be non-fiction or fiction, all product for this industry is about story. Of course, yeah, all that story seems to be limited to…books.

Books are great. Without books, I’m not sure I’d know where to turn. I can only spend so much time with my laptop (though I am totally intrigued by McGonigal’s new game The Lost Ring — if it’s a sport nobody else has mastered, maybe I have a chance) (ps, If you don’t hear from for a while, well, I’ve succumbed.). Books are so important to me.

But so is story. And I’m not unique. Books require a very specific time and space commitment. But our species — great and small — needs story in many times and spaces. We need story to help us achieve our own goals, to meet our own needs.

I know that Penguin UK is — brilliantly — stretching the boundaries of story in ways that other publishers are still dithering about in endless meetings (there is a lot to be said for trying, failing, and learning valuable lessons, then repeating the cycle). In fact, their long-rumored foray into ARGs was pretty much confirmed at this year’s SXSW (oh sure, the fact that one of the top firms in the world is working with Penguin could be red herring, but I believe we have something incredible just over the horizon; in the meantime, look for more excitement from this place in the next few weeks.). But, well, wow, short of the short stories being posted online by some publishers, I’m not getting a sense that the one industry that owns the territory is all that eager to hold its ground.

Think about it — books are not dying off, but readers are migrating to other venues. Non-readers are picking up on storytelling due to new forms (think of that age-old divide between oral and written word). New technology allows the story to expand in many ways: multiple authors, multiple storylines, multiple media.

Your attempts don’t have to be ARG great as much as they need to be thinking book plus. Or book and beyond. Or book, well, that’s one way to get this story out.

However, a caution. Today’s ARGs fail their audience in a singular way: they are limited in duration. One-time campaigns. Task-driven versus brand-driven mentality.

Put another way, they are funded by short-term marketing budgets. Imagine, if you will, an engaged, passionate audience. An audience willing to go to incredible lengths to play this game. Then the game ends and, wow, can you believe this, the audience is sent into the twilight? McGonigal acknowledged that this was a limitation of the current business model — and all but challenged the audience to find a better model — but, wow, I mean, you have all those people. And you let them go?

Good authors know that you always leave them wanting more, leave them actively seeking more (and, no, I’m so not talking about endless sequels featuring barely noticeable secondary characters). Now is the time for the publishing industry to stand up and show what real storytelling encompasses, saving the book business along the way.

File Under: Non-Traditional Publishing

7 responses so far ↓

  • Electric Alphabet // Mar 12, 2008 at 3:09 am

    […]  The Book is Not the Territory. […]

  • Extenuating Circumstances – links for 2008-03-12 // Mar 12, 2008 at 3:22 am

    […] The Book Is Not The Territory | Booksquare “In fact, [Penguin’s] long-rumored foray into ARGs was pretty much confirmed at this year’s SXSW (oh sure, the fact that one of the top firms in the world is working with Penguin could be red herring, but I believe we have something incredible just over (tags: penguin sixtostart wetellstories) […]

  • Once upon a mellow noon » Linkage // Mar 12, 2008 at 2:30 pm

    […] Booksquare: the book  is not the territory. Some thoughts on alternative modes of storytelling. There’s an important point – storytelling and stories written in bookform are not really the same thing. Books might die, be replaced. Stories will go on, even if they’re not being written anymore, but created in some other fashion. I digress; the article is rather interesting. […]

  • Martyn Daniels // Mar 13, 2008 at 9:25 am

    This week we had the pleasure of interviewing an author with a difference perspective, Kate Pullinger. Kate not only writes, but teaches writers and has importantly worked with new media. Kate clearly sees the glass half full and the opportunities for all in the New World, but she also recognizes that the format often dictates the form. To put it another way, books are books and their size and structure are often fixed to fit the package not necessarily the content itself. Creating multi media works needs to support multi media at the beginning, during the development and at the end. It is not a case of writing the text and adding the ‘effects’ at the end.

    We visited Kate’s impressive web site and her latest digital work , a multi media graphic novel in episodes. We will all have our own views on whether it works or doesn’t but the one thing it certainly provides is evidence that creativity is not confined to a live in a jacket. Just as MTV enhanced music and YouTube changed video, then digitization has the potential to change the book.

  • | Stop Press for March 13th // Mar 13, 2008 at 5:31 pm

    […] The Book Is Not The Territory – Booksquare on Jane McGonigal’s SXSW keynote, with thoughts on Penguin and ARGs in there too. […]

  • Kassia Krozser // Mar 13, 2008 at 9:07 pm

    Martyn — great comment (and I was so impressed with Kate Pullinger’s recent essay — I love, adore!, an author who gets the value of her work and can translate it to the real world). Form, format, looking at different formats to tell different stories. I think it’s an incredible beginning for storytelling. And while gamers are currently taking the lead, I think there’s a natural market who can show the world how it’s done.

    It’s also a great time to try and fail. I cannot stress this enough. Whenever I face a tough situation, I ask myself “what is the worst that can happen?” If it’s a job, I could get fired. End of the world or opportunity? Bottom line is that the worst is very rarely as bad as they’d like you to think. Very few of us are taking risks at the level of staunch anti-corruption/name-your-poison governors who are caught using prostitutes.

    Oops, off topic.

  • eNotes Book Blog » Blog Archive » Happy St. Patrick’s Day, Um, Richard Price… // Mar 17, 2008 at 2:12 pm

    […] finally, Booksquare kind of disagrees with my last statement. They think books are waging a losing battle and need to […]