Thoughts on Transmedia Storytelling, or, Is It Right for Every Story?

March 30th, 2010 · 12 Comments
by Kassia Krozser

In last week’s post, I noted some of the questions our South by Southwest panel received from the audience. One, in particular, needed more time and space to address: what’s the deal with publishing and its slow adoption of transmedia storytelling, a concept that includes some types of enhanced ebooks. According the person asking the question (and a few on Twitter), everyone wants it.

I don’t believe it is true that everyone wants publishing to leap into transmedia storytelling. If every story were multi-arc, multimedia, multi-point of entry, multi-everything, that would be akin to a diet of all reality television all the time. Not every story or idea can — or should! — support a multi-pronged existence. The definition of transmedia storytelling — storytelling across a variety of platforms (text, video, audio, chalk messages on buildings) — requires a story that can be told in a way that seamlessly blends technology and story. It needs to be immersive and believable at every point of entry.

We’ve seen transmedia thrive in conjunction with television programs. Lost, in particular, does this very well. On the other hand, NBC often takes an intrusive approach that makes it clear the extended story is part of a marketing effort, not a storytelling effort. I’d go so far as to say the urge to brand everything may very well kill certain aspects of transmedia storytelling.

There are many reasons why publishing hasn’t moved rapidly into the world of transmedia storytelling. The creation of a multimedia experience takes away from the core business of publishing books, however you define the term. There is a very legitimate question about what separates book publishers from motion picture or gaming studios once the move into transmedia storytelling is made. I am not sure how to begin to answer that question.

And for all the buzz about “enhanced ebooks”, it is early days yet. Everything from what book readers want to how to pay for these extras is on the table. There is a huge difference in what a production that has a multimillion dollar budget (such as a television series or feature film) can do versus what publishers, who do not necessarily have the in-house skillsets or budgets to fully explore transmedia storytelling. Yet I still expect to see a fair amount of experimentation coming from publishers large and small in the coming year.

As I see it, beyond reader adoption, there are three major hurdles publishing must overcome first: rights, business model, and technology and skills.

  • Rights: There is a lot of trickiness in this area alone. In most cases, authors own their copyrights, and when publishers want additional content from those authors, the authors naturally want additional compensation. While I’ve heard stories about agents going directly to transmedia production houses (for lack of a better term), relatively few authors will be willing to part with their own money for what is currently a risky venture.

    Figuring out how transmedia storytelling fits into the world of publishing will require a lot of experimentation. There will be more failures than successes. To me, this means experimentation on the part of authors and agents and publishers as well. Of course, authors should be paid for their work, but the experimental nature of what is being done needs to remain at the front of everyone’s mind.

    Then there is the issue of territorial rights. Some publishers acquire all rights, worldwide, and those are the lucky ones, from the perspective of creating new kinds of story options from the underlying work. When the rights are parsed out far and wide, putting the together the infrastructure for a well-considered, well-developed story. Territorial rights may prove to be the largest obstacle to success in transmedia storytelling.

  • Business Models: While we’re seeing companies that focus on doing high-quality productions within the publishing industry emerge (looking at you, Enhanced Editions!), the business models for transmedia storytelling and/or enhanced ebooks are still being built — and there will likely several. Right now, the industry is still in the very challenging position of defining “enhanced” when it comes to ebooks. As you might have guessed from this post and my previous look at this topic, I come down very much in favor of creating products that take the story in a new direction rather than trying to tack marketing materials (the ebook equivalent of DVD extras) onto the book.

    Did I mention that there will be much experimentation when it comes to transmedia/enhanced stories? Have I mentioned that this is a good thing, as long as it doesn’t come at the expense of the core business, which is producing quality books (and ebooks)?

  • Technology and Skills: Fact: not everyone will own an iPad. There will be tons of new devices emerging in the next few years. But the fact is that the major platform for delivering content to people is being overlooked. Yep, we already have the Web. It’s proven to be a very good publishing system, and, frankly, the least expensive, widest reaching platform available. While gadgets are cool — oh, are they cool — don’t forget how people really interact with content today.

    I am heartened by the various publishers I know are hiring staff with the kind of web skills necessary to move into transmedia storytelling. Other skills include community building/management, creation of serialized content, world-building (the core of transmedia storytelling!), multimedia production, and project management. This is not even factoring in the authors. These various roles must function as a team.

    For some stories, success will drive the creation of enhanced media or editions. When it comes to building a transmedia experience, I believe it is best to start from moment one, thus allowing the entire team — author, editorial, production, marketing — to develop a smart, compelling story. The story needs to be built out and infrastructure developed (you cannot, for example, launch a new website on release day and expect Google to make a sandbox exception*).

    A great example of new media storytelling ventures is The Amanda Project from the very creative Fourth Story Media. “Amanda” works because the vision was well-developed and smartly targeted at the core audience. While projects can (and maybe should!) remain flexible, ready to move as the situation dictates, a cohesive, start-at-the-beginning development process is the key to success.

    And it is where publishers can shine. As stories and ideas come across the transom, identifying and developing the right stories for the transmedia market can happen early. This allows the entire team to develop a strategy, including compensation, from the beginning.

For me, treating a story as a transmedia experience is a function of serving the needs of the story. Some practically beg for extended, expanded lives. Others function far better in the traditional narrative manner (be it text-based or audio).

* For those unfamiliar with the Google sandbox, it is a process where newly launched websites are left to season before they are indexed by the search engine. This helps prevent spam sites from taking over search results. While there are many variables, conventional wisdom has a site sitting in the sandbox for approximately six months. Plan accordingly.

File Under: Non-Traditional Publishing

12 responses so far ↓

  • Diana // Mar 31, 2010 at 4:54 am

    I’ve always been intrigued by stories told in non-linear fashion using technology to enhance the experience (think Myst). I suspect it won’t be long before the gaming community and the publishing community build a strong bridge that no longer involves “novelizations” of exisiting stories or “game versions” based on novels — but create both experiences at the same time. Read the novel and play the game at the same time.

    Good post! 🙂

  • Kat Meyer // Mar 31, 2010 at 5:57 am

    Check out the cool transmedia things Tim Kring and the HEROES crew did with transmedia. Extending the narrative during hiatus via webcasts and comix to name a few . He spoke at SXSW too. I was quite impressed. Enough to consider watching HEROES! Interesting side note he shared – producers at one point lost control of the narrative during writer’s strike when fans took over the story line creating new characters and plot twists!

  • Kassia Krozser // Mar 31, 2010 at 9:02 am

    @kat — Heroes (which started out awesome and then this season, sigh, lost even me, the most loyal of viewers) did great stuff in this regard early on. I loved the comic books starring Hiro. Perfect use of story and technology. NBC then decided to over-brand the series, and that left a bad taste in my mouth. I was always aware of the corporate parent pulling strings, which changed my relationship with the extended story.

    I do love that the fans took the story in their own directions, and think that loss of control is critical.

    One project I forgot to mention is Marble Hornets. It reminds of William Gibson’s book “Pattern Recognition”, but that’s a good thing, to my mind!

  • Kassia Krozser // Mar 31, 2010 at 9:04 am

    @diana — The gaming community has been at the forefront of my mind as I’ve been thinking about this type of storytelling these past few years. We know that people get deep into games due to the immersive nature of the story, and that is a great model for book publishers.

  • Theresa M. Moore // Mar 31, 2010 at 11:21 am

    When you transform a book into a multimedia object it ceases to be a book and turns into an interactive television program. I write books, so the only media anyone will see are illustrations and photos. The videos I leave for my web site, because they are intrusive enough as it is. And as a self-published author I prefer it that way. If I were sign away any rights to a major publisher I would lose all control of creativity, and then the books would no longer be actual story tellers. Just video games. People have a short enough attention span as it is without contributing to the situation.

  • Kassia Krozser // Mar 31, 2010 at 3:34 pm

    @theresa — I am of the firm conviction that the medium must serve the story, not the other way around. And while an author might write a “book”, the story might be better told in a different manner. That being said, I am not convinced transmedia is the proper approach for a vast majority of stories. I don’t see it as an either/or choice; I see it as opportunity to tell the story in the best way possible.

  • Scott Walker // Mar 31, 2010 at 9:17 pm


    I applaud your reticence to apply transmedia storytelling to any or all entertainment properties. It’s not appropriate for every property.

    A good starting point for determining whether transmedia storytelling makes sense is whether you are creating a world or creating a story.

    Transmedia storytelling is about a collection of stories in a shared world told across different mediums. If the story you are telling does not need to share its world with other stories or be split across mediums, well, then you’re probably not working on a property that would benefit from a transmedial approach. Story first, always.

    The concept of providing layers of depth for consumers to choose from (much like the stratification alternate reality game designers observe: passive, active, hard-core) is also key to this. Nice point.

    And I would encourage an “and” approach instead of an “or” mentality when testing the transmedia waters. Just as not all properties should be made transmedial, not all transmedia properties will look the same. Some will encourage fan interaction, others will limit it. Some will incorporate improvisational elements, others will be more traditionally scripted. Again, it was refreshing to hear you state this.

    Finally, it was great to hear you mention the Amanda project as an example. Having the usual suspects of transmedia storytelling (Star Wars, Matrix and Heroes) trotted out time and again is beginning to limit the fruitfulness of these conversations.

    While transmedia storytelling is quite old as a practice, we’re just now heavily investigating it, figuring out how much it can scale and where it breaks down. It’s going to be an interesting time…thanks for contributing some insightful comments to the conversation.

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  • Ovi Demetrian Jr // Apr 3, 2010 at 4:43 pm

    As writers get used to publishing ebooks online and building a community around their work, I’m sure there will be more transmedia storytelling.

    Certain videogames seem to do this well. A recent roleplaying game like Mass Effect 2 for example is designed to give the player choices for which directions to take the story allowing for replayability of experiencing it in different ways. Some videogame series that create a long following expand the story to comic books and novels. Because so much goes into creating the videogame world, a good story becomes an integral part of making the game work well.

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