The Elephant in the Room: Talking Transmedia at the eBook Summit in NYC
This week, I attended the eBook Summit, an event organized by Mediabistro, GalleyCat, and eBookNewser, here in New York City, aiming to usher in the “New Era of Publishing” with a program of experts through a one-day extravaganza of digital publishing. Although geared more toward professionals in the “traditional” book publishing industry, a few overarching transmedia, digital, and storytelling themes emerged from talks by excellent mix of speakers, from agents to publishers to app developers, including Jason Ashlock of the Movable Type Literary Group and NYU Journalism professor and contributor to Fast Company, Adam Penenberg.
I was particularly enthralled by media theorist Douglas Rushkoff’s talk, “Ten Commands for the Digital Age,” giving an overview of his latest book Program or Be Programmed. He discussed the generational shifts in how people relate to their technology, making the point that the younger generation of so-called “digital natives” are not necessarily jumping into the industry as producers. So what bearing would this have on the future of consumption? To bring in an important first call to action in his book: “In the emerging, highly programmed landscape ahead, you will either create the software or you will be the software. It’s really that simple: Program, or be programmed. Choose the former, and you gain access to the control panel of civilization.”
The “traditional” book publishing industry has been one of the last entertainment/consumer industries to adopt transmedia strategies, and, in many ways, Rushkoff’s talk was somewhat tempered. Although he urged publishers, writers, and publishing professionals to “program or be programmed,” he also made the rather tough-love point that easy publishing methods like the eBook format and print-on-demand have negatively affected the quality of books: “We need to focus on the book itself, not the crap around it . . . All we can do is up our game. Make better books.”
After his talk, I managed to chat briefly with Rushkoff about alternate reality games (ARGs) and what he thought of them. We didn’t have the time to go into the details of his involvement with DarkNet/Exoriare, but his basic point was this: why not just make an ARG, rather than append an ARG to another product?
I don’t have an answer for that, of course, but I see his point: doesn’t the demand for transmedia (for the publishing industry, still “multimedia”) seem sometimes like an afterthought, thus running the risk of delivering both a sub-par ARG and a sub-par book, movie, or other dominant work? It’s a thought-provoking question, if unsettling, for someone like me that has drunk so deeply of the transmedia kool-aid.
Still, several other speakers at the eBook Summit were clearly taking up the transmedia banner and are breathing new life into storytelling through technology. For example, Comixology is an innovative delivery system for comic books and graphic novels. As a smartphone app, Comixology uses a special “Guided View” technology that translates the analog comic book format into the digital format. The company also creates branded apps for three out of five of the top comic book publishers. In the process of translating from analog to digital, however, Comixology created new modes of storytelling and comic book consumption.
Participants at the eBook Summit were also treated to a peek into the all-digital literary magazine Electric Literature’s new project: Broadcastr. Still not public, Broadcastr will be a geolocative archive of stories. Participants will be able to record audio stories and place them on a map, and visitors can then use the app to hear stories left behind by others. Already Broadcastr is gathering up the stories of such organizations as the Shoah Foundation to add a layer of storytelling to the very real world. Electric Literature also runs Electric Publisher, a way for authors and publishers to deliver content through smartphone apps.
In general, although the eBook Summit was not at all focused on (or even necessarily aware of) alternate reality games per se, the underlying concepts provided an underlying current to the discussions. As publishers, writers, and others adopt more transmedia strategies into book publishing, it will be interesting to see what amazing stories emerge.