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.


  1. Thanks for documenting this event and for the links – good write up.

    I agree with Rushkoff about why not just make an ARG and I think that in 2011 we’re going to see a lot of “casual ARGs” – short, easy to solve, entertaining quests that do blur fiction and reality but not necessarily in a way that the player is expected to think it’s “real”. They know its a game but they suspend disbelief as they would playing a console game. Except here the canvas is much wider.

    Our “pervasive entertainment platform” is now finally working and in the new year we’ll be opening it up to people to run their own ARGs – completely free. The availability of technology like ours – which requires no technical skill to use – will liberate more players to become designers and as we know yet more consumers will become producers.

    Readers of this blog are ahead of the curve and as they all start creating their own ARGs, this experience and process of trial-and-error will feed back to the community to inform the next generation of interactive experiences. I think 2011 will be a very exciting and explosive year for ARGs and we’ll see them mutate and evolve into different strata or genres of ARGs for different skillsets and availability… which in will widened the player base further.

  2. Great post. Although I come to the table with a more conventional storytelling interest, the increasingly interwoven worlds of book publishing and ARG is compelling (and inevitable). I’ve quoted you several times in my eBook Summit 2010 mashup: Thanks!

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