Collaborative Communities: Transmedia Evolved
By Emily Williams, co-chair, BISG Rights Subcommittee
We’ve talked before about how the term transmedia can mean different things to different people: the publisher-as-IP-hub, the story-driven multimedia producer, the book-centric social platform. These different approaches involve the audience to a greater or lesser extent, through interactive features, games, and social media.
But what if you gave members of your audience license to help create the story? And, what if in return, you offered to share a piece of your revenue with them?
This is the model that Scott Walker has built with his company Brain Candy. To prove the model is legally feasible, Brain Candy created Runes of Gallidon, “a living fantasy world designed for creative collaboration in an online community” that uses Creative Commons licenses and revenue sharing to allow fans to co-create the story of Gallidon, a collapsing empire. Members of the community have contributed art, comics, photos, role-playing games, digital games, audiobooks, and chapters, stories and novellas (we’ll go deeper into how all this works in the next post).
For Walker, it’s collaboration that opens up the potential of creating in a networked world. “I tend to separate transmedia from collaboration,” he explains. “When people talk about transmedia they tend to talk about more of the same kinds of entertainment we’ve had so far, just smeared out into multiple media platforms or channels. The common definition of transmedia does not include a canonical participation element, much less revenue sharing. So, that’s great, but collaboration to me is the ultimate goal, or the next iteration for transmedia.”
While Runes of Gallidon is a transmedia creation, focusing on collaboration allows Brain Candy to include as many different media as they choose, or as few. “If you flip that around,” says Walker, “I could easily have a monomedia collaboration property that’s only text, fan fictional, and it’s never transmedia but it’s totally collaborative.”
The Collaborative Sandbox
Walker sees a lot of potential in this model for book publishers. “For me, of all the mediums out there, video games and publishing, those two industries represent the two that can benefit the most from this model,” he says, “because you have decades of fan fiction and fan participation. The challenge is figuring out how to implement the model within the video game industry and the publishing industry to take advantage of all of the churn and the chaos that are happening in those industries right now as they try to find their feet in this digital landscape.”
The obvious candidates are books with a following of devoted fans who would be eager to try their hand at building out unelaborated facets of the story or characters. “You need a compelling story and a rich world,” Walker notes. Fantasy and sci fi are usually at the top of this list, but the same description could apply to comics, or romance, or chick lit, or for that matter historical fiction. What about bringing fans in to revive interest in a beloved backlist title?
“There is IP that is just sitting on a shelf somewhere, and it’s a wonderful way to take that IP and see is there enough of an audience that’s still active and out there,” says Walker. “For older properties, if you can thread that legal needle [i.e. overcome any existing contract limitations] then you can absolutely open up that world, and just see what happens when fans come in, see how many fans walk through that door.”
Brain Candy has been built on a shoestring, and for back list titles where rights have reverted Walker sees no reason authors couldn’t take matters into their own hands. “I would say it’s very easy for an author to get something up and running, online, and have it open to the audience, once they have decided how they want the participation to take effect.”
Asked how he would go about applying the Brain Candy model to an existing book property, Walker said they can be flexible. “We would construct a collaborative sandbox based on the needs and limitations and desires of the property owner, combined with the unique aspects of that particular property, and open it up,” he said. “It could be something as small in scope and scale as write a flash fiction about this particular character in this particular setting. Or submit art and you could provide compositional requirements. It could be a contest, and there is some compensation maybe at the revenue level. This is about trying to find more ways for audiences to participate that match the needs of the owner and are appropriate based on the property.”
Publishers Are Content Experts
The point of all this is first of all audience engagement, giving readers a chance to go deeper into the world created by a favorite author, but Walker also sees his collaborative sandbox as a way for the audience to feed and grow its own passion, and — depending on how it’s set up — a way for publishers and authors to monetize that attachment to their books.
“Over the past several months I’ve come to the conclusion that the publishing industry in some ways is the best positioned, looking forward, to deal with some of the challenges when it comes to digital and IP,” he says. “I see a lot of entertainment moving towards a management of IP as opposed to a production of medium. Right now I hear publishers saying, ‘How do we implement transmedia?’ The implication being transmedia will provide additional revenue for us, or make us more relevant, or make us more stable. I think the bigger and better question is, ‘How do we become better extractors of value of IP?’”
Knowing whether a property might lend itself to community collaboration would of course also be helpful at the acquisition stage. “To the degree that you can more efficiently extract value from any IP, you are able to make better purchasing decisions,” Walker points out. “Publishers should not be saying what should the next version of publishers look like, they should be saying we are really really good at vetting content and a lot of our content winds up porting into other mediums. We need to be looked at as subject matter experts and identify: Is this a rich world? Is this a good story? Can it be expanded? If it can be expanded then how can it be expanded?”
Once publishers build a collaborative community around one book or series, they would have the tools and expertise to apply to other properties. “For a publisher there is a huge opportunity there from a scale of economy perspective, to say we have a process, we have back-end technology,” says Walker. “When you go from managing one website to ten websites it’s not ten times the number of personnel. Once the technology is up and running, to re-skin a website from fantasy to romance to historical fiction, that’s just the cost essentially of new creative assets, new images for the website. I think as a skill set that would be a huge differentiator for a publisher, not just from other publishers, but from other people who have labeled themselves as transmedia production companies.”
If you bring your audience in, you are no longer competing against them. If you create a space for collaboration, you allow your most active fans to bring their passions into your world and make it bigger.
“The Brain Candy model [is] finding new business models that leverage the digital world we live in, that leverage the consumer-turned-producer behavior and try to find ways to co-create value with audiences,” says Walker. “When you look at movie franchises, television shows, novel franchises, keeping the audience engaged between offerings is hard but necessary, and it’s a lot easier to do if you are inviting fans to come in and help you co-create content. Then you’re able to say, we know you love the world, we can’t produce enough content for you on a regular basis, but we’re going to have some of the audience members help us do that. From a marketing perspective, it keeps that property in front of the consumer on a higher frequency basis.”
How much collaboration authors and publishers welcome, and how they choose to monetize it, depends on the property. But ultimately, says Walker, “it’s about finding ways to bridge fandom and canon – to get audiences participating in the property, and to have content creators and content consumers co-create value together.”
Emily Williams is co-chair of the BISG Rights Subcommittee and a former literary scout who currently works as an independent publishing consultant.
Interested in learning more about using transmedia storytelling and cross-media strategies? Join us at StoryWorld, the only major gathering of industry leaders, decision makers, and transmedia specialists, to explore new business models, innovative partnerships, and fresh revenue streams.