The Debut Novel: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des Rêves, and it is only open at night.
Already much anticipated, this high-profile debut novel from Erin Morgenstern has garnered the attention of reviewers at Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly, and GoodReads. For Morgenstern, an artist and writer based in Massachusetts, The Night Circus is an incredibly strong debut novel: already optioned for a film adaptation, already creating buzz among the book review community, already such an anticipated story that there was a bidding war over rights back in September 2010.
As if this weren’t enough, the Random House Group is also taking innovative steps in digital marketing for The Night Circus‘s worldwide release set for September 15th. In the weeks prior to launch, a complementary storytelling experience will roll out at http://nightcircus.co.uk/.
The online marketing campaign will represent a trailblazing collaboration between Random House UK and Failbetter Games, a transmedia and digital fiction company, founded in 2009. Failbetter’s first game, Echo Bazaar is a browser-based role-playing game (RPG) based on a freemium model and boasting over 600,000 words of truly original narrative set into an interactive and social story engine. Set in the dark, Victorian-inspired land of Fallen London, its critically acclaimed narrative style and game mechanics have brought the company numerous accolades, including The Escapist’s Best Browser Game of 2009 Award. Far from a niche game for “hardcore gamers,” in mainstream media, Echo Bazaar has been called “beautifully moody and lusciously written” by The Guardian while The New Yorker mused that it was “rich with clever machinations.”
Based on my own experiences in Fallen London[*] as well as rumors of what the upcoming Night Circus campaign might look like, several elements from Echo Bazaar are clearly informing the proposed online experience. For example, collecting memories and mementos from five virtual performances of the Night Circus, readers will be able to create diary pages and interact with The Night Circus storyworld, sharing their discoveries through social media like Facebook and Twitter. Other anticipated game mechanics, such as “storylets” and “opportunity cards,” will likely be familiar to the over 90,000 visitors to Fallen London.
But, in many ways, the digital marketing piece for The Night Circus is an important test case, perhaps even signaling a paradigm shift, in how publishers leverage technology and new forms of storytelling to promote books, interact with readers, and expand story worlds.
The Editor on the Edge: Dan Franklin
Meet Dan Franklin, an editor that’s been on the technological edge for some time now. In fact, we profiled Dan in December because of his work on Nick Cave’s The Death of Bunny Munro iPhone app for the indie publisher Canongate UK.
Now Digital Editor for Random House UK, Dan bridges the gap between the “book” side and the “online” or “gamey” side. I caught up with Dan to ask him about how the collaboration came about:
Had you played Echo Bazaar before getting in touch will Failbetter?
I went and had a look at Echo Bazaar and played it a bit, and I really liked it because it was a text-based narrative game, really, and I could see what it was doing with story, in the form of these little “storylets” and really sophisticated ways of using gaming strategy to get people invested in a narrative that I thought was really interesting. So, I looked at it and had it in my mind that they would be something– you know the way publishers approach all these things is they see a company or an agency that they find interesting and then think… how can I crowbar this idea or crowbar an idea to fit with them.
Tell me about making the initial connections between The Night Circus and Failbetter.
Actually, when we started to talk with them, The Night Circus is clearly a huge priority title here, and we did have a budget and wanted to do something innovative with it.
It was then that I thought of Echo Bazaar, really just because of the aesthetic and sensibility of it, and I thought it really resonated with what The Night Circus was about. It just had the right aura and feel around it, and I guessed that Failbetter would have a real sense of what to do with The Night Circus. And so I got in touch with Alexis and met up with them and just said, “Look, I’ve got this book,” outlined roughly to them what it was about, and then I handed the proof to Alexis and literally the hairs on the back of his arms stood up.
But at that stage, I wasn’t too prescriptive with what I was thinking that they could do with it, but I was aware that they had a really interesting story engine that we might able to bring to bear on it and also that they had a sort of captured community of people who I think would appreciate the book.
So it was a kind of “twin” thing there: They had created this technology for storytelling as well as having an audience that I think would appreciate it without being “sold to” strongly as well. I think it’s quite honest in that way.
And then I took it back to Vintage and Harvill, the originating imprint, got Failbetter in, and then they came up with this proposal, this sort of card mechanic narrative and the idea of having five performances of the Night Circus, which don’t ever really occur in the sense of you being able to watch them happen but which leave these traces, these mementos and bits of story, which you could then access once they’ve transpired, and this could be a way of building up to the book’s release.
Why a digital marketing campaign of this kind for The Night Circus?
You know to me, it ticks all the boxes because it’s a really useful digital marketing strategy for the main book but also it’s a really creative way of telling a story beyond the confines of the book, which is what I think a lot of people are exploring at the moment. We have the potential now to be outside of the physical book as we know it, but I don’t think many people are actually taking many positive steps to explore that thoroughly whereas I hope we can with this book and then, who knows, maybe then we’ll be able to make it more of a paradigm, but for the time being it feels right for this project.
The Narrative Engineer: Alexis Kennedy
Meet Alexis Kennedy, the Chief Narrative Officer at Failbetter Games. After over a decade in web development, and some time as an English teacher, he created an interactive story engine and opened Echo Bazaar as an R&D project. Its popularity as a standalone offering has propelled the company and validated its commitment to giving agency to audiences through interactivity and game mechanics while also giving them a compelling narrative experience.
In the scant two years since the company’s founding, Failbetter Games has extended beyond the web-based narrative experience, even staging a related live event at the Victoria & Albert Museum and creating a collaborative storytelling project called Sunlight/Shadows for the UK-based telecom company 02.
Soon, Failbetter will become a digital publisher in its own right, with the upcoming launch of Varytale, an open platform for creating interactive books.
How is your experience with Echo Bazaar informing your approach to The Night Circus?
A big chunk of our effort over the last two years has been dedicated to finding useful, reusable patterns for chunks of interactive story, so that we can assemble the chaos of individual choice into a narrative mosaic. Without the ten-dollar phrasing, what I mean is, there are going to be dozens and dozens of individual choices and interactions in the Night Circus project, ranging from the trivial to the fundamental. What we’ve found is a number of stable ways to keep those choices together without locking them into one fundamentally straightforward story or reducing them to incoherence. With Echo Bazaar, we had some general directions we wanted to travel, and ways we wanted to go, but it’s been like hacking paths through a jungle with a limited map. With Night Circus, we can travel some of the paths we’ve hacked out already, and ignore others that have turned out to be inappropriate for this project.
What advice or strategies do you have for publishers interested in undertaking an interactive digital marketing campaign?
Don’t ignore the lessons of social games. You don’t need to build a literary Farmville to take advantage of good, specific information about virality, recruitment, retention and rapid iteration from data. Something brilliant can make its way on word of mouth alone, but there are a great many things you can do to enhance that.
And just because it’s on the web, it doesn’t need to be about the moving image. Text is the heart of a book. The obvious and the popular thing to do with interactive text is to make it graphically rich and exciting, and that often seems to me to be missing the point. One of our associates recently dismissed the traditional graphic-rich book/app as ‘pop-up books’: that’s overstating the point, but there’s something there. There are ways to explore and navigate the text without gussying it up to look like a Flash game or treating the actual words as poor cousins.
Taking a broad view, how do you think the craft of storytelling has changed with technology?
In one sense, tech enhances storytelling by allowing us to have 3D films or a portable library of books in your pocket or fictional blue people on screen or whatever… which is a hundred thousand kinds of interesting, but the bit I’m interested in is the potential for choice.
The Roger Ebert argument is: “Art is created by an artist. If you change it, you become the artist.” Emily Short’s effective rejoinder is “There are no choices that a player ever has in a game except the ones that the designer put there…. The choices presented to the player are part (often a large part) of the expressive quality of the game.”
In a nutshell, that’s the effect of interactive tech on a story: that the authorial decision on effect can now include the kind of choices that are presented to the player. This doesn’t necessarily mean choices about consequence – I think that’s a common misapprehension. Consequence-driven choice is powerful and important, but it’s not the only game in town. Any kind of story with a feedback loop based on your actions, whether you’re choosing what angle to view events from, or choosing endings, or choosing the register, or choosing what you get to keep along the way, is choices. They’re all choices of interpretation, but it is interpretation raised a power by making the relevant story engine recognise and respond to the interpretation you’ve chosen.
So any technically enabled story has to include elements that some readers won’t see, or won’t see in the originally intended way. The naive response to this is to throw as many redundant elements as possible into the mix, because that suggests more expressive freedom, but any storyteller always, always has limited resources. And a story with more redundant elements isn’t necessarily better, any more than a film gets better the longer it is. So part of the craft of deciding which choices and how to present them is the Saint-Exupery dictum: “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” Finding a balance between the freedom of redundancy and the expressive elegance of limited choice is going to be the big understated craft of technologically enabled storytelling.
And Then, There’s the Audience
As mentioned at the outset, the digital marketing campaign for The Night Circus is going to be an interesting test case of how interactive and “gamey” elements generate buzz, create fans, and ultimately, as is the hope, drive sales. As the book publishing world struggles with the “what” and “how” of keeping up with technology, it’s important to remember the ultimate target: the audience.
A deeper exploration of what the audience wants beyond the generalization of “bells and whistles” seems warranted: Is it really “just” flash? Is it interaction? The thrill of discovery? Choice? Answering these questions might require some self-examination of what “moves” each of us when it comes to storytelling in this shifting and increasingly digital age.
Yvette M. Chin has worked in and out of book publishing for almost 15 years, primarily for trade nonfiction and scholarly publishers. With out-of-industry experience in academia and activism, prior to joining DBW, she had been working as a full-time freelance editor and writer, blogging about a range of topics from coworking to higher education to transmedia storytelling.
* In the interest of full disclosure, the author of this piece is an “Exceptional Friend” or VIP player at Echo Bazaar, a status possibly granted because of bug reports, making fun of Alexis’ use of the English language, and other forms of well-meaning harassment during Echo Bazaar’s early testing phases.