Romance Writers — January 2014
Change Language:
Ruth Kaufman

Take your story beyond the page with new storytelling mediums

In recent years, media options and technologies for storytelling have exploded beyond traditional print, movies, TV, and radio. Not only do most authors take advantage of multimedia (releasing their print books in e-book and audiobook formats, for example) to expand their reach, but also many employ transmedia to engage fans by communicating a story across multiple media platforms. The key is that each platform offers unique content rather than the same or repurposed information. Opportunities are limited only by an author’s imagination, time, and money.

Transmedia in Action

KYS Realm’s Karen Snyder is producing The Elements Club, which she calls the world’s first transmedia historical romance series. According to Synder, transmedia stories exhibit the following four properties.

1. All platforms (mobile, web, TV, print, etc.) are considered from the start as valid vehicles to support narrative.
2. Different platforms are used to tell different aspects of a story.
3. Participation and sharing is encouraged (but not necessary).
4. While users are encouraged to draw connections between platforms, stories can exist separately from one another in the fictive universe.

Snyder uses The Walking Dead as an excellent example of an innovative narrative experience. The story about post-apocalyptic survivors and zombies began in comic books and grew into the most-watched cable TV show, plus an additional 30-minute talk show Talking Dead, a social game on Facebook, a console video game, a mobile game, a fan award system, and more. Cable channel AMC also offers Story Sync, a live experience for voting in polls and answering trivia questions.

In The Elements Club, Snyder’s story is spread across e-books, interactive e-books, casual video games, online episodes, a website, and social media. Each vehicle offers a deeper level of engagement with the world of the club, and each story segment features a specific romance.

“The goal is to extend the story,” she explained. “Perhaps an author mentions a series of secret love letters in Chapter 12. These could be written and posted as additional content.”

To kick off her new Wild Cards series, New York Times best-selling YA author Simone Elkeles hired a production company and actors to create four approximately ten-minute episodes of a reality show on YouTube. The videos revealed events in her characters’ lives leading up to the first book. She also posted content on free platforms including Vine, Instagram, and Facebook to interact with her audience and had the actors tweet and live chat as their characters on Twitter.

“It was exciting to see my characters come to life,” Elkeles said. Now she’s trying to sell the project as a scripted reality show on broadcast TV. Of using multiple media platforms, Elkeles said, “It’s almost like giving fans a 3-D experience.”

Making the Most of Your Story

Snyder’s plan for making the most of transmedia is to

• Analyze her target market: age, income, media fans consume, devices they use (iPad, Kindle, etc.), and possible sales reach;
• Evaluate time, talent and resources at hand;
• Create a budget;
• Break out every part of the story to fit the needs of the three (or more) chosen media to produce content for;
• Create a production flow to track all the needs /assets for each platform (video, audio, illustrations, photography, e-mails, Twitter posts, blog posts, Facebook posts, etc.);
• Create content;
• Prepare the marketing ramp up;
• Launch; and
• Evaluate what’s working and what’s not.

Andrea Phillips, author of A Creator’s Guide to Transmedia Storytelling, said planning varies depending on an author’s specific goals for a transmedia element. “One thing I emphasize is thematic resonance. The tone and mood of any additional pieces you make have to fit with the main story. If you’re telling a dark and deeply personal story about breaking free of a bad relationship, creating an action-filled, upbeat Web comic about the protagonist’s little brother probably isn’t going to work. It’s important that all of your components feel seamless, like they’re all a part of the same overall story.” Transmedia storytelling is about looking for opportunities to add to your story and make it a better experience for the audience.

Skills and resources are key factors authors should take into account when deciding which platforms to use. Phillips said, “Focus most on what you’re good at—an author is good with words, so your transmedia elements should focus on that strength. Give your characters blogs, bring them to life on social media. Make a website for the restaurant your story takes place in, or for the goliath business your characters work for. Bring the world to life, make it feel true and real.”

Phillips believes the best transmedia projects come about when a creator starts by thinking, “I have this story, but what can I do to make it richer or deeper? What didn’t make it onto the page that I really wish had? Where can I make a relationship more complex or a history more troubled? How can I let the audience connect with my characters and story?”

One way is to give a moment in your book new significance by providing additional scene or plot information. “For example, if a character breaks a coffee mug and that puts her in a terrible mood for the rest of the day, that’s fine. But if you learn through a photo gallery that character keeps on Flickr that the mug was a gift from her beloved, but deceased, grandmother, that moves the meaning of that moment. It shades it with emotional depth it might not have had originally.”

Where to Start?

At this point, your head may be awhirl with possibilities. If so, see the sidebar for places to start your research. Or, you may be thinking, “My plate is already full with deadlines, book promo, family, my day job, etc. How can I find the time and money for transmedia?”

Snyder said, “I believe authors should invest their social media and promotional efforts on telling more story, not on promoting themselves. People welcome story-based communications and engage with content that entertains them at a higher rate than ‘buy-me’ communications. As an example, e-mails I send to promote The Elements Club are written as if one of my characters wrote them and have nothing to do with buying my book or video game. Instead, it’s a small story framed in the context of a letter, such as Dr. Death losing his stuffed monkey tail collection in a wager to Lord Hollingberry.” The only indication an email is a promotion is the link at the end.

Her goal is to add enjoyment to someone’s day “by giving them a little story lift via e-mail. With that strategy, I get an average e-mail open rate of 22.1 percent on a mass mailing to complete strangers (no fans). To compare, the average mass e-mail open rate is 1–3 percent. Story wins over hard sell.”

Transmedia doesn’t have to break the bank. “As an author of a contemporary romance, I can barter with an upcoming photographer and models (cheap to hire and often free if you get a good photographer) to create highclass (think Vogue, not cover art) photography that can be used to extend the story via Instagram/Pinterest/Facebook,” Snyder explained. She’s also given each member of The Elements Club his/her own Facebook page, which allows each to comment. “I’ve been story streaming additional content to The Elements Club Facebook page by posting a photograph all the club members comment on as if they were in the same room.” She said that has increased fan interaction and page likes by over 491 percent in a five-day period.

Elkeles suggested other free options, such as using your phone to make your own video, seeing if you can get a high school or college class to help with some transmedia elements as an assignment, or getting a film or video production or writing intern who can work for class credit.

“Transmedia components don’t necessarily have to be time and resource intensive—putting a character on Pinterest and adding a few pins a week with relevant fashion and lifestyle items, for example, is free and not time-consuming,” added Phillips. “It’s perfectly all right to add transmedia pieces little by little, as you have the time and energy.”

She said her serial pirate romp (The Daring Adventures of Captain Lucy Smokeheart) is light on transmedia components right now because she didn’t want to make an enormous time commitment. Each episode does have a puzzle you can solve on the website to get another piece of the story, and there are monthly out-ofworld video chats. “I didn’t want to go to social media or other time-intensive components because I wasn’t sure I’d be able to deliver on them well and consistently when other parts of my life grew more demanding.”

“It can be exhausting and never-ending, but that’s life today with the Internet. It’s a sign of the times,” Elkeles added. “As my agent (Kristin Nelson) says, write the next book. The more books out there, the better.”

Return on Investment

Transmedia may engage readers, but can it make authors additional money or at least recoup any investment? Phillips said that, so far, a lot of transmedia product relies on the commissioning model, where a brand or an intellectual property owner pays an author to make something that ties into their world. Funds usually come from a marketing budget.

“But if you’re making your own stuff,” she said, “it’s better to find creative ways to let your audience give you money. You can sell merchandise, like a number of Web comics do—T-shirts, buttons, etc. Better yet, sell tangible artifacts from your story world—postcards from your fantasy city.” For other approaches, Phillips explained that Pemberly Digital has run advertising, as well as doing a fair amount of product placement. And, she said, many transmedia projects have been crowdfunded.

According to Snyder, “The financial success of any story, regardless of media type, is in that story finding a large enough audience to support it. The goal for a transmedia story is the same: Lots of story everywhere, lots of products in lots of stores on all kinds of devices on every operating system. Sponsorship deals. Licensing deals. Merchandising deals. Cross marketing partnerships.”

Looking Forward

What’s next in the world of transmedia?

Snyder said, “People are being trained to stream their entertainment via Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr. Within two years, I believe there’ll be a slew of not only transmedia stories, but also transmedia story streaming. I’m talking about a 15-minute read one day, a 45-second audio clip the next, a 4-minute video the next, a live conference line event the next day, and a Facebook posting the next. The same story, told in short bits, that can be broadcast daily via e-mail, text, social media, or a blog, with all parts of a certain segment coming together into an interactive book or other offering after the course of three months.” While there will be media “purists” who only consume one type of media for extended lengths of time, she said the trend for shorter, but constant, media engagement is on the horizon.

Phillips added, “We’ve seen big, splashy entertainment brands doing transmedia. I think we’re starting to see the rise of the artisanal transmedia project as well, with projects executed by small teams or even individuals where making thousands of dollars is a success (whereas in Hollywood, making thousands is an abject failure).”

She said, “To make a great transmedia project, you really have to consider it an extension of your story and your art, and not something separate. It’s a gift to your audience, a way to show them how much you love them. And if you give them something they can really connect with, you’ll find that your audience loves you back just as much.”