The term "publishing" has become a charged word. And it's more than just semantics. To those in the traditional publishing industry—we found ourselves having to say "traditional publishing" often at South by Southwest Interactive's whirl of seminars, panels, and meetups—a publisher is a company that publishes books. But this word has quickly expanded to include more than just books, and the companies that produce books. Does it matter? It matters very much. That traditional publishers now publish for readers who consider themselves publishers is a paradigm shift and, whether those in the traditional publishing space realize it or not, it is changing the way people see the industry.
Measuring Social Media
Given the buzzy-ness of the term "social media"—and that it seems to be the lynchpin of social marketing, selling everything from socks to movies to, yes, books—a number of panels at SXSWi were dedicated to figuring out how to measure the effectiveness of different social media outreach programs. So you're on Twitter and you have a Facebook fan page, but what are those tweets and Facebook friends actually doing for you? Are you enhancing your brand? Are they buying your books? Thinking about buying your books? Telling friends to buy your books? One company trying to lift the veil on the effectiveness of social media, especially for content companies, is New York's SocialFlow (socialflow.com). The company provides analytics on Twitter, Facebook, and Google Buzz—current clients include the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, and Knopf is in talks to hire the firm. What should you tweet? When should you tweet? What should you push out on your Facebook page? SocialFlow is looking to answer those questions.
What Is Transmedia, and Should I Care?
One of the most fascinating elements of SXSWi is seeing how other industries are looking at new modes of storytelling, both to sell their products and to deliver their products. In "traditional publishing," there has been some dabbling in transmedia storytelling. Back in 2007, Canongate launched an alternate reality game to draw readers into Steven Hall's twist-laden thriller, The Raw Shark Texts, about a man who lost his memory and who is led down a postmodern rabbit hole. Lisa Holton's company, Fourth Story Media, was founded specifically to create transmedia projects for (and with) publishers, and launched the print-and-Web series the Amanda Project (about a missing girl). And Scholastic also more-than-dabbled with its multiplatform book-Web-game, the 39 Clues. At a panel called "Transmedia: Transmonetisation," British IP lawyers Alex Chapman and James Kay discussed potential ways developers can work with companies on monetizing their games. One inexpensive way to build a transmedia element into a story or around a story (as a promotional tool), they said, is by allowing the developer to keep the rights to his coding structure, rather than paying the full cost of the product (Other, more complicated, options have to do with profit-sharing models instead of a standard fee.)
At a panel on the dangers of transmedia projects, called "Hoax or Transmedia? The Ethics of Pervasive Fiction," game designer Andrea Phillips (deusexmachinatio.com) offered an insightful peek into the history of transmedia by way of a talk about the dangers—legal and otherwise—of too effectively tricking your audience. Phillips, who worked on Running Press's transmedia YA series Cathy's Book, talked about legal issues companies have run into by running marketing campaigns that frightened or upset consumers. (Phillips herself ran into a snag on a campaign she worked on for the Universal disaster film 2012, upsetting NASA for marketing materials featuring junk science that the agency thought described a scenario that it believed could happen.) Aside from the legal takeaway, Phillips zeroed in on many of the touchstones of what transmedia actually is, namely a form of storytelling that, as she put it, "blurs the lines between reality and fiction" and ultimately "tries to tell stories that feel true." Of course tricking readers/players too effectively, aside from bringing a lawsuit, can also simply cause a storyteller to lose its audience.
Publishing's Future Freshman Class
News of Boulder Digital Works, or BDW (bdw.colorado.edu), came by way of a project the program launched to reignite interest in author Terry Southern. Right now BDW is a 60-week certificate program in media and business design at the University of Colorado, Boulder, overseen by professor (and former advertising professional) David Slayden. At SXSWi, Slayden explained that BDW, which graduated its first class of 12 in December, is about "developing leadership teams for the creative industries." BDW's Web site terms the program—which Slayden said will soon be established as a graduate track—"an integrated projects-driven" learning experience. In other words, its goal is to train students to think about the multimedia world we live in, and how to apply that to companies working across the entertainment/popular arts spectrum, ranging from music to advertising, publishing to design.
So what is the Terry Southern project? Working with Southern's son Nile, who lives in Boulder, the BDW class is attempting to take someone who was once famous and make him famous again. Southern, who wrote a handful of novels (most of which are out-of-print) as well as iconic screenplays like Dr. Strangelove and Easy Rider, died in 1995. With a Web site currently called reddirtcollective.com (named after one of Southern's best known novels, Red-Dirt Marijuana and Other Tastes), the BDW students are launching a number of efforts, both online and off, to draw readers to Southern's work. (At SXSWi, for example, BDW organized flash mobs at a number of events that left behind cryptic information about the Web site.) Although BDW is looking to reignite interest in Southern, its focus is not on selling books. Grove published Southern, and Slayden said BDW has not been in close contact with Grove, since the goal is not on bringing Southern back into print, just back into the consciousness.
Whatever the future may be for interactive storytelling, you can bet that AVadventure, a performance group in both Williamsburg, Va., and Washington, D.C., will likely be a part of it. Eccentric and highly interactive, AVadventure (theAVadventure.com) produces complex, interactive group events that can engage a handful of people in a single room or hundreds on the Mall in Washington, D.C. (which they did with their comic epic, Declaration of Codependence, held this past February). The group creates narrative, musically driven events combining meticulous scripting and wacky improvised performances. Powered by mobile devices—participants have already downloaded an audio or video file to their iPod that directs their participation, cued to start at a precise time—an AVadventure combines comic, experimental, or history-based narratives, crazy props and costumes, actors, and unsuspecting passers-by, as well as a live Web community (using Twitter and texting) that can cue and skew the action in unpredictable and entertaining ways.
Founded in 2007 by Adam Stackhouse and Kelly Quinn, AVadventure began as a hybrid mix of performance art and flash mob; it's now grown into creatively rowdy multimedia group events for kids, adults, or both. Stackhouse said that AVadventure has grown into a flexible "product"—the group commissions original music, everyone is paid, and they have clients—that offers "entertainment, education, or promotional" events tailored for a corporate retreat, a college campus, or a wedding reception. "Working with a publisher would be a dream come true," said Quinn during the q&a at the SXSWi session. "We'd love to work with authors to adapt their works." Publishers, take note.
Beam Me Up: Teleportal ReadingsTake You Away
"A reading shouldn't be an afterthought held in front of five people," said Jess Sauer, cofounder of Teleportal Readings (Teleportalreadings.org), who launched the Austin nonprofit with cofounder Morgan Coy in 2009. TR combines video, animation, and live performances to turn literary readings into eye-popping and fun multimedia events that pack the house. "We use technology to make readings as cool as possible," she said. The original plan was to shoot video of authors—from Austin and elsewhere—reading against a green screen and essentially, "teleport them," Sauer said, to virtual locales far away from Texas. But during one reading, the animator went off-script and created a dynamic animated background; the crowds loved it, and TR began commissioning animators to do ever more inventive backgrounds. TR videos present new and notable writers—among them Dan Chaon and Eileen Myles—reading against video backgrounds that explode in vivid color, strange locales, and scenes or comic typographic flurries, in sync with the author's voice. Irresistibly visual and perfect for promoting a book, author, or publisher, the TR video program is funded by co-sponsors and out of the founders' pockets. TR is a barebones operation ("we're looking for funding," said Sauer), with a growing reputation; it has partnered with Wave Books, McSweeney's, Melville House, Ratapallax, and Electric Literature to produce 10 videos (and 12 more are being animated). They're currently shooting Venezuelan writers in preparation for the first multilingual TR event. "We've mostly worked with indie presses, but we're open to large publishers," said Sauer.
I Can See Your Facebook Profile from Here
In the future, you'll put on stylish glasses, walk into a bar, and if anyone there is on your Facebook friend list, you will see their most recent tweets and status (dating; or married?) suspended above their heads. It's called augmented reality—"a virtual layer of data placed over physical reality," said the SXSWi presenters—and the aforementioned scenario is more grounded in fact than you might think. AR is already used through smartphone apps that allow you to peer through the camera phone and see real estate listings, restaurant reviews, and pricing suspended over locations.
In a SXSWi presentation called "Augmented Reality for Marketers," presenters Lynne d Johnson and John Havens asked: "Is AR really ready for mass adoption?" and surveyed its development, from "gimmicky" webcam holograms to apps like Yelp Monacle and Ebay Classifieds, which layer handy information and advertising over your camera phone's view of the world. AR is projected to be a $1.5 billion market by 2015, and apps like Google Goggles (take a picture of anything and Google search will instantly identify it) and Word Lens (aim your camera phone at foreign language text and it's translated) will be the reason why. The presenters said they also expect legal battles when virtual ads are plastered over real world advertising. And thanks to the rapid development of facial recognition and eye tracking technology, both a hot dating scene and ominously efficient policing can be expected, with AR goggles that scan crowds for "potential" lawbreakers. What does all this have to do with publishing? It seems publishers better be working right now to find out.