Business

What's Happened to Transmedia?

I got an email in my inbox a week or two ago asking the titular question. It's been haunting me ever since. 

The underlying premise to the question is that transmedia reached a peak in or around the year 2012, and ever since then, new conversations, resources, and works have been increasingly hard to come by. It's hard to dispute that. ARGfest as a professional conference isn't a going concern anymore, nor is StoryWorld. TEDx Transmedia has pivoted to dealing with a variety of topics involving futurism and philosophy. 

"Transmedia" as I once knew it was, as Brian Clark would have said, an art scene encompassing a particular group of creators doing some things in common, largely springing up around the space that used to be alternate reality games: Clark himself, of course, but also the folks at Campfire and Stitch Media; the crew of FortyTwo Entertainment, later turned Fourth Wall Studios; the filmmaker Lance Weiler and his myriad projects; Steve Peters and No Mimes Media. Transmedia has included documentarians, experimental theater designers, web video creators, musicians, authors, and more.

And it still does... kinda.

It's true you don't hear a lot about transmedia as such anymore, in the same way that you rarely heard about hot new alternate reality games as such after about 2008. So did we move on to a shiny new buzzword? Nah. Did we all cut our hair and get real day jobs? Not all of us, no. So what happened, exactly?

Basically that indie art scene that started with alternate reality games is... well, it's over. We had our fun, and now we've more or less gone our separate ways.

Diaspora

This by no means is equivalent to "transmedia is dead," so let me just stop you. There are still strong standard-bearers talking about transmedia in so many words. A quick look at the Twitter hashtag right now shows me participation from long-time experts like Jeff Gomez of Starlight Runner, Simon Staffans, and Gary Hayes. 

For a lot of the rest of us, we've spread our transmedia-like tentacles into a lot of distinct and separate industries and arts in the interest of building longer-term careers and businesses.

A lot of the air and energy that used to be invested in transmedia has moved to virtual reality, with Campfire making award-winning experiences for the likes of Westworld. Fourth Wall's Sean Stewart works with Magic Leap, now, a Florida company that my money is on to be the next big thing. (And if you're from Magic Leap... email me. Seriously. I want to work with you so bad it's like acid running through my veins.)

There's also a thriving if small web film subgenre, continuing through companies like Astronauts Wanted. Experiential theater is going strong; Third Rail and Punchdrunk are making intense, transformative pieces. And locational theatrical experiences like Accomplice are still running, too.

In fact, the short but high-touch experience is where most of the action is these days. It's no accident that the room escape game began to boom right around the time transmedia-the-buzzword began its decline. Now room escapes are just about as widespread as the family restaurant chain of your choice. It's easy to see why: they use a lot of the same compelling ARG formula of experience + narrative + puzzles, and you can charge admission. I've done a little room escape work myself, and I'd enjoy doing a lot more—it's a very rewarding format.

And finally, some of us have taken our know-how in-house at places like, say, Disney Imagineering. Some of us are dedicated indie game developers now, or writers, or authors. And some of us have kinda dropped out of sight entirely. I don't want to name and shame, not least because I'm sure I look like one of 'em. 

Not to say that there's nothing left of that community—because of course there is, though the nature and tone of it has shifted along with the media landscape. 

The primo sources of conversation and information right now are the StoryForward podcasts and meetups. ARGN is still a going concern. The Future of Storytelling conference is a brilliant way to explore the intersection of narrative and technology... if you can afford the ticket price (and I wish I could). The core of creators that coalesced around that word "transmedia," though, has gradually decentralized. There's not one place you can go to find out what's happening in transmedia, or if anything is happening at all.

The Business Model Problem

At the end of the day it's not down to any one cause, but a lot of them working in conjunction: artists need to eat, transmedia as such lost its novelty, social media turned into a raging river where once it was a mere firehose, and media companies have become a lot more parsimonious than in our heyday about digital. These factors all contributed to making the ground transmedia grew in less and less fertile. 

But really, it's mostly down to money. We never really cracked a business model for social media storytelling where the social media bits paid their own way in terms of ROI. That meant a lot of transmedia creators like me were reliant on sponsors and marketing work to pay the rent. But as social media has transformed, it's become harder to grab attention in the flood of free content out there, much harder to get press coverage for methods of storytelling that we've maybe seen before, and old funding sources are shyer about spending money on stuff when they're not sure if it'll work. "It's on the web" doesn't sound like an automatic Cannes Lion anymore. Innovative things don't stay innovative for very long.

Outside of the marketing arena, more than one company has sought investment to try to build out original content on a transmedia-driven philosophy. Those companies have by and large folded, often due to an internal lack of clarity about whether they were primarily trying to build platforms or content.

In a way, though, room escape games are the ultimate answer to what happened to transmedia. So are mystery box services. So are single-user VR experiences. They don't just solve the business model problem; they also solve the real-time problem, the friction problem, and the late-joiner problem. It turns out that if you want to tell stories embedded in the real world, the best technology is no technology. A real key and a real lock you can hold in your hands (or the illusions of them) are a billion times more immersive than any old character on Twitter.

The Future

So does this mean transmedia is over? Nah. The genie is out of the bottle and can never be returned to it. Techniques for social storytelling, immersive narrative, and interaction have all come a long way; we can't forget what we've learned, and we apply that knowledge everywhere we go. Even ARGs still happen, and they can still be amazing, artful, and new.

And the future is always being born. There are probably a dozen other things going on right now that I don't even know about, because they're taking place in communities and under names that aren't "transmedia." I am dead sure a new, vivid, incredible art scene is happening right now with a group of starry-eyed creators who just want to make amazing things. I can't wait to see what they have in store for us, whether I'm invited to the party or not.


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How to Fake Clarion

So this happened this morning.

For many of us, Clarion isn't in the cards. Maybe you can't leave your job for six weeks without losing the job and your home. Maybe you're the parent of a small child, or take care of an elderly or disabled relative. Maybe you have a chronic health condition yourself, or an anxiety disorder that means you wouldn't be able to travel or participate. Maybe you're saving up for a house or paying off medical debt.

Maybe you'd rather go on a proper vacation if you happen to come into a few thousand dollars in disposable income.

None of these things mean you can't be a professional writer. But the good news is, there's more than one path to being a writer, pro or otherwise.

Clarion Isn't the Only Game in Town

First off, Clarion is a six-week endeavor. There are other writer's workshops that require only one week out of your life, and are also highly regarded. Viable Paradise, for example -- and I wish I could make the time for that one. Taos Toolbox is also reportedly an excellent workshop and worth your time and money, if you have them to spare.

Even better, these retreat-style workshops aren't the only way to improve your craft. There might be a genre writer's workshop in your own town that meets once a week, or once a month. And there are critique circles online ranging from Critters to Absolute Write -- I'm sure commenters will chime in with more. If you want a workshop-style venue to have your work read, and to critically read the work of other writers in turn, there are plenty of options.

And the truth is, workshops are helpful... but they're not necessary. Far from it.

Faking a Workshop

What a workshop does for you is hone your critical eye. Simply by being exposed to excellent critical thinking, you develop the capacity to critique your own work. But you can develop a critical eye on your own, if other means don't suit you.

Read. Read widely. But don't just take in the story. As you go, consciously reflect on what you're thinking and feeling. Are you expecting the story to go in a particular direction? What exact sentence or passage led you to that belief? What made you feel excited, or sad, or tense? How are the scenes structured? How are description, dialogue, and action blended together? How long are the sentences? A story is a machine, and every part should be doing a specific job. You need to become a mechanic, able to look at each piece of the story to identify what work is being done.

Read reviews. But not of your own work -- of the stuff you're already analyzing. When you've finished a book or a story, go looking for the reactions of other people to calibrate your own antennae. In preference, read longer, analytic reviews that talk about both what a work has done and how it fits into the overall landscape of genre publishing. Deep critical analysis like you'll find on NPR Books or Tor.com are perfect, but you'll even find insightful critique on Goodreads and Amazon. 

Read bad work. This is, I strongly believe, an important part of a writer's development. Read stuff you know is going to be bad. And then -- this is the important part -- analyze the hell out of it. Why is it bad? Does it fail on a sentence level, on consistency, does it fail in terms of pacing or plausibility? Sometimes we learn from mistakes better than we learn from success. You can't watch Meryl Streep and learn how to be an amazing performer, but you can watch a fifth grade play and learn that maybe you shouldn't leave your hands hanging by your sides the whole show, and maybe you should speak up a little more.

Revise. This is where you apply what you've learned. The temptation to write and immediately submit is strong, but while you're trying to actively develop your craft, resist the urge. Come back to a story after a few days, weeks, months if you can spare them, and try to read as if you'd never seen the story before. Think about everything you're learning, and apply those lessons to your own work. 

Repeat. Clarion (and other workshops) are an intensive course in this kind of thinking, but even when Clarion is over, you'll need to keep doing these things forever. At least, you do if you want to keep growing as a writer. And why on earth would you ever want to stop getting better?

Clarion's Secret Sauce

Here's the real reason Clarion is a big deal: the alumni association, as it were, is a powerful and widespread network in genre publishing. Human nature being what it is, we like people who have the same experiences and affiliations as we do. And we like to help the people we like. So if you go to Clarion, some doors of opportunity are a little more open to you than they were before.

We like to tell ourselves that publishing is a meritocracy, and that's only sort of true. People do emerge from the slush pile, naked and alone. You really don't have to know someone to be published.

But at the same time, it's a bit easier to break in if you've become a familiar face -- not just because people are more willing to go to bat for a friend, but because you'll begin to understand the kinds of work different editors and markets are interested in, you'll learn from the successes and mistakes of your peers, you'll become a part of the cultural conversation that SF/F fundamentally is.

So how do you fake the network? Duh, networking! Build your own. Go to cons, if you can. Make friends. Invite people to coffee or a drink. If that's not possible for you, work social media. Follow authors, editors, agents on Twitter. 

And don't be all networky and utilitarian about it, because people can tell and generally super hate that. You need to approach everything as an exercise in meeting interesting people and making friends. Promote the work you admire. Ask questions. Introduce people to each other when you can; do favors when you can. Give to the community. Give. Give. You can worry about taking later, or maybe never. 

Because Clarion is, at the end of the day, just one neighborhood in the SF/F community. But there are others, and you'll find professional writers in all of them.


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Reading Habits Survey 2015

I have some, shall we say, strong reading preferences at this point -- in particular, I tend to prefer shorter books, and books that aren't a part of a series. But I am only a single data point, and in conversation with the clever and thoughtful Sunil Patel, I got to wondering how representative of current reading tastes I am.

So I thought I'd ask.

The survey asked only seven questions, and I put the call out on social media, so I can't guarantee that the self-selected set of respondents here, who are all connected to my own social network at some degree of remove or another, are representative of all readers. Summarized here are the data I collected. (Pardon the inconsistent chart formats -- some are SurveyMonkey screen shots, and some I built separately in Excel.)

First off, unsurprisingly, basically everyone who participated in the survey considers themselves to be a book reader. Out of 505 responses, only 15 people answered "no" or "not sure."

So just about everyone self-defines as a reader, but what does that mean in practical terms? How many books are we talking? Or more specifically: how many books did you read last year?

 How many books did you read in the last 12 months? The X axis is books read last in the last year; Y is how many respondents answered for each range.

How many books did you read in the last 12 months? The X axis is books read last in the last year; Y is how many respondents answered for each range.

...Wow. People who read, it turns out, read a loooooot of books. Roughly a third of our readers went through between one and twenty books last year, and another 40% read between 30 and 100. And a shocking-to-me number of people reported reading 100, 200, even 300 books in a year. The maximum number reported -- and not a unique one -- was 500. Respect. Where do you find that much time?!

Next, I thought I'd ask about ebooks. What percentage of the books you read last year were ebooks? So this was interesting -- unsurprisingly, a large number of readers won't touch ebooks. A much smaller number read ebooks exclusively. Zero-ebooks brought 97 respondents, and only 50 said 100 percent.

 What % of books you read in the last 12 months were ebooks? (in # of respondents)

What % of books you read in the last 12 months were ebooks? (in # of respondents)

Screen Shot 2015-10-19 at 3.49.10 PM.jpg

It bears noting, though, that a lot of books simply aren't available in ebook format, and sometimes pricing is prohibitive on one format or another, so a cost-conscious consumer may flip back and forth. And yet! Very, very few people are comparatively willing to read either format equally. Notice that dip in the middle. The majority of readers responding want their books the way they like them. So much for the death of print, huh?

Next up was an analysis of what genre our readers prefer. I'd expected a majority of science fiction and fantasy readers, since I put the call for survey responses out on Twitter and I run in a lot of circles that skew toward those genres. But in fact our reading tastes are deliciously promiscuous.

Screen Shot 2015-10-19 at 12.55.18 PM.jpg

In retrospect I might have found better results for the later questions about series by limiting the responses to genre fiction, but frankly I was curious how much nonfic and literary fiction crossover reading occurs. It looks like... quite a lot.

And that "other" category proves some substantial oversight on my end, or at least grounds for debate about what makes a genre. Of the 112 respondents answering "other," 40 wrote in some version of Young Adult. Other genres often mentioned include religious, erotica, and historical, and quite a few respondents used that space to specify very specific subcategories of readership ranging from steampunk to sewing. A very few respondents chose to mention non-genre-specific reading preferences, too, like seeking out black novel protagonists, YA books including trans characters, or Canadian authors.

And now we get on toward the initial questions I had when I started this endeavor -- of all of those many, many books being read, what percentage of them are in series?

 What % of books you read in the last 12 months were part of a series? (in # of respondents)

What % of books you read in the last 12 months were part of a series? (in # of respondents)

It's hard to come away with a solid conclusion out of this one. Roughly 10% of our readers didn't read any series at all, and about 60% say that series books make up half or less of their reading material. I'd interpret this to meant a slight preference against series works -- but given that many of our respondents read lit-fic, nonfiction, and other genres in which series are not a widespread practice, it's difficult to determine what this means in actionable terms.

So why don't we ask about that directly: how do various factors affect your decision to begin reading a book or not? Note that we're specifically not asking about marketing nor economic concerns -- I didn't want to muddy the waters, but in the long run it's likely that considerations like price and word-of-mouth trump other considerations entirely.

Screen Shot 2015-10-19 at 12.56.24 PM.jpg

We see few surprises here. Around 88% of readers are more likely or much more likely to read a book if it's part of a series they've read already, and very, very few people say otherwise. This is especially interesting considering that series attrition is a known phenomenon -- people definitely do stop reading series in the middle, and many a series has never reached completion as a result. This may well be a case where what we think we would do is at odds with what we actually do.

Moving on, there's a slight preference toward a book that is the first in a series, but it's only around 5%. There's a much stronger preference toward the first book in a completed series; about half of readers are more likely or much more likely to read the first book in a series after the last book has been written. So people... like series, basically. I guess that shouldn't be a surprise; they wouldn't be published if nobody was buying. 

In retrospect, I should have asked separately how people feel about standalone books in particular. I originally thought that more/less likely to read a book in a series would make that answer visible in the negative space, but I don't think the data is clear enough to allow any such conclusions to be drawn.

And then there's the length question. I may be unusual in preferring standalone books, and roughly two-thirds of readers don't care one way or another how long a book is. But of that third that care, it looks like there is indeed a bias away from longer works. about a quarter of readers say they're less likely or much less likely to read a book over 500 pages, where only about 12% say they're more or much more likely.

There is a slight bias toward shorter books, on the other hand. Around 15% of respondents say they're less likely to read a book under 300 pages, but around 20% say they're more likely. That's not enough to commit to writing shorter books alone, but it certainly does mean there's space in the market for quicker reads.

The self-pub question was an afterthought. It looks like some stigma remains, and over half our readers are less likely or much less likely to read a book that's been self-published. On the flip side, only 12 readers out of 507 said they'd be in any way more likely to read a self-published book. But the bright side here for our direct-to-reader authors is that 43% of readers simply don't care how you were published one way or the other.

A more mathematically savvy analyst than I might be able to look at those responses and determine if there is a relationship between readers who are willing to give self-pub a shot and those who prefer ebooks. If you'd like to look at the data and run that analysis (or any other), shoot me a line and I'll give you the raw data -- minus the email information for people who wanted to be contacted when this post goes up, of course.

And finally a gimme: are people more likely to buy a book if they know the author on social media? Heck yeah, they are -- 4% of people said they were less likely, but a whopping 70% said they were more and much more likely. So it looks like all that time spent nattering around on the Facebooks and Twitters really does get you in the door.

Annnnnd that's the 2015 Reading Habits Survey. Some surprises, some really not surprises, and a whole lot of "result inconclusive, ask again later." Which does, at least, answer my original question -- my preferences aren't common, but I'm not alone, either. Readers are a diverse bunch, and like a whole lot of different things. And I find that a comforting piece of information: there's plenty of room in publishing for all of us.


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Agent'd!

Here's another piece of news I've been sitting on for... quite a while, actually, because it still doesn't feel entirely real and I have representation trauma or something. but! Guess what! I have a new agent! I am beyond delighted to say I am now represented by Zoe Sandler at ICM.

You guys. You guys. This has been a revelation for me, because Zoe is straight-up excited about the fiction I'm writing and the ideas I have. I showed some comments she'd given me to an author friend, who commented they wished they got emails like that from their own agent. Sparkles! Joy! I don't feel like talking to her is begging favors or imposing, you know? 

I'm pretty sure this is what an excellent agent-author relationship is supposed to look like.

And not just touchy-feely, either -- it's working on the business side. So far she's sold Taiwanese rights for A Creator's Guide and negotiated some work for me with Serial Box, the details of which are still shhhhhh very secret, we'll be talking about that more later. And we'll probably be putting a new novel manuscript on the market in the next couple of months. Editors, keep your eyes peeled. 

So going forward, if you want to hire me to design games or marketing work, you should still talk to me. But if you'd like to publish my next novel, make an audiobook for Revision, option Lucy Smokeheart to make an animated series, or translate A Creator's Guide into Finnish, talk to Zoe. She's awesome! It will be terrific.


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Fireside Fiction's 2015 Subscription Drive

Fireside Magazine was my very first fiction sale. That story was Children of Rouwen, published just a few weeks ago. It was overshadowed by the bigger release from a couple of weeks earlier, though, because Fireside Fiction was also my first (and so far my only) novel sale. That book is of course Revision.

Working with Fireside has always been a joy, even aside from that giddy halo of finding a publisher who believes in me; their processes are kind and collaborative in all the best ways. I've written about that elsewhere. These are good people, trying to do good things in the world.

And not just from where I sit, either. I'm not the only creator Fireside has done business with -- of course not. Fireside has brought us stories from celebrated writers like Daniel José Older, Elizabeth Bear, Chuck Wendig; early-career writers, like me and Sunil Patel; not to mention a never-ending stream of exceptional art from Galen Dara. Go on, look at the archives and see what they've been doing. It's wonderful.

One of Fireside's founding principles is fair pay for writers. As such, Fireside pays a whopping 12.5 cents per word for short fiction. That's twice what qualifies as a "professional rate" in this day and age.

And now Fireside needs me -- and you -- to keep the party going. This is the last few days of Fireside's funding drive. After years of stressful and funded-at-the-last-minute Kickstarters, Fireside is trying to shift over to Patreon and subscriptions to keep the lights on. 

On July 15 (that's Wednesday), they're going to have to take a good, hard look at the money coming in, and figure out what to do about a budget shortfall. It might mean lighter magazines, and so fewer stories for readers and less opportunity for writers, I don't know. It might mean Fireside starts slowly winding down, and a force for diversity and higher pay for fiction fades into the West.

Please, please, we can't let that happen. They need $21,000 to produce a full year of stories and art all-out. That works out to $1750 a month, and that funds a whopping 10,000 words of fiction, plus art and production costs. But as I write this, Fireside is only funded to about $8600 for the year -- that's less than halfway there. 

If you've read Fireside and thought the work was good, now is the time to step in with your couple of bucks. If you haven't, go ahead and do some reading back issues; I think you'll find Fireside is worth saving.

I'm putting my money where my mouth is, too. I'm a Fireside supporter on Patreon, and I've supported prior years on Kickstarter. You can contribute through Patreon too, or buy a subscription for three months, six months, a year. Join me in keeping this thing going, and maintaining a precedent where writers get paid in cash, not glory. It helps raise the bar for everyone else -- and you'll get some fantastic reading out of it, too.


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