Transmedia for Fun and Profit (Entrepreneurial Edition)

Yesterday, I posited that it's possible to make a pretty good living in transmedia as a freelancer or as an employee... but both of these paths have their disadvantages. Now let's look at the third way you can build a transmedia career: Entrepreneurial spirit. 

I sometimes think the natural lifecycle of a transmedia freelancer leads inevitably to starting your own business. The ranks of freelancers have thinned drastically over the last couple of years as many of my contemporaries do just that. 

You may wonder why it is that I haven't started my own agency, too, pitching projects to all of those juicy contacts I bragged about in the first part of this post. I've thought about it, to be sure, but I see my friends embroiled in bureaucratic nightmares; suddenly, instead of doing the work, they're doing payroll and accounting. Have I mentioned yet how much I like to do the work? 

If you're going to start a transmedia business, you need to know where the money comes from. Let's see how to squeeze some money out of this thing.

Commissions

When we think transmedia, most of us think first about commissioned work. You start an agency, a studio, a media or production company. Then you sell your company's labors to another company. That other company generally wants to market a product (sometimes another entertainment product), but sometimes it's something else: A TV network commissioning an original webseries-plus-experience. A corporation or educational institution looking for an innovative team-building exercise. A governmental agency wanting to test its processes. 

Most of the big ARGs and transmedia experiences you can think of fall into the category of commissioned work: Why So Serious, ilovebees, World Without Oil. My career as a freelancer has largely revolved around commissioned projects like these -- I get hired by a production company that is in turn working for, say, Channel 4.

If you start your own media company or agency, you're basically freelancing with higher stakes. The risks of not getting projects and not getting paid still exist; worse, you're now responsible for the hustle for more people than yourself. It's not for the faint of heart.

To make a go of being an agency owner full time, you'd better have an amazing address book and a contract or two signed and notarized. You'd better have a track record to show potential clients, too. Once upon a time you could get a contract just by talking a good game, but nowadays, there's a lot of competition. If you're just starting out, you'd be wise to keep your day job and develop your company on the evenings and weekends as much as possible... or have other revenue streams. 

Fortunately, there are a lot of potential revenue streams out there for independent work.

Going Indie

Let's say, just for the sake of argument, that you don't have an address book filled with people falling over to make a deal with you. Or maybe it is, but you have a transmedia story in your heart and you want to make that. How do you do it?

First, recognize that transmedia work is very rarely a solo effort. Once upon a time, I said that an ARG needed three basic skill sets: A writer, a designer, and a technologist. Nowadays, in the brave transmedia future, I'd add a fourth -- a producer. You're going to need to build a team. But this doesn't necessitate four different people, one for each role.Transmedia is the domain of generalists and bootstrappers, people who are comfortable stepping out of a job description in order to do whatever needs doing. Bear this in mind when you're recruiting.

If there is any chance of money on the table, you're going to need to be very clear about how it will be divided, and you're going to have to really, really trust the people you work with. Choosing a business partner is as big a commitment as, say, getting married. In both cases, if you make a bad choice, you can get cleaned out and left bleeding. Get a pre-nup, kids. The love might not last forever, but a signed contract does.

Next, if you're going to do indie work, you need to know how to monetize your audience. I have some good news and bad news: The good news is there are a lot of ways to do this thing. The bad news is that none of it will make you much money unless and until you can get yourself a whopping big audience.

Hey, if it were easy, everyone would do it, right?

Advertising

Thus far, most of the money in the transmedia world comes from advertising, one way or another. Either the experience is funded with the marketing budget for something else, like a TV show (which is, in turn, funded by ad dollars!) or else the commissioner plans to use the content as a vehicle for advertising (putting the transmedia experience in the role of that TV show). When MTV commissions an original transmedia experience, it's because they can get a sponsorship deal with, oh, Verizon, for example. Those ad dollars flow to the commissioner, who doles some of them out to the transmedia production company. The cycle of media continues.

But advertising can be a consideration for non-commissioned indie work, too. There are two kinds of advertising to look at -- overt ads, and product placement. 

You won't be able to get product placement unless you can prove you have a pretty good audience going already. The only transmedia project or ARG I'm aware of that has done product placement was LonelyGirl15, and it was awfully heavy-handed; presumably because LonelyGirl didn't have a lot of bargaining power. I don't think this revenue stream has yet been explored the way it could be.

Overt ads are a mixed blessing. They're easy to implement; you don't have to prove you'll have an audience to put Google ads on your websites. But they can look distracting and unprofessional, and they aren't going to make you very much money unless you're getting an awful lot of traffic. In the cost/benefit analysis, I come down against banner ads and such; your mileage may vary.

Donations

One of my favorite transmedia-lite projects, Shadow Unit, puts out their content for free, with only a tip jar. I don't know how much money they've made on the project, but it's certainly not millions. Heck, it's not even enough for them to live off of; they're all still working on other stuff. And it's certainly more than you're likely to make if you go down this road. Shadow Unit is the work of a handful of award-winning science fiction authors who have fans of their work built in.

Still, there are advantages to this approach. By creating zero barrier to entry for their content, Shadow Unit (and single-platform artists like Amanda Palmer, Jonathan Coulton, Cory Doctorow) are making it easier to get new, enthusiastic audience members. As audience size grows, the odds of being able to monetize in diverse ways down the pike grow more significant -- by getting a book or movie deal based on their content, for example (please let it be so!) Or by getting sponsorship, as web series The Guild has done with Microsoft.

If you give it a try, you won't be rolling in bucks, but you might be able to bankroll the resources you use to create more work.

Merchandising

Merchandising gets overlooked a lot. Some popular webcomics and indie games use merchandising as a key revenue stream -- t-shirts, hats, art prints. A transmedia product could go this route, too: Selling shirts for an in-game company or sports team on the easiest level. As with donations, it probably won't be a ton of money... unless you have a ton of audience. See how it keeps coming back to that?

A different kind of merchandising involves selling items specifically crafted for a narrative purpose, like EDOC Laundry. This is a tricky line, because you might well call some of these games...

Pay to Play

This model gets an undeservedly bad rap. We wring our hands over Majestic and say that a subscription model just doesn't work, ignoring all of the amazing and money-making projects already in existence that are at their heart pay-to-play experiences: Cathy's Book, The Hidden Park, the aforementioned EDOC Laundry.

If you're planning on making a classic ARG and you don't already have an existing track record, then no, a subscription model isn't going to work. Too bad. But the model itself is sound; people are willing to pony down cash for a transmedia experience.

The biggest problems with pay-to-play are actually more traditional business problems. Making a compelling story is just the beginning. After that, how do you get product on shelves? How do you promote? How do you distribute?

Perplex City was in part a pay-to-play game, though you could call it a hybrid with the donation model. Most of the content out there was free, so you could follow along with the story regardless of whether you bought the puzzle cards or not. The business model for Perplex City was fundamentally successful. The project did make money! And it would have made a lot more, if we had come into it with a better grounding in stodgy business fundamentals like manufacturing, packaging, and distribution. 

There is a lot of untapped potential here. It's probably not something you can do right out of the gate, but it's a definite possibility to work toward. Don't count it out.

Grants

Instead of getting a commercial commission or monetizing your audience, you could apply for any of a number of new media or arts grants to fund the transmedia project of your dreams. 

I don't know a lot about this, excepting that it is hypothetically possible. From what I do know, however, the money probably won't help you pay the rent; you'll be lucky if it covers all of the resources you need to build out, with the expectation that labor is free.

There's a reason we have the 'starving artist' stereotype.

Crowdfunding

Socks Inc. on Kickstarter just proved to us (and how!) that you can crowdfund a transmedia project successfully. It's too soon to know just what kind of precedent this has set. 

However, the money they raised is, in the grand scheme of things, not very much. For the time they're going to spend on this project, the resources used, and the number of people involved... I don't think that $7357 is going to go very far. Still, it's a better track than building all of your portfolio pieces and building a fanbase entirely on your own dime. 

And in Conclusion

If you're starting out in transmedia, your first step is probably to make stuff and put it out there for free. That's the same if you're angling for a freelancer gig, regular employment, or if you want to go indie. For the first two, you need a portfolio. For the last one, you need to build up a critical mass of adoring and money-spending fans.

It's possible to build up a fanbase even while working as a freelancer or for a company... but it's actually a lot harder than if you go indie, because you're going to have more limitations on what you say about your work. If you're unlucky, you won't even get any credit at all, and nobody will ever know the work was yours.

So, for Chuck Wendig, and all of you potential transmedia creators out there: Transmedia is a big, scary world if you're trying to turn pro. There's money to be had, to be sure, but you're going to have to really bust your tail to get it.

If this discourages you, then great; I hope you enjoy your career doing whatever less-risky thing it is you have the skills to do. As with all creative work, this isn't a path you should choose unless you are absolutely damn sure there's nothing else in the world you want. 

But for those of you who have the fire in your belly, who just know that you've got what it takes? Welcome, brothers and sisters. It's not easy to make a living this way, but we're sure going to have a good time on the way.