What Could Small/Micro/Indie Presses Learn From The Concept Of Transmedia Storytelling?

I often think about the various ways in which the small press world differs from the big press world in terms of company practices and choices and how the former could potentially benefit from borrowing some ideas from the latter.

For example, back in the summer of ’09 I asked the question “How come indie publishers don’t do audio books?” This led me to imagine one-upping big presses by suggesting that small presses produce audio commentary for books, like having a writer walk through their book and talk about each section as though it were director commentary on a dvd.

For the most part, neither of those practices have really materialized in the small press world, as far as I know. Although I didn’t do the audio commentary thing, I thought making an audiobook sounded like such a good idea that when the time came last year I made one for my novel, The Complete Works of Marvin K. Mooney, which turned out pretty cool. (You can sample it here, and you can get it here for whatever price you want to pay — just scroll down when you get there.)  Thankfully, Ken Baumann, the visionary behind Sator Press, who published my book, is such a fantastically forward-thinking publisher that he supported and nurtured the idea — making Sator Press the first small press (that I know of) to offer a complete audiobook version of one of their titles.  Full disclosure, my audiobook has yet to garner much critical appreciation or even very much public commentary at all — which is probably to be expected, at least in part because it’s such an anomaly — but in fact I have received emails and gchats and even a few pieces of snail mail from people saying how much they dug it, leading me to believe that there is potential interest to be found in this untapped market.

Which brings me to what I propose could be another untapped market for the indie/small/micro press……something called “Transmedia Storytelling.”

Over the past few months, I’ve been studying a book by Henry Jenkins called Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. Dude was the founder and director of MIT’s comparative media studies program, but left there in 2009 to become the Provost’s Professor of Communication, Journalism, and Cinematic Arts at USC. By all accounts, he’s one of America’s most respected media analysts.

The premise of the book is basically that new media isn’t going to replace old media, but will instead interact with it in a complex relationship he calls “convergence culture.” In essence, this arises through “the relationship between three concepts: media convergence, participatory culture, and collective intelligence” (2).

This sounds pretty familiar to those of us who already participate in the online literary community. Consider Jenkins’s definition of convergence and how it applies to this website: “By convergence, I mean the flow of content across multiple media platforms, the cooperation between multiple media industries, and the migratory behavior of media audiences who will go almost anywhere in search of the kinds of entertainment experiences they want” (2).

Seems to me that HTMLGiant is a nexus of convergence. We aggregate the flow of content from other media platforms, such as websites, print sources: magazines, books, newspapers, journals, zines, music: albums, concerts, art: paintings, drawings, illustrations, sculpture, installations, videos: music videos, tv commercials, tv shows, book trailers, movies, comic books, live events like readings and parties and conferences and all sorts of other places. We also create a participatory culture rather than a passive spectatorship by the way in which content is generated through both a top-down (originating from us contributors) and a bottom-up (originating from you the readers/commentors) process. Many of the posts here at HTMLGiant also engage in a kind of collective intelligence, asking your thoughts about a particular subject or issue.

So what does this have to do with “transmedia storytelling”? Well, according to Jenkins:

Transmedia storytelling refers to a new aesthetic that has emerged in response to media convergence — one that places new demands on consumers and depends on the active participation of knowledge communities. Transmedia storytelling is the art of world making. To fully experience any fictional world, consumers must assume the role of hunters and gatherers, chasing down bits of the story across media channels, comparing notes with each other via online discussion groups, and collaborating to ensure that everyone who invests time and effort will come away with a richer entertainment experience. (20-21)

He uses the Matrix franchise as his example, but that seems boring to me so I’ll use the television show LOST.

Until the final episode ruined everything, LOST was a super cool TV show that banked on transmedia storytelling. There was the show itself, the LOST encyclopedia, the many community blogs (tail section, easter eggs, official), the official podcast, fan podcasts, the web-only episodes, LOST magazine, LOST fan fiction, the websites created for the fictional organizations and airlines, the list goes on and on.  The point being that the show generated audience interest by crossing various media platforms, by involving the audience in a participatory culture, and by creating the opportunity for generating collective intelligence.

If you’re interested in learning more, you can check out this handout on transmedia storytelling Jenkins created for his students.

Call me crazy, but what if small presses gave more thought to producing and promoting works of transmedia storytelling? It seems like a wicked interesting project, doesn’t it?  I mean, the one thing small presses have going for them in the absence of huge budgets is passion.  Same goes with writers who choose to publish with small presses.  We do this stuff, in part (I assume), because we love it.  We care about it.  And we want to get other people excited about it.  Just think if indie lit began cultivating ongoing transmedia stories.   What would that even look like? Could that catch on? Is that something people would be into?