PUBLISHED JANUARY/FEBRUARY 2019
by Zack Lieberman, Producer & Publisher, EXIT STRATEGY, SILENT PARTNERS —
Emerging realities of the modern marketplace.
IBPA Independent magazine is focused on the business and craft of independent publishing, but I’m here to be the heretic and get your gears turning about anything but books. Your books, your ideas, your stories—your IP—can exist anywhere … and everywhere. And if you want to compete in the modern marketplace, they should.
Old Dog, New Tricks
As the digital revolution democratized media consumption and distribution in the early 2000s, an emerging transmedia movement started advocating that stories could exist as any form of media and as any kind of experience. It championed stories as experience and was built on the premise that experience is inherently interactive, and your stories should be, too.
The idea extended to all sorts of established and emerging mediums, and an untold number of thoughtful, artful leaders helped guide what seemed obvious to us: that the digital revolution would enable independent creators to find audiences wherever they were, not only in traditional marketplaces (stores, theaters), but also on the increasing array of digital devices (computers, phones, iPods, screens).
It was an enticing opportunity, and it seemed inevitable the world would move toward our way of thinking, that the new tools and distribution of the digital age would forever change how we created and distributed our work. There were no borders to our art; the so-called gatekeepers couldn’t keep us from finding our audience. The audience was out there at the end of a network node, and they were waiting to be discovered.
We were mostly right. There were certainly some great transmedia projects, some impactful campaigns (advertising has long been a cross-platform-centric industry full of independent sellouts, including me), and some relative success for projects, producers, and stories.
But this was a slow-burn movement that gradually consumed itself. Transmedia gradually gave way to the understanding that what was once obvious to us was now the norm—slowly but surely, audiences expected cross-platform integrations. The internet became a commodity, and independent creators and big media alike learned how to use it to activate niche audiences.
It all seems obvious now because, in many ways, it is obvious. Big media has done this forever (and increasingly only do this). Disney has been a fundamentally transmedia company since its earliest days. Marvel, Sony, Penguin, Houghton Mifflin, and countless other “majors” create sprawling story worlds and exploit their properties in the broadest possible manner, with all their inherent licensing deals and international cross-promotions, games, clothing lines, action figures, theme parks, movies, etc. Merchandise. Products.
But these ancillary products aren’t just merchandising; they’re extensions of story into new directions. They’re fishing hooks into new seas of consumers. And that’s what cross-platform storytelling is all about: a means to find new audience.
While some might consider media conglomerates as soulless exploiters, it’s paramount we independents start to think like they do. We need to stop concerning ourselves with antiquated notions of “selling out” and start learning their lessons and beat them at their own game.
Of course, not all of the lessons of big media will apply to your independent project or small business/press, but many do. The reality is that we indies co-exist in the same marketplace as the biggies: We’re judged by the same fickle, content-hungry consumers. We need to face that reality with our inherent strengths: our ability to move, test, and iterate faster and with lower overhead. We take chances and find our niche. You don’t need to make a blockbuster film or spend huge sums of money—the goal is simply to start thinking about how broadly you can extend your stories, and to start working toward the goal of building community anywhere but the publishing industry.
Cross-platform storytelling can certainly be an overwhelming endeavor. But here’s the upshot: There exists the same potential for independents as the majors. We can find the same opportunities and the same audience. You have the IP, and I’m assuming if you’ve published it, you have a compelling story. So it’s time to use your stories to broaden your audience and sell more products.
“Story does not exist until it has been heard.”—Tabitha Jackson, Director, Sundance Institute’s Documentary Film Program
Just because your stories and IP can exist anywhere (or everywhere) does not mean they should. It still needs to make sense and needs to have a business model attached to it or be part of a more macro-model (unless there is some extenuating circumstances that allow you to operate otherwise).
None of the platforms listed below are intended to be the thing you do—and you certainly shouldn’t try to do all of them. The idea is to build an ecosystem wherein some products promote other products—a virtuous circle. Think through what would push your story in relevant directions, and what could actually find audiences where they are.
- Documentary film
- Feature film
- Short film
- Television and online series
- Interactive installations (e.g., museums)
- Video games
- Original soundtracks
- Mobile applications
- Live theater
- Board and card games
Emerging mediums (adapted from Making A New Reality)
- Escape rooms/immersive theater/cosplay
- Virtual/augmented reality (“mixed reality”)
- Data storytelling (think nytimes.com)
- Bio-responsive/bio-connected story
- Generative art and artificial-intelligence-created works
- Geolocative or geo-aware experiences
- estural interfaces
- Interactive film, games, and books
- Live cinema
- Olfactory experiments
- Omnidirectional digital media
- Participatory story, co-creation, civic media, and crowdsourcing
- Physical cinema and Internet of Things experiences
- Projection mapping media
- Tactile digital media
- Transmedia storytelling and connected immersion
- Collaborative design and social art practice
The concepts outlined below are just to get you started. Do an internet search for any of them and you’ll find much more background information, examples, and relevant resources.
- World Building: Reach people where they are. Audiences want constant contact with the world and characters they love, so build a world for your audience to explore. Create side stories, alternate endings, new characters, new arcs, etc. Anything goes, just keep building. Some observers have forecast a time in the near future where audiences will expect story worlds to “have 24/7 lives, just like us.”
- Story Bible: A story bible is a place to hold all of your planning for the story world mentioned above. It should hold all of the information you want to include in your property: original concepts, sketches, outlines, settings, character descriptions, potential plot conflicts, scenes, dialogue fragments, phrases, cultural references, character backgrounds, etc. Pull all of this information together and organize it; having it all in one place will help you see the big picture and find opportunities.
- Create More SKUs: Remember that your stories are products. Create more products, sell more products.
- Control Your Data: Analyze your data and discover what works (and what doesn’t). Even if your sample size is small, find opportunity in your analytics.
- Be Entertaining: This seems like a no-brainer, but you want to create something people want to consume. Literally no one wants to be bored.
- Trust Your Audience: Your audience will take your cross-platform stories in directions you could never imagine, but not if you don’t let them in. Help them help you, and trust them to help drive the story.
- Pharmakon: Many media theorists now consider most technologies as pharmakon—remedies that are also poisons. With great power comes great responsibility. Be careful with your responsibility and help drive positive change. Cure, don’t poison.
- Collaborate: You won’t know how to execute a lot of this, so find someone who does. Expand your network and get out of your comfort zone. And, most importantly, learn from each other and have a good time. If it’s not fun, chances are you picked the wrong collaborator.
- Stop Thinking Digital: Stop thinking about digital as a something ephemeral or inferior. The world is digital now. These words should come to mind when thinking about digital: international, mobile-first, instant access, viral, micro-transactions.
- Cyclical Storytelling: It’s all marketing. Create your properties with perpetual promotion in mind and use your story bible to create with foresight, insight, and cross-sight. Find every possible opportunity to cross-promote.
- Interactivity: Countless studies show how important interactivity is to the comprehension of data. Storytelling is no different—start thinking of your stories as data, and find ways to increase comprehension.
This stuff is hard, and it’s supposed to be. But that’s what being an indie is all about. Let’s collaborate and help one another find cross-platform success—feel free to reach out directly via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @zdLLdz.
MAX & CHARLIE
The author’s current cross-platform project is the award-winning YA graphic novel MAX & CHARLIE. The project is being made into a feature film, video game, and graphic novel—what Zack Lieberman calls an “indie tentpole” model. The graphic novel was called “one of the best indie graphic novels of fall” by Foreword Reviews and has won several awards since its release. Stay tuned for the interactive e-book—coming spring 2019.
Zack Lieberman has won Webby and Emmy awards for his digital work and was featured as one of Filmmaker Magazine‘s 25 New Faces of Independent Film. Lieberman runs the production and publishing company EXIT STRATEGY and digital agency SILENT PARTNERS. You can follow Lieberman, see more of his work, and learn more about his past and future projects at zdLLdz.com.
For more information about cross-platform products, check out this IBPA Independent article, “Why I Think Vellum Is Great for Cross Platform E-book Editing and Generation.”