The Kills: a digital-first project from Picador

The Kills: a digital-first project from Picador

As well as being ebook first titles, these are also multimedia ebooks. Richard House created his own videos and audio content and, all of which takes you beyond the boundaries of the book and into the characters’ lives outside its pages.

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Room on the Broom Interactive ebook

Macmillan Children's Books has recently launched a new kind of picture book. From the legendary Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler duo, Room on the Broom is a picture book in the old fashioned sense but also a fully interactive experience. Bundled with the book is a cd that includes an animated version of the story, games, activities and extras. The idea is to find new ways of getting kids involved with the content and to start expanding traditional content in ways that will amaze and delight both adults and offspring; it is about recognizing that when parents have iPhones, computers are everywhere and even televisions are highly interactive the picture book has to evolve. By having the extra material as a cd though it keeps things within the established model of packaging audio cds with children's books; however downloads will soon be are already available.

One of the extras allows to kids to build their own stories within the world.  Over the past couple of years there has been much discussion of bringing more of this user generative, reactive "choose your own adventure" style story telling and this is an interesting example.  Children perhaps relish - and have the energy for - creativity more than adults so will hopefully have lots of fun with the tool. The package is also an example of how publisher IP is extremely important for games development.

Produced by Pat and Pals it looks and feels great, so we wish it every success. Attached below is a press release with more info should you be interested.


Revisiting a publishing manifesto - what does the future look like for publishers?

I've had many requests for a transcript of my presentation to the TOC Frankfurt crowd last week, so here it is.  Scroll to the bottom for a download of the transcript and a view of the slides: Revisiting a publishing Manifesto – What does the future look like for publishers?

In May 2008 I posted a 6,000 word article on my team blog,, entitled ‘A book publisher’s manifesto for the 21st century’.

The sub title was ‘How traditional publishers can position themselves in the changing media flows of a networked era.’

If you’ve read it you’ll already know a lot about my views in relation to the network and how its shape changes when it comes to digital – from a linear one to a circular one – and how this will deeply impact authors, readers, publishers and everyone in the content production and distribution business as digital increasingly dominates our lives

Writing the Manifesto was an incredible authorial experience – the publishing of it actually reinforced everything I was saying in the essay itself:

- That we already live in a hugely networked era - That in a world where texts can be published digitally, we are plugged in directly to our readership – and they can talk back, and talk to each other – directly and at speed: - Before the journal ever published the article in print (or ‘official online version’) it had: - been viewed 8,000 times - been translated on a voluntary basis and without permission into multiple languages - generated a staggering amount of ‘chatter’ (almost 100 comments on thedigitalist itself, 180+ links and trackbacks from sites and blogs all over the world)

And that was all before its publication in print. There have been many more since.

So, the future starts here.

We are living in a networked world.

It’s time we stopped wondering what the future might look like and think about what we should be doing now.

Are we, as publishers, plugged in to this network of digital reading, readers and conversation?

That’s why I wrote the Manifesto.

It was a public declaration of what I felt publishers’ aims should be in a digital era.

A manifesto hints at something revolutionary and bold; it was deliberately controversial and it was a call to arms.

I wanted publishers to wake up, to stake a claim in the digital landscape evolving around us.

So, over a year on, the question I want to ask first today is…

Has the revolution I was seeking begun?

Let’s see.

Looking first to the real world outside our windows, the Revolution is here; it’s happened.

The change is exponential and dizzying – the world is spinning faster each day.

Everyone is spending more time online.

Everyone is spending more money online.

The truth is, even though people often associate digital and web with “free”, people are definitely paying for access to digital information and content:

- Internet access fees $25.8 bn - Music $2.3 bn - Games $1.8 bn - Video Downloads $353 m - Mobile email and alerts $1.3 bn

And in our sister media industries, fast-growing digital markets have been experienced as an onslaught.

Music, newspapers and to a certain extent film are largely seen to have ‘failed’ in responding swiftly - or positively - enough.

Let’s take a brief look at where music is ten years into its digital gestation:

- 10% of the population bought digital music in 2008, up from 5% in 07 - 10 m digital albums were sold in 2008, a 65% increase on 2007 - Digital now accounts for 10% of music spending, up from 6% in 2007 - 110 m single tracks were downloaded in 2008, a 42% increase on 2007 and digital tracks now account for 95% of the market, up from 90% in 2007 - iTunes share of singles expenditure up to 65.7%; unit share is 71.8% - Almost a third (28%) of 16 to 24 year olds listen to music at least weekly on a mobile phone, with one in 10 using services such as Spotify and - Vodaphone is the second largest digital music retailer in the UK - New BPI/Harris survey finds that 23% of respondents (aged 16 to 54) are users of illegal filesharing networks - Two thirds of these (i.e. 15% of all survey respondents) use these services on a monthly basis -  Jupiter estimate that losses to online music piracy amounted to £180m in 2008, and predict they will rise to £200m in 2009.

What else is going on out there in the ‘real world’?

We have given birth to a race of ‘digital natives’.

Today’s children don’t know a world without laptops, DS game machines and mobiles.

It’s part of everyday life and they use technology in conjunction with doing other things (e.g. surfing the web while watching TV).

They are also growing up as PROSUMERS, consumers who also produce stuff themselves – and who believe this to be of value.

Meanwhile, there has been enormous growth in the mobile Internet.

As of today, 20% of handsets globally have a web connection.

By 2015 its estimated 50% of the world with have access to an internet connection, mainly through mobile (from a Morgan Stanley report).

And last year, Google got involved with mobile.

With their domination of SEARCH and ACCESS to online content, the much expected launch of Google Edition - the commercialisation of Google Book Search - and a mobile platform to boot, you have to wonder at the potential for this gargantuan corporation to dramatically alter the way in which content is marketed and distributed to the consumer.

In parallel with all these upward digital trends, our bricks and mortar supply chain is suffering:

-    In UK there was an almost ten percent decrease in high street bookselling outlets between 2007 and 2008, according to the UK Office for National Statistics

- Through bricks and mortar outlets in the UK, the volume of books sold increased by 2.4% between 2006 and 2008, but the value reduced by 2% over all and the average price charged dropped by 4.3% (Books and Consumers report 2009)

- In UK, the Internet share of the book sector has risen from 13.4% in 2006 to 16.6% in 2008 (Books and Consumers report 2009)

Now – what about the market for digital books – for digital reading?

Latest figs from AAP (Association of American Publishers) put ebook sales up 173.9% through end July 2009.

A caveat to this …ebook sales made up just 0.6% of overall book sales in 2008 – according to Bowker - which explains the steep growth.

So – the ebook sales graph shows a lovely looking curve, but the steepness is really to do with the starting point. Growth always looks impressive from a zero base!

Let’s look at the ebook market another way. If you read the headline about Amazon’s Kindle, this sounds a bit like a revolution.

Day one of Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol and the Business Insider reports: “Kindle version of the book on top!” (The Business Insider 16.09.09)

Steve Windwalker at the Kindle Nation blog says this could be

"the biggest story of 2009 in the book trades."

As he points out, the most popular book in the world is selling more copies as an electric version than a print version at the most popular bookstore in the world.

Or, another version of the story – one week later – in the same news source:

Kindle verdict: nothing special” The Business Insider, 22.09.09

“The Lost Symbol sold just 100,000 in e-books format according to Doubleday. Overall Doubleday sold 2 million copies. The 5% ratio of e-books to print is about in-line with the average for book sales.”

Of course there are lies, damn lies and then there are statistics.

Let’s just remember that actually, the bigger the over all sales number for a book, the harder it is to make the percentage sold in ebook form look impressive.

Whilst there is a finite number of ebook devices in the market, there is an infinite number of potential human readers for Dan Brown’s work.

This story skews the stats again.

And the story isn’t all about Kindle.

There’s been a proliferation of dedicated ebook reading devices launched to market

Perhaps more significantly there is an increasing number of contenders for the prize of ‘killer media device’, any one of which has the capacity to catch consumers’ imaginations as an ideal ebook reader

So what are publishers supposed to do to cut through the layers of confusing statistics, hype, fear and hope?

Let’s see if I can interpret what’s happening here and cut through the ‘nnnnngh?

Are we really seeing a revolution, or is it really a slower ‘evolution’?

“This is the Industrial Revolution, not the Russian Revolution.”  - Michael Bhaskar, Digital Editor

I like Michael’s analogy that what we’re seeing here is akin to the Industrial Revolution.

It will take place over years rather than seeing a sudden tipping point.

We are going to need to run integrated print and digital businesses for some time to come, but, like business owners and workers in the industrial revolution, we are going to have to:

-  adapt to our emerging environment -  develop new skills -  employ new people -  understand how to use new tools -  move the location of our businesses (in this case from offline to online) -  and figure out how to deal with the monopolies of some of the technological and supply chain innovators

In other words, even though the revolution isn’t happening over night in terms of commercial revenues, we need to keep our sights steady and steer a course that makes sense for us as the landscape shifts and changes.

What is making this difficult for us?

First of all, our existing supply chain is ill-formed to cope with digital.

It assumes a linear progression from author to reader – where DISTRIBUTION holds the keys to the kingdom – shifting units from physical place A to physical place B.

The publisher role in this chain = arbiter; filter; custodian; marketeer and DISTRIBUTOR.

But our unique qualification to play this role is increasingly challenged – by new, non-traditional partners in the supply chain as well as others.

At the same time, the emerging digital supply chain is still in a nascent state too.

It’s like an emerging landscape with hidden landmines, uneven ground and blind alleys.

Navigating it is not easy and it’s not always clear which path to follow.

We have a multiplicity of:

- channels - business models - devices - platforms - corporate agendas

…to contend with.

And we don’t yet have the solution for sustaining a really healthy, competitive marketplace

There are multiple, largely dissatisfactory DRM solutions.

Along with many other publishers I believe interoperability will be key to a vibrant and healthy digital marketplace.

And hiccups such as these illustrate the early teething problems of a digital supply chain: caused a stir a few months ago when it remotely deleted copies of George Orwell's "1984" and "Animal Farm" from people's Kindles. A Michigan high school student, Justin Gawronski, was so incensed that he sued the online retailer, alleging that Amazon essentially ate his homework when it removed his copy of "1984" and caused his "copious notes" to disappear. Now Amazon has settled the lawsuit with Gawronski and a co-plaintiff. As part of the deal, which awaits court approval, Amazon said it "will not remotely delete or modify" works on Kindles, with some exceptions.

Speaking of Amazon, this online giant is just one of a new triumvirate that looks set to dominate our digital world – The Big Three as we like to refer to them.

Let’s take a walk through their world views:

1. The world according to Amazon


- catalogue, price and consumer experience - tendency towards commoditisation to drive market share - technologically they will develop anything that builds the Kindle platform - take out books / bricks and mortar competition?

2. The world according to Google:


-  dominate search and access to content -  build advertising revenue -  not interested in download or proprietary access models (good!) - likely to collaborate more with the ‘traditional’ supply chain

3. The world according to Apple


-  not interested in dedicated ebook device market – too small a niche – ebook reader will be a feature on media player - Apple often decides what the driver is after the device is launched; e.g. iPod Touch - key driver is now getting people to the App Store - and they respond to the customers’ view of what’s important (eg in Steve Jobs interview re the Touch – he reports they now marketing it as a games machine based on consumer feedback that this is what they largely use it for) - whatever we think about Apple’s place from a device perspective we all need to assume books will some time in the next year be sold via iTunes

So, if the Amazon, Google, Apple triumvirate are the dominant forces in our newly emerging digital supply chain, what does this tell us about the space in which we are now operating?

- That our key customers are all focused on the consumer experience, on consumer interactions, consumer feedback and consumer data – its way past time we as publishers learned this trick from them

- That this market will ultimately be platform-led as opposed to purely device-led; we need to stop focusing on what the ‘killer device’ will be. Just as iTunes was the thing that propelled the iPod from sexy object to must-have device, it is likely that the simplest, most consumer-friendly content delivery platforms will win out. All these players know about building platforms.

- That our supply chain will be a global one, where distribution is dominated by global players. For consumer publishers this presents us with some pressing questions about how we handle territorial rights in a digital era

- That two out of three of our biggest new customers are not from our traditional customer base and one is less than two decades old.

- That our biggest new customers are all technology companies who live and breathe online and have no interest in supporting old world structures.

So – we are in brave new world territory – the way ahead is not straightforward – the immediate commercial gains are still relatively marginal for consumer publishers, and the emerging supply chain is far from mature.

What should we be doing about digital now?

I believe we can all steer a steady course through this lumpy emerging territory using three guiding principles.

Using these I believe publishers can take hold of their digital futures, add value to the writer to reader network and continue for a long while yet to be part of the fun!

Rule No 1: ADD VALUE

Publishers have always added value – as filters, and often as enhancers – of content. In the digital world we need to do this – and more.

We must start to take a 360 degree view and find ways to add value in every dimension:

- Where the book is part of an extended world which lives and breathes outside of the printed page

- Where online communication between author and reader, and reader and reader is facilitated by us

- Where we aim to create experiences not ship products

- Where we work out how to do the job of entertaining and informing rather than how to transform printed books into digital books

-  Where digital plays an integrated part in all of our strategies

Michael Cader to the FT last year:

“[Publishing] is still a book business… and it needs to become a reader business.”

I think we can take it one step further than that, too – we need to become not just ‘reader’ businesses, but businesses that re-think what they are from the ground up.

We need to think about everything from a zero base.

So, not how can we port this book unit into digital form, but how can we do the ‘job’ of entertaining people, telling story, educating or informing people using the new mediums at our disposal?

“…thinking of the problem as “how do we get a textbook onto an iPhone” is framing it wrong. The challenge is “how do we use a medium that already shares 3 of our 5 senses – eyes, ears and a mouth – along with geolocation, color video, and a nearly-always-on web connection to accomplish the ‘job’ of educating a student.” That’s a much more interesting problem to me than “how do we port 2-page book layouts to a small screen?” Andrew Savikas, O’ Reilly TOC blog

We need to think of digital as an integrated part of the whole and a way of extending the experience of the book, the brand, the author into every place a reader might come into contact with it.

As an example, for the 30th anniversary of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy we wanted to create the sense of a global party to celebrate this cult classic, to give the sense that everywhere they turned, fans would find themselves looking at Hitchhikers, so we:

• Replaced the Pan Macmillan homepage for the months of Sept/Oct with a special Hitchhikers’ page • Gave something back to the fan community and readers by offering an iGoogle theme for their personal web page that is free of marketing messages, just using elements of the new cover art to provide the theme. • Communicated the physical USP of the print books – DIY sticker covers – with a demo animation, so that readers don’t miss the point (and the fun) because of blank, static thumbnails on online retailer sites • Re-imagined Douglas Adams’s fabulous comic character, Marvin the Paranoid Android, for a new medium – and reached out to new and existing readers via Twitter, with Marvin the Paranoid Android tweeting about the books and life in general (you can follow at • Re-released the original ebook – the HHGG – on as many platforms as possible, including ebook, audio download and mobile app RULE NO 2: Become expert digital marketeers

To become digital marketeers we need to take what we do best and incorporate it into our online approach.

In publishing we attract a great many people who are passionate and engaged communicators.

At a basic level, one of my colleagues always says, publishing is about reading and then talking about it.

Online, we can extend that ‘talking about it’ in a very real sense and get to know and engage with our audiences – this may require us to focus further around verticals so that we are plugging in to audiences in a deeper way.

- And, further than that, and perhaps even more simplistically, we need to get MUCH better at getting data about our books everywhere online; to make our books searchable and discoverable online

- And embed this information in search and in the social web – so consumers find our stuff however they navigate the web.

But always remember that to do this, context is everything.

Digital marketing should never be a ‘tick box’ on a marketing plan but it should be a strategic, integrated element of your plan for the success of a book, an author, a series or a category you are trying to build.

I think we’ve moved from an era when content was king, to a stage when ‘comments’ were king – and we now live in an age where context is king.

Consumers are fed up with having traditional, corporate marketing messages copied and pasted into social media. Relevance is everything.

For the Jonathan Ross twitter-based book club in the UK, we responded by making the book available for online access.

- we offered free, open access to the book for the duration of the discussion - tweeters could link directly and snippet from the page they were discussing,

The key was that we slotted a content experience into an existing context and reached readers where they were gathering rather than trying to make them come to us. Then we supplied them with the access and the tools (snippeting etc) to use as part of their bookclub discussion.

RULE NO 3: Provide great service

Publishers have always had a role as an agency for the ‘hard stuff’.

This is the non-glamorous, hard work part that I believe authors will always need from their publisher, whether in a print or digital context.

What are these hard things that we can manage for them?

- protection of IP e.g. fighting piracy - navigating the new supply chain and using our scale to negotiate best deals (and therefore income stream back to author) - working on the merchandising of digital products - producing and supplying the best metadata – and creating and supporting new standards – to ensure that content and the rights that go with it can travel around the web unimpeded

I’d like to leave you with two maxims from two of my favourite authors and bloggers.

First of all – Clay Shirky

“We spend more time figuring out whether something is a good idea than we would have just trying it.” Clay Shirky (on stage at NTC, April 2009)

Just try it.

There is value in the experiment itself.

Digital is not something to be fearful of but something to embrace – get experimenting!

And finally, a sorry reminder of what happens when an industry doesn’t engage – boldly, passionately and with a sense of fun and excitement rather than fear and approbation.

“Things you can learn from the music business (as it falls apart)

The first rule is so important, it’s rule 00. The new thing is never as good as the old thing, at least right now. Soon, the new thing will be better than the old thing will be. But if you wait until then, it’s going to be too late.  Feel free to wax nostalgic about the old thing, but don’t fool yourself into believing it’s going to be here forever. It won’t.”Seth Godin

revisiting-a-publishers-manifesto [pdf download]

Digital Books Are Already Here

Quite frequently I hear people talking about the future. They will argue and pontificate about when the new digital book, the new digital fiction, the new digital culture will arrive. In the world of digital publishing futurologists abound as we all try and work out what will happen next, even as we are still working out what's just happened. The thing is that digital books and digital fiction and the like are already here. The die is, by and large, cast, and if we are still talking about the future it's either because the new forms so little resemble the old we can't recognise them or they are so familiar as to have slipped under the radar. A couple of examples. A few years ago we had these things in our cars and houses called maps. They were, if you recall, like large books with lots of pictures of how to get from A to B. Often they were quite confusing and the source of many arguments but they pretty much worked. People had a nice sideline in publishing them. Likewise we had these big books known as Encyclopedias, great Enlightenment projects to capture the totality of man kinds knowledge, preferably in expensively produced multi-volume hardback editions.

Now we have Google Maps and sat nav, Wikipedia and, ahem, Google Knols. There is a reasonably obvious equivalence between the products. They resemble one another albeit with crucial evolutionary differences, but perform the same function. The content is roughly the same, the generation of that content and the interface is radically different. The point is no one is talking about what maps and encyclopedias will be like in the future. We know that already.

Yet digital fiction and the book is still surrounded by rampant speculation. However I think all the elements are already here, as with maps and encyclopedias. Firstly we have the ebook. Digital is meant to be good precisely because it breaks with print; however I believe the success of the ebook is because it resembles print. People don't necessarily want a radical break. They want the same but easier.

People like books because they offer a very usable experience that has a USP over other forms of media: it offers the undiluted communication of one mind, one vision with another. If we mess this basic formula too much then reading will not work.

Ah but of course there is another form of digital fiction that has been around for ages, only we don't call it digital fiction. We call it computer games.

Quite why we are still debating what digital fiction looks like when we had games like Zelda years ago, when we have games like GTA IV now, is crazy. There are usually two arguments put against this theory. Firstly that games are not about narrative they are about play. I am not going to get in the whole ludic debate, but I feel this tell only half the story (excuse me). Suffice to say that many games do have a narrative element and this element is central to the overall concept. An analogy I often think of is with songs and lyrics- the tune is like the game play, the lyrics are like the narrative.

The second argument is that the quality of narrative in computer games is so universally and consistently appalling that it can't be compared to literature, an argument I last heard expounded with some force the other week at Bookcamp. Quite what criteria can be used to establish this objectively is not clear. In fact I would say that much of this is down to prejudice as narrative judgements are ultimately subjective statements. Equally the target audience of computer games is the same as that of all action mega hardcore action busting action films (not known for the sophistication of their narratives or dialogue).

Even if we put our hands up and acknowledge that the quality of storytelling in computer games has been lacking then by comparison to the history of the novel we are still at an early stage. Novels written in the mid to late seventeenth century, the form's genesis, read as clumsy, simplistic and contrived in comparison to the well oiled slickness of the modern novel. No doubt games will follow a similar curve over time.

Beyond even games we have already have the outlines of digital fiction. Projects like Inanimate Alice, the story games and ARGs, narrativised blogs and twittered fiction. All the tools and standards are now roughly in place. A wave of innovation has most likely come to a close as the "social media boom" hits the skids. We have been innovation addicts, slavishly jumping on each new trend, application and concept, moving without thinking. The dust is now settling and the landscape for digital fiction and digital books is clear.

To recap, digital books/fiction looks like this:

- ebooks and ebook derivatives

- "writerly" computer games

- stories told used existing forms of social media (blogs etc)

The first and the last are already realities. Pretty much every large publisher has an ebook program; most publishers are now using social media for at least marketing. Both authors, publishers and others are increasingly using social media more creatively. The middle is the most difficult for those involved in books. The big winners maybe authors and agents who can begin to sell rights for game spin offs and/or get involved in the process of conceiving game ideas.

Lets not wait for the future anymore; it arrived in about 2006.

Second Life / Second World

A few years ago Second Life was everywhere. It wasn't just in the papers; the papers were in Second Life with Reuters famously employing a journalist, Adam Reuters, to scout for interesting in-world news. There was a political riot when the French Front National set up shop; companies like Rivers Run Red sprouted up as even bigger companies pored in. The Linden Labs were a web colossus in the making, bestriding the future with their all conquering intimation of cyberspace and the metaverse predicted by Gibson and Stephenson years before.

Then it all sort of dropped off the radar for a while. Second Life was no longer the cool kid. Everyone was too busy microblogging and the like. However it never went away and recently we all saw the frankly rather bizarre story of Second Life infidelity and suddenly it's back on the agenda, or at least in the headlines (who can tell the difference?)

The neglect of Second Life smacked slightly of the obsession with newness and the bleeding edge that characterises much activity on the web. As soon as one product is launched people are myopically searching for the Next Big Thing, even while the Last Big Thing is struggling along with a couple of users as the average surfer wades through something several iterations of Big Things back.

It was with a view to the long term that the Nature Publishing Group has developed the Elucian Islands, an extension of the previous Second Life portal Second Nature and the shop front for the Macmillan Group in virtual worlds.

They are pretty damned impressive. They feel more like an impossibly utopian Californian technology campus than our offices in rainy, grimy Kings Cross, London. On the islands there are Skylabs for experiments, conference halls, books to be read, videos, spaces for scientific collaboration and communication, areas with information about the company. Whatsmore the Elucian Islands have a business model backing them up, so rather than being an example of corporate new media self indulgence they should make a contribution by being available for hire, with scientific events being the main target. If you are interested give us a shout and we can put you in touch with the right people.

The launch of the Elucian Islands co-incided neatly with the publication of a new techno thriller from Pan, Eddy Shah's Second World. It imagines a future of totally immersive and ubiquitous second life spaces- a second world, then injects a dose of hardcore page-turning rip-roaring action right in the middle of it. The author himself has styled it as being a Snow Crash for a mass audience. Eddy spoke eloquently at the Elucian Islands of how technology can become a part of people's lives, and the novel sets out this vision, it's opportunities and threats, with characteristic panache.

So it made sense to put them together. At the launch party we hooked up a link to the Elucian Islands so people could get a taste for life in a virtual world at a virtual launch party, with virtual copies of the book available for reading. The guys at Red Rocket Design knocked up a trailer, which you can watch below, that gives a sense both of the Elucian Islands and offers some clues about what happens in the novel.

In truth nobody knows where things are going. Google announced the launch of Lively last year but it seems to have faded pretty quickly (from my radar at least). Habbo Hotel remains popular though. Meanwhile MMORPGs like mighty World of Warcraft keep quietly generating insane profits with their fiercesomely addictive gameplay. Perhaps it is this element of Second World that will prove most prescient.

My guess is that gaming and various forms of 3D interfaces are only going to get stronger and more prominent. Open source projects like Genecys might also gain more exposure, and do for virtual worlds what apache did for web servers.  Aside from that, if second life does becomes second world we should be well placed.

ARGitrage #2

In Here ARGs are maybe seven or eight years old, if we take The Beast as a starting point. A few things are becoming clear: they are, conceptually at least, one of the hottest things around; they are a genuinely exciting web native form of storytelling; there is the glimmer of a business model behind them and paradoxically there is no one thing that can be called an ARG. The term itself is slippery and expansive.

We have now seen ARGs promoting films (like Cloverfield and The Dark Knight), TV series (like Lost) and even albums (like Nine Inch Nail's) not to mention charitable causes (like the Red Cross and Cancer Research). It seems that the promotional model is well established and provides a workable raison d'etre for many ARGs.

However my concern is that this is not sustainable. ARGs are still new and interesting enough so that the simple fact of their existence is sufficient to garner publicity. However as even this list demonstrates there must be a saturation point on the horizon where this is no longer the case. What happens to the business model then? I made the point that if one looks at the genesis and early years of the form then it coincides with a boom. As marketing budgets are slashed in the bust, what happens to ARGs?

A related point is that I suspect more people are talking about ARGs then actually playing or following them. Most of them require considerable investments of time and initiative- I freely confess they are beyond my feeble powers- that most people don't have. They are still niche, difficult and in many cases overly complex.

Dan made two good points in response. Firstly that ARGs, if done well and tailored to the product and audience, can actually offer a higher ROI than conventional advertising and hence are ripe for growth. Secondly he likened an ARG to the FA Cup final: you might only have 22 players on the field, but you can then have thousands in the ground, millions at home watching on TV, all participating.

This makes sense, up to a point. I managed to follow the We Tell Stories ARG without strictly "playing". However the forums and discussions at places like Unfiction and ARG Net can feel like a demi-monde of impenetrable geekery. Nothing wrong with that, natch, it just makes it hard for ARGs to reach a critical mass.

Perhaps that is the point, perhaps ARGs are meant to be small scale, light weight, free thinking, anti-corporate entertainments. Perhaps, but I can't help but feeling that would be only half the story.

Round Abouts

For me there are two really exciting possibilities in ARGs. Firstly is how they could be used to produce second order products that would augment the existing business models. Secondly how they can, in both complex and simple ways, form part of what Henry Jenkins calls transmedia storytelling.

By creating new products or gathering valuable data the proposition of an ARG changes. It can become a crowd sourcing application, an engine of content creation with a ready made fan base. This could be a union between entertainment companies like us and the grass roots explosion in creativity (or distribution depending on how you see it) engendered by the web. It allows an ARG to be somehow packaged or archived without detracting from the unique nature of the ARG, whilst also providing a strong rationale for the initiation of the ARG.

Stories are increasingly transmedia, which is to say they exist across platforms. This is not to suggest they are ARGs, but ARGs too are cross platform and so the have a resemblance. Fans like to get deep into a fictional world and transmedia storytelling is an enabler of this. ARGs point the way in terms of creating engagement in this fashion. They have pioneered the seamless use of mixed media integrated into a conceptual whole. Many of the biggest cultural phenomena of the past few years have been fully transmedia- think Potter and the Matrix, and this trend will become ever more the norm.

For publishers then I think these two strands are especially promising. Smaller scope projects like the Young Bond adventure will have their (ever growing role). These big two tap into emerging trends in what was traditionally publishers back yard and add economic incentive while they're at it.

No one truly knows where ARGs are going, least of all me. I do know, however, that they are seriously cool.

And being cool counts.

ARGitrage #1

Last Friday I attended a Channel 4 Talent Inspiration Session on ARGs as part of the Hello Digital festival in Birmingham. Speaking were Dan Hon, Alex Fleetwood and Hazel Grian, although the day was designedly informal and was meant to encourage dialogue between us, the assorted noobs and delegates, and them, the experts, and to a large extent it succeded. Out There

I've written before about ARGs on The Digitalist, and obviously no one could have missed THAT publishing ARG but the day was interesting to get some new perspectives on what has been happening. Alex Fleetwood discussed his Hide and Seek festival, something I was annoyed to miss early this year. The festival is one of "social games and playful experiences" and specializes in live, pervasive gaming. Most enticing of all was a game called Journey Through the Night. The premise of the game is that players have to get from Point A to Point B in London via a series of checkpoints; at the same time a bunch of people are chasing them and if a player gets caught they to are a chaser. Like "It" meets psychogeography via a benign version of Resident Evil, kind of. What appeals is the way a new dimension is added to the urban space- it becomes naraitivized, experienced as an adrenalin fuelled game space not the trudge home. He also gave a mention to the Sleeveface phenonmenon- I for one love it.

Hazel Grian was talking about work she is doing at the extraordinary Pervasive Media Studio in Bristol. In partnership with HP Labs (who are building some seriously cool technology with mobiles and GPS) they are pushing the boundaries of what media is and can do. Hazel has been involved in web projects like the sucessful Bebo drama Kate Modern and has now been working on pioneering ARGs like The Sky Remains, which took the extreme step of building in its own social networking site. The advice was: don't do this, use the SNSs that are out there already. Audiences are hard to come by, go where they are.

Lastly Dan Hon was chatting about some of the stuff they have been getting up to at Six to Start and before that the work he did on Perplex City. The quality of what is produced by Six to Start is never less than brilliant- I have been playing there latest offering with Puffin, a young Bond text adventure- and it's fantastically good fun. Dan and Six to Start have developed an excellent set of principles for ARGs- they should not need instructions, they should tell a good story, they should have some kind of commercial viability, they should be well and intuitively designed. This is ARGing looking to the big picture, gesturing towards the mass audience while keeping the quality high. Legendary ARG developer Jane McGonigal (whose latest ARG was the environmentally minded World Without Oil) cited Dan and Six to Start at this years SXSW as some of the most innovative and interesting ARG developers in the world so it will be interesting to see what happens next.

Coming Soon

The Future of the ARG, haphazardly guessed at, in miniature.

"Mobile, mobile, mobile"

So said Google CEO Eric Schmidt when asked the future of the web. Last week in an interview with Reuters WPP CEO Sir Martin Sorrel said that not investing in mobile content was to miss out on a big opportunity. At Pan Macmillan we agree. While reading on mobile devices remains marginal in the UK, it is also, at some level, already ubiquitous, a daily reality for most of us. Mobile holds out the promise of quick, convenient, easy, chunkable, affordable, relevant and portable digital reading. It's strengths are legion and this is why we are pleased to announce a deal with Global Reader (, a mobile content distribution service from MPS Mobile. Over the next few months we plan on releasing over 600 titles through this service, spanning Pan Macmillan imprints from Picador to Boxtree.

From Sara Lloyd (Head of Digital Publishing at Pan): "I am delighted that Macmillan Ltd. has been able to participate in this deal. While the mobile content market is a nascent one here right now, it is growing rapidly elsewhere and it is an area in which we are keen to experiment and learn."

As Sara points out, experiment is key here. No one ultimately knows the directions that mobile reading will take. By entering this agreement we can begin to map the various ways people consume text through mobiles and develop an understanding of how to make it work. We hope to be there from the beginning and to pioneer the concept of reading as being a flexible, integrated activity.

Key to this is the flexibility inherent in Global Reader. It works in over 160 countries but can effortlessly evade territorial troubles because of the national network system. It can be received on any Internet enabled phone meaning there are none of the usual format and software issues that so bedevil the eBook marketplace, while the piracy problematic is circumnavigated.

Other than in Japan mobile reading is still an unknown quantity. What we do know is that the mobile internet is here to stay. Google Android, the next gen iPhone, the other manufacturer's riposte to the iPhone, the Blackberry phenomenon and the first signs of 4G mobile mean that our phones capacity to access the internet, to provide entertainment and other resources, to be more than phones, is guaranteed. Sir Martin is surely right.

Reported in the Bookseller here. Press release attached.

Pan Macmillan MPS Mobile Press Release

Telling Stories

story.jpgChances are that if your reading this blog you will have come across Penguin's grands projets, We Tell Stories. In case you haven't (where have you been?) its six digital stories and an ARG from Penguin UK and Six to Start, a funky start up that builds cool games. Enough has been said, for and against, in terms of content and conception but this piece on blog powerhouse Gawker got me thinking. Its hard to know exactly what Penguin's criterion of success in this project is- it must have cost a bomb and has no obvious revenue stream. As for traffic figures, I haven't clue. In terms of coverage I think it can definitely be considered a success and has been featured in Newsweek, USA Today and Wired amongst others despite the ARG being a UK only affair. If nothing else it has introduced many people to a new way of storytelling and pioneered digital fiction in mainstream publishing.

Gawker don't seem to like this. In the louche style characteristic of the site(s) they ask: "There's got to be a better way for publishers to get people to read more books... using actual books. Um, right?" Um, no. Because I don't think Penguin were trying to get people to read more books.

Jeremy Ettinghausen, the man behind the project and new found web celebrity, has specifically stated that the project is not about print, in fact quite the reverse, saying to Newsweek "[ebooks] are pretty much the same thing as the print book but delivered in a different way. We thought we'd try something a little more ambitious and actually develop stories designed for the Internet, not adapted to it." Rather than being about books this is specifically about moving away from them.

Fair enough. As the name suggests this is part of a view that sees publishers not just as creators of books but as curators of stories. Had this attitude been more prevalent over the past few hundred years no doubt that the media landscape would look very different today. Opportunities missed from film to gaming might have been taken and a more integrated approach to narrative entertainment prevailed.

When Gawker say "[they] have a new project to tell the stories of books online — using new media, get it? " it's the sneer of a new media company suddenly fearful that its very cutting edge newness is getting eroded by so called old media companies keen to redefine exactly what that means. Gawker suggest that they read books to get away from the internet- something I can sympathise with- but publishers are still well poised to make entertaining interventions on the web, using capacities built up from the book world to find new species of storytelling.

Publishing, in some areas at least, has been hit hard by the web. Take maps. Why buy a map when Google Maps is free? And better? The 21 Steps was an inventive use of Google Maps that in some small way marked a kind of reclamation of the space. Ok, it might not do anything in itself, but it points to a future where publishers can more than just co-exist with the web, aloof new media neighbors or no. For me that has to be a good thing.

Meanwhile you can watch the ARG evolve on the unfiction boards- as good as playing for those with no time, I tell myself.

Photo: 16/06/06 Dramatis Personae by Andrew Coulter Enright

"Creative Business in the Digital Era"

creative businessOn Monday I attended a fascinating day of talks and discussions hosted by the rather wonderful Open Rights Group looking at "Creative Business in the Digital Era". The Open Rights Group is dedicated to protecting and promoting digital rights at this precarious point in their history, when the struggle between closure and openness is still on. The premise of the day was simple. In the digital era information and hence media (and the creative industries) exist in a frictionless environment where data can be copied and disseminated with ease, moving outside the traditional revenue earning channels and fundamentally threatening the business models of publishers, record companies and film studios, amongst others, not to mention artists, retailers and all the other subsidiary industries dependent on the sector. How, in this situation, to make money?

Rather than going into detail about the proposed models- there is an excellent wiki explaining many of the ideas floated in depth- I will sketch an outline of the day and offer some thoughts on what was discussed.

Our host for the day was the affable and acutely knowledgeable Suw Charman, a director of ORG, who spoke about some of the models creative business might consider, the impact of social media and the difference between a product, a complement and a substitute. This was fascinating: companies produce products e.g. an MP3 player, which can be substituted, e.g. by another, rival, MP3 player, but a product also comes with complements, e.g. an MP3 player sock. The crucial economics here is that when the cost of a product falls demand for the complements increases.

So if MP3 players are going for a song demand for MP3 socks will skyrocket. The ramifications for the creative industries are clear: if your product is being consumed more, an increase in this case facilitated by internet piracy, demand for products and services around that product will increase and by getting involved with those complements the initial loss incurred can be made good. This is the thinking behind record companies eager to get in on merchandising and touring. Its quite difficult to apply the thinking to books in that books don't have obvious complements. In the discussion it was interesting to see that many other industries- from gaming to photography- had many monetisable complements while book complements were mainly intangibles. At any rate its a challenge for publishers and something we could do with thinking about. Over the course of the day we did some roleplay style workshops. The first was centred around the great Radiohead In Rainbows experiment (no longer running, alas), where small groups were assigned a role in the process and asked to work out a strategy around what amounted to the band giving away free albums. In the second exercise groups were given a product, my group was given a children's TV show, which we had to launch in the new media space. After half an hour of intense discussion we had come up with a killer strategy that would maximize audience engagement (having games and clips on Bebo and mobile, a second showing in Habbo Hotel etc) while attempting to safeguard DVD sales.

In the Radiohead game earlier in the day I was on a team faced with some difficult choices. We were the record company. Taking it back to before Radiohead left EMI rather than the current outfit, we decided that keeping bands on board in the digital era was paramount, and so decided to go all in the on the experiment, bringing our marketing and publicity apparatus to bear and improving the experience of a site which many found overly difficult. While acknowledging the risk we argued that without headline acts like Radiohead we would ultimately be in trouble.

Three case studies presented through the course of the afternoon. There was Tom Reynolds, ambulance medic and author of the blog Random Acts of Reality and its print complement, Blood, Sweat and Tea. Tom spoke about the positive experience of releasing his book under a Creative Commons license and discussed his varying experiences of blogging and publishing, advocating a position that writers and publishers had little to lose by using CC and much to gain, echoing Tim O'Reilly's comment that its obscurity not piracy that is dangerous.

Second up was John Buckman who runs a truly extraordinary online music store/record company called Magnatune, a company with more wildly experimental, seriously cool business models than I can remember or explain. Suffice to say it holds numerous lessons for more conventional retailers. Buckman takes a refreshing attitude to sales, never thinking in terms of possible sales lost, only in keeping revenue coming in. It gets over a target driven mentality being a kind of zen business that must take some balls.

Last up were David Bausola and Rob Myers, talking about the transmedia narrative they created in partnership with Ford last year, Where are the Joneses? Working from communications agency Imagination with TV production company Baby Cow they used web services, primarily Youtube and the blog but also Twitter, Facebook etc, they provided daily updates of a Europe wide search for twenty seven lost siblings. In an interesting blend of comedy TV and ARG they had a great success and pushed the boundaries of narrative, particularly TV narrative, on the web. To give a sense of the story, it all starts with a sperm donor...

Overall it was a great day and I left feeling full of confidence after hearing numerous brilliant ideas, many generated off the cuff in the informal discussions, of how artists and businesses can not only survive but really go forward in the digital era. As an industry we are often prone to introspective gloom about future prospects. With a little creativity, a little bravery and a lot of listening to people like the attendees of CBDE things might work out.

Photo: 17/08/06 Creative Space by Karsoe