Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Assertions and Observations • 2

This is the future of fiction publishing. Seriously.

Whoever figures out how to make in-book purchases work is going to make a fortune.

I’m going to skip over a whole lot of research and case-building and begin with the conclusion. If it seems necessary I will backfill later, if I must, but the key points are these:

» I love books. Some of my best friends are books. But books, as you know them, are ancient artifacts. I won’t say they’re doomed—that’s far too dramatic—but they are headed towards becoming an evolutionary dead-end, purchased only by libraries, schools, and dilettantes.

» The people you need to be selling content to, if you are going to develop and grow your audience, are under 35 at the oldest and more likely under 30. These people will buy and read books, if the subject interests them, but it’s not their first choice for how to spend their entertainment dollars. Or second. Or probably even in the top ten.

» The crucial point to remember is that these people are digital natives. They have never known a world without social media or streaming video. An alien observer might conclude that they are cyborgs, with a large portion of their intelligence offloaded into their phones and information from the global hive mind being streamed into their minds as needed through their earbuds and tiny screens.

» While digital natives can read if they must, and will watch non-interactive movies from time to time, albeit usually in a social context, their primary sense of narrative and story has been formed by playing video games.

So let’s consider: what precisely is a novel? Three-hundred-some pages of prose printed on pulp paper, with a lurid full-cover cover and a self-contained story arc? A few hundred kilobytes of data on a hand-held device, that seeks to replicate the print-book experience in a more portable but more ephemeral form factor?

No. It’s a gateway into the world of the story.


Writers like to believe that their fans are their fans. We can argue about it later, but the evidence is pretty clear. People who consume fiction content are overwhelmingly fans of:

1.) the world of the story

2.) one or more prominent (and usually heroic) characters in this world

3.) the person whose vision created this world (a.k.a., the “Producer” or “Director”)

4.) the people who actually wrote the parts of the story they like (a.k.a., the “Content Developers”)

So forget about “taking the novel into the 21st Century” or any of that fatuous and pretentious nonsense. In fact, forget about the novel, period.

The serious money lies in owning and building the map of the world.

No, not “world building,” as fiction writers tend of think of it, and definitely not in drawing actual maps, even though we all grew up entranced by the maps in The Lord of The Rings, to the point where for a time it seemed impossible to find a fantasy novel that did not have a map in the front matter.

What I’m talking about here is a cognitive map, and it must be dynamic, expandable, and above all, something readers can interact with. If you’re familiar with software, think of it as being like the map of the help system for a software product that’s still evolving. If you’re familiar with gaming, think of it as the map you might develop as you’re exploring a dungeon.

Except there is no fixed end point to the adventure.

Here’s where in-book purchasing comes into play. For a base price, you will buy the bare-bones framework of a “book,” and if you want to read that and just that, it will take you in a fairly linear way to a conclusion that is sufficiently satisfactory to make you want to look at buying the 2.0 version when it comes out. But remember: the linear, bare-bones book is only the gateway into the world of the story.

And the story never really ends.

There’s a secondary character you find interesting? For a small price, you can unlock extra content and go off on a branch that follows her story. There’s a place in the story that you found more interesting than the characters you’re following did? For a small price, you can unlock extra content and go off on a side quest. You wish you could hear the music that the writer is describing in the ballroom scene? For a small price...

You get the idea? A “book” is no longer a self-contained linear narrative with a story arc and a beginning, middle, and end. It’s a map of an imaginary world that grows organically over time, and seamlesssly crosses over into audio, video, animation, graphic novel, social media, and fanfic.

That's right. Fanfic. In addition to buying extra content, your readers will be able to earn extra content, and even to contribute extra content. At the simplest level: solve a puzzle; reveal hidden extra content. Actively participate in the social media side: earn extra content. At a higher level: write a piece of fan fic, and if it’s good enough to be accepted as canon, earn a lot of extra content credits. Write a piece of fanfic that attracts enough loyal readers, and it can become a new development branch and you too can join the team as a co-developer of The Story That Never Ends.


The mechanism for purchasing extra content needs a bit of finesse. People balk at spending actual cash to buy in-game content, and paying your fanfic developers in negotiable currency introduces ugly accounting and tax issues. Instead, you’ll conduct all transactions in in-game tokens—

No, not tokens. Amazon has made a mistake by calling their Vella transactional units “tokens.” That smacks of Chuck E. Cheese. The units of exchange must be part of the game. If you go into the bookworld of something like Star Wars, you’ll use your dollars or Euros to buy the “Imperial credits” you’ll use for all subsequent in-book transactions. In something like the bookworld Star Trek, you’ll use “Federation credits.” And if you want to take your credits with you when you change bookworlds, you’ll need to go through the Ferengi Interplanetary Exchange Bank to convert your currency… for a small price…


As should be obvious by now, this is a huge project. There is no single “author” anymore. No one person could possibly create it all or continue to create fresh content. You will need a Producer to be in charge of running it; a design team to create the initial expandable map of the world; a core team of Content Developers to create and maintain the initial content, with sufficient redundancy to keep the thing from falling apart if key people quit. Different parts will need to be written by different authors, just by virtue of the sheer volume of content that will need to be produced. As I said, no one person could possibly do this—

Except me. I could do it—if I had nothing else to do, and about a half-million in seed capital to lay the groundwork and turn the vision into a serious project plan and a working prototype.

Now, who’s ready to invest?    

—Bruce Bethke


~brb said...

The opportunities for blending and embedding content and functionality will be staggering. Getting tired of reading? Slip directly over to the audio book and have the next section read to you. Geting so into that big fight scene that you wish you could be in it yourself? Pop up the embedded mini-game and play that scene out. (And maybe even have the direction of the narrative change depending on how well you do!) Wish you could have a heart-to-heart conversation with the protagonist and ask her what the heck she thinks she's doing in this moment? Voila, here's her chatbot.

Really want to slow down the pace and get a good look at the big fight-turned-sex scene between Mindy the Vampire Shagger and the attractively evil Count Dorkula? Get your mind out of the gutter!

~brb said...

Not to mention the opportunities for in-book product placement. Here's the hero, on foot in the middle of the Mojave Desert, staggering along in the blazing sun, suffering from thirst, dying from dehydration, page after page after page without relief, thinking that he'd sell his immortal soul for an ice-cold Starbucks Iced Frappuccino®, especially a Mocha Cookie Crumble one, that was always his favorite -- and lo, here's a link to have GrubHub deliver one to your door right now!

Pete Wood said...

I don't see things as quite so bleak. Books will be around for a long time even if it takes a while to figure out the marketing.
We are in a bit of a transition, but the market isn't going to disappear. Chain restaurants didn't destroy local flavor ultimately. Disco didn't make rock or classical music obsolete. Eventually things will settle and the demand for books will grow again.

~brb said...

I hate to break it to you, Pete, but classical orchestras don't survive on ticket sales. They're almost always Section 501(c)(3) non-profit corporations, living on foundation grants and donations. And as for rock: when was the last time you heard "modern" rock by contemporary performers on a Top 40 station, not "Classic" rock by geezers on an "Oldies" station?

Hip-hop, rap, EDM, all the variations thereon -- everything that dominates Top 40 these days -- that's all pretty much descended directly from disco. Even contemporary country music these days reflects a lot of hip-hop influences.

snowdog said...

That's interesting, I can kind of see it... having the e-book reader display a map up in the corner as the reader makes their own way through the story. It would definitely be a challenge for the authors to stay ahead of them, though. They'd need a good head start. It might be hard to keep the story straight between that many writers, but then, TV shows make continuity mistakes all the time. Yes, interesting look into the future.