Unlocking Narratives With Tech, Cults, And A Little Paranoia

Best-selling author Michael Grant has envisioned a world involving "transmedia" that goes far beyond mere text on a page or screen.

For years I’ve been thinking and writing about the future of the book, calling the e-book a stopgap measure at best. More than 100 years ago the first movie cameras were used to film theatrical performances, but it took visionary directors like Sergei Eisenstein and Fritz Lang to untether the camera from tradition and lead the way to a new art form: cinema. With the convergence of technology, media and social platforms, and greater interconnectedness, I see a similar dynamic today occurring with books.

I see kindred spirits in author Michael Grant and Alex LeMay, a TV and film producer who runs a Chicago-based company that creates multimedia for books. Grant may be the biggest-selling author you never heard of. Author (and co-author with his wife) of 150 books that have sold more than 35 million copies worldwide, Grant pens paranoid thrillers set in dystopian worlds, characterized by mass delirium, conspiracies, cults, phobias, plagues, shadowy guerrilla groups, and war—kind of like high school. Which may account for his audience: mostly teenagers.

Half a dozen years ago Grant, now 57, was feeling hemmed in by the limitations of print when he, too, had a vision. Physical books’ days were numbered, he realized, and when digital came it would completely upend publishing. Not just the business—which would be decimated by big-name authors bypassing traditional publishers in favor of doing it themselves and keeping the lion’s share of revenue for themselves—but the art form. Merely porting text on a page to a screen wouldn’t make full use of the media. Instead, he saw it as a way to unlock narrative from the constraints of a text-only canvas, and this offered glorious possibilities. Rather than dickering over the rights to a song to include in a book, why not offer the actual song as an audio clip, and layer in video and photos? While he was at it, he could create separate platforms with teeming communities built around a story and create a universe where readers become characters. Suddenly the book becomes a living, breathing, mutable endeavor where each audience member chooses his or her own path through multiple narratives.

But it’s hard to be a visionary without acolytes, and Grant says his publisher viewed his entreaties as just "another crazy note from Michael." At the time the technology simply wasn’t there to make multiple platform storytelling a reality, and e-books comprised only a sliver of trade book sales. Then he watched as his son scrolled through the text of one of the father’s entire 500-page manuscripts on a mobile phone and Grant took it as a sign that the great transformation was near. He swore he would get ahead of the curve. But unless he was willing to fork over a million bucks of his own money and "have twenty code monkeys writing software" he couldn’t do it alone. He knew he would have to adopt a television production company model to succeed.

The result is an interactive "transmedia" prequel to his forthcoming novel, BZRK. Six months before its February 2012 publication date, Grant, teaming with Alex LeMay, a TV and film director who doubles as CEO of The Shadow Gang, a multimedia production company based in Chicago, launched the first salvo in the form of an alternate reality game (ARG) involving a cult.

Over the next several months the story of a guerrilla group of the near future intent on toppling a repressive utopian society, with both sides armed with weapons-grade nanotechnology, will continue to unfold over multiple websites and platforms. In addition to the cult, an online role-playing game that ended in October, there are more videos like the one above, web comics, a complex weave of plots, sub-plots, and sub-sub-plots, character blogs, social media, and apps (for both Android and iOS devices)—a pastiche of material that can be ingested as a whole or in parts.

A core value in this form of storytelling is that readers become characters tasked with decoding parts of a mystery that may hold the key to saving humanity. These reader-characters can jump into everything or just a few things, although the more they engage with the story, the more they can level up through the material. The author simply acts as a guide but it is up to each participant—each character—to determine his own fate.

While the book remains central to the main story, Grant says that transmedia enables readers to create a much more vivid and complete world: "The whole idea is to let people design their own experience. They want to play the [alternate reality game], don't want to get the app? Cool. Want to get the app, but don't want to play the ARG? We're fine with that, too. Just want to read the book? Any combination of the things that we lay out there, we're happy, [although] we'd like every single person to enjoy the entire breadth of the experience."

The print book (we're already at the point I have to label it with a retronym) led to a traditional publishing deal with an advance and typical royalty structure, while Grant, LeMay, and BZRK’s British publisher Egmont, all share in any revenue generated from the transmedia, which cost about $1.5 million to create. (In addition, Grant recently optioned the movie rights to Sony Pictures.) They have adopted a freemium model for the apps, which a user can download free but then has to pay for additional content, and ad sponsorships for the rest. Ideal sponsors might be fashion and apparel companies, tech and gadget manufacturers, stores, and insurance companies targeting teen drivers. Over the first 75 days more than 80,000 unique visitors engaged with the material, resulting in 355,074 page views and 53,000 video views.

Grant’s coconspirator, Alex LeMay, plans to create other transmedia experiences, and says the approach could be applied to much more than fiction. It could be incorporated into business and tech books, history, biographies, any work that can engender a large and intricate enough landscape for readers to explore. All it needs is "a puzzle that is too big for any one person to solve, so it forces a community of people to talk to one another to solve the issues and the problems," he says.

It’s a compelling vision. While most authors don’t have Grant’s reach or LeMay’s resources or skill, you’ll likely see other authors experiment across multiple platforms, many teaming with TV production companies or documentarians. Ultimately, as the cost of these tools come down and the software catches up to the hardware, authors will be able to conjure up worlds far beyond mere text on a screen.

Adam L. Penenberg is a journalism professor at NYU and a contributing writer to Fast Company. Follow him on Twitter: @penenberg.

 

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3 Comments

  • michael grant

    Thanks, Adam, for that lovely article.

    I do want to add two things:

    1) The ARG for BZRK was not written by me but by Rich Silverman, a brilliant ARG creator.
    2) While publishing didn't get it early on, I think most of them do now.  And Egmont Publishing specifically has been magnificent in its support of this transmedia experiment and of BZRK generally.

    Thanks again for your very kind words about BZRK.