Online activity consumes so much of young people’s time nowadays, cutting attention spans and driving minds away from traditional hobbies—like reading. In Norway, only 20% of Generation Z report they read books to unwind. There, the oldest and most prestigious publishing house, Gyldendal, is attempting to bring books to young people where they already are—on social media—hoping it will spur interest in a fading pastime that may also help us build social skills such as empathy. “How do we engage readers in some sort of universe that expands beyond the book?” asks the publisher’s executive vice president, Tom Christian Gotschalksen.
Last year, Gyldendal launched an “Instabook,” which is, as far as it’s aware, the first long-form story natively written for Instagram Stories. Writing specifically for the platform was a new storytelling challenge for the author, Alexander Kielland Krag, who was forced to be concise and extract only the most compelling content for the visual medium. It’s the winner of the media and entertainment category of Fast Company’s 2021 World Changing Ideas Awards.
Rather than relying on just text, it became a “three-dimensional product,” he says, including images, videos, music, and even micro-influencers playing the roles of the lead characters in the images and videos. They were “creating an appointment with readers every day,” releasing a chapter every day for 45 days. Readers could also influence slight changes in the story through requests on DMs, making it an interactive experience.
Because of its digital nature, the publisher could track analytics and was impressed by the engagement; readers stayed consumed for five minutes each day. Fifty percent of readers were under 25, the demographic targeted by the young adult theme of the story, This Stays Between Us (or, Dette Blir Mellom Oss in Norwegian), focusing around a gay teen couple, especially a 17-year-old boy struggling with coming out. Despite that central theme, it was geared to be relatable to young people of all sexual orientations, “trying to factor in all the emotions that every single young adult feels in those first moments of being in love,” Krag says. According to the publisher, the Instagram Stories reached five times the number of readers as the print books in its young adult category.
Gyldendal found that many people then went out to buy the hard-copy version, which Krag wrote later. But, rather than relying on physical sales for revenue, the focus is now on monetizing digital platforms. In March 2021, the publisher launched a Snapchat version of the story; in this first content partnership, the publisher and author will get a share of the ad revenue. Already, just seven episodes in at the time of writing, the story is reaching 10 times the number of viewers on Snapchat than tuned in on Instagram. Next up is a potential partnership with a to-be-named audio platform, on which the novel will likely roll out as a playlist, with spoken word and background music elements. For each service, Krag is tailoring the presentation from scratch, using the styles, rhythms, and formatting needed for the platform, instead of simply rehashing the old Instagram cut.
Krag is now making final edits to his second novel for digital platforms, to be released in August. The story, Scared, That’s All, centers around mental health and its stigmas. Gyldendal also hopes to soon commission more stories from different authors. “I’d like us to find a model where we can release around 100 titles a year on these social channels,” Gotschalksen says. This Stays Between Us is now being translated for English rollouts; publishers can take these novels outside of the native market much quicker, and directly to consumers. This new model—which has an opportunity to disrupt the industry’s modus operandi—could be a real benefit for authors in smaller countries like Norway, who may otherwise struggle to get exposure abroad. It’s no longer necessary to get a customer into a bookstore as the only way to sell a story. “You take that model and throw it in the bin,” Krag says, “and you just say, ‘Okay, we have a good story. We can bring that directly to the reader.'”