In this year of revolution in the publishing industry, or rather, swirling around outside of the publishing industry, author Patrick Carman is taking the old admonition to “show, don’t tell” quite literally. Only half of the story he’s written,Skeleton Creek, is set down between the covers of the Scholastic book of the same name. The other half takes place online, in the form of videos, blog entries and a discussion group.
The producers of the 1999 film, The Blair Witch Project, were the first to blaze a successful trail in utilizing online supplemental material to increase awareness of, and interest in, an offline product. The film tells the story of some college kids who set out to make a documentary about The Blair Witch, a mysterious and frightening figure in New England lore whose spirit is believed by locals to live on in the burnt-out wreck of her former home in the woods. The students never return from their filmmaking junket, but an investigation into their disappearance turns up their personal effects, including the video camera they were using and all the footage they shot.
Tantalizing bits of that footage showed up on a Blair Witch website
, and the teaser/whisper campaign about the mystery which followed was likely the first instance of true online viral marketing. By the time the film came out, there was a fevered level of interest in the legend of The Blair Witch, and the low-budget, independent film which followed opened to sold out crowds, going on to smash box office records wherever it played. Perhaps the most amazing thing about this story is the fact that the legend of the Blair Witch is entirely fictional, as is the story of the disappearing, documentarian college students.
Ten years after the Blair Witch phenomenon, along comes Skeleton Creek
to blaze a new, multimedia trail for books. In this book aimed at tweens, Ryan and best friend Sarah investigate a ghostly mystery in their town: Ryan, through a journal which comprises the Skeleton Creek book, and Sarah, with videotaped footage of her detective work, which she posts online
. Unlike Blair Witch however, the online footage is not merely videotaped excerpts of content from the story, nor supplementary material.
Ryan’s journal contains periodic links and passwords the reader must use to go online and view Sarah’s videos, and the reader must read the journal and watch the videos to follow the investigation. The two elements are halves of a narrative whole, and in that sense, the “book” encompasses both the written content and the web content: a “wook”, if you will. When speakers at this year’s O’Reilly Tools of Change conference exhorted publishers to rethink their definition of the book, focusing on content instead of delivery system, this is exactly the kind of thing they were talking about.
While the multimedia, online approach isn’t right for every type of book, it’s probably right for many of them, fiction and nonfiction alike. Technical books have long provided online supplemental material, but Carman may be the first mainstream fiction author to dip a toe in the online pool, and the first to treat online material as an integral part of the narrative instead of an adjunct or mere promotional material. It’s working: Skeleton Creek is currently the #1 bestseller in the Children’s Books category on Amazon, and a sequel is scheduled for release in September.
The multimedia presentation speaks to teens and young adults, who themselves spend considerable time online, texting, tweeting and blogging. Characters in their same age group who engage in these activities are much more ‘real’ and relatable to the target audience. If you’ve got a contemporary or futuristic manuscript aimed at a YA or collegiate audience, particularly if the story has a strong visual feel, you can easily follow in Carman’s footsteps to create a multimedia wook of your own.
Instead of transcribing your character’s journal or blog entries into your manuscript, create a blog in the character’s name and direct readers to a first-hand experience of reading the blog. Populate your character’s profile with information to flesh that character out into a real person. Would one or more of your characters have a Twitter, Flickr, Facebook or MySpace account? Give them those accounts, and let their respective parts in the story unfold on those sites.
It’s easy enough to shoot videos and upload them to a blog, website or YouTube using a Flip Mino
camera, and so long as your characters are not supposed to be professional filmmakers, the low-budget feel of those videos will only add to the realism of your story. If crucial clues or character background lie in a given character’s artwork, photos or original music, put that art or music online for the reader to discover and interpret for himself when the story takes him off the printed page.
Be careful, though; any such material you post online must be original or licensed from its creator, and you must have a signed release form from any person who appears in your character’s photos. Only stock photos can be used without individual, signed releases.
Just remember that a wook is not the same thing as a book with supplemental, online material. A wook is a multimedia presentation that encompasses both printed and digital material, and engages the reader to interact with the online material in real life. With a wook, the consumer isn’t reading a story, she experiences an adventure right alongside your characters. She takes an active role in piecing the story together herself.
Now that’s what I call rethinking your definition of the book!
April L. Hamilton is an author and the founder of Publetariat.
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