Two Australian creatives rewriting digital destiny with a novel approach that foresees a publishing future that’s not all e-books.
The publishing industry is a big old dinosaur. There’s a certain way of doing things. You want to get published, you fire off a query letter, send in your manuscript, cross your fingers. If the stars align, you’re called in for a mob style sit-down. You take the stage, pitch your book and hope your prayers are answered.
At least that’s how it usually goes.
Novelist Alan Gold and award-winning screenwriter Mike Jones aren’t interested in the usual way of doing things. Though Gold is the acclaimed author of over 20 books, penning mostly historical fiction, he’s partnered with Jones, the executive producer and story-editor of online narrative Wastelander Panda, to shuttle stories from 1000 BC into the future.
‘We didn’t come at them with, “Here’s the plot of the book we want to write”, we said “Take a big leap with us… we’re going to pitch you a world that’s got multiple story possibilities and then we’re going to tell you about the books attached to that”,’ Jones explains from the Simon & Schuster offices in Sydney.
Gold is besides him, and they’re relating the story of how they sold their multiplatform creative process, The Heritage Project, to Simon & Schuster in a global publishing deal.
‘What’s interesting is that we really did pitch it as a world.’
That’s where The Heritage Project differs from your usual publishing deal. While most authors sell books, Gold and Jones sold a Storyworld.
Before untangling this new concept, it’s worth addressing that The Heritage Project did start as a book. For years, the idea of ‘doing a book about the 3000 year history of the Jewish people in the Middle East’ has been rattling around Gold’s head. Upon returning from a trip to Israel, Gold realised ‘it’s a lot bigger than the book’.
‘I realised it needed somebody who is tall, dark and fabulously intelligent to help me, so I found Mike,’ he explains. ‘He and I have developed – mainly he – this whole concept of a Storyworld and we’re fitting three books into it as part of The Heritage Project.’
On the one hand, it is your normal publishing deal. Bloodline, the first book in the trilogy will be published in November, with the others set to follow. But it’s your usual publishing deal the same way that Arnold Schwarzenegger is your usual politician – beefed up.
‘We looked at the world around this narrative, the pressures and conflicts in time that affected this incredibly fraught part of the world both in ancient times and in modern times, then we looked at the narrative pathway through it,’ Jones explains.
Judging the concept by the cover, it’s a historical thriller that follows two family lines through the great political upheavals of the ages, taking form in a present day as a conspiracy story about ‘characters caught up inevents outside their control’ who are then ‘thrust into a high stakes chase’.
If you think Jones’ description sounds similar to a screenwriter spewing their guts to a Hollywood exec in an elevator you’re spot on. Not only is he the current Head of Story Development for immersive media company Portal Entertainment, he’s also been a lecturer at AFTRS, where he co-developed the world’s first graduate program in online series development. He also took out the award for best unproduced screenplay at the 2012 Australian Writers Guild AWGIEs, so his background is firmly rooted in the screen.
‘Alan brought this huge historical canvas, and a deep knowledge of history and I’ve looked at it holistically and thought, “Let’s not think about it as a book… let’s think about it as a world where there’s multiple points of view, multiple narrative possibilities”, then out of that we started to work out different platforms and possibilities and ways the story might be told.’
This is at the crux of the Storyworld concept. I find it easiest to compare it to a universe like Star Wars – there’s the three original films but then there are TV shows, video games, books and shitty prequels. When you think about it like that, it’s not that new an idea. You come up with something, it grows in popularity, you licence it to third parties who use it to churn dollars.
What is different is that Gold and Jones have decided on a multiplatform existence for their world from the very beginning. ‘What we’ve done is reverse the process,’ Jones says. ‘Often, you put a book out into the market place and see how it does, hoping that someone will option it.’
The two are already brushing shoulders and shaking hands in Hollywood, even before Bloodline is released in November. This is part of The Heritage World approach. They’re pitching the pilot of the TV series that will compliment the books, though they’re quick to point out that ‘it’s not going to be a case of picking up the story and moving it to a different platform’.
Rather than a straight adaptation, the Storyworld expands on other platforms like television. ‘The different platforms – our television series, digital multiplatform and interactive possibilities that we’ve scoped – all tell the story from different ways and different points of views and perspectives.’
For instance, a secondary character in the book might get more time to shine in the TV series, or an event in the background might become the focus of a graphic novel developed for tablets.
‘It’s actually thinking about what part of the story fits with that platform, so the platforms therefore become accumulative, an audience gains more by engaging more widely and we reward engagement,’ Jones clarifies.
This casting of the narrative net also allows others to become involved, which sets it apart from traditional publishing. While they’re dealing with people in Hollywood, they’re also liaising with digital producers in preparation for the story being told on different platforms. Gold explains that ‘people can come in and support us as co-partners’, because they’re presenting ‘a total picture that is all part of the Storyworld’.
Part of that Storyworld, and how it might look online is web documentaries. ‘We’re building on a historical drama, the factual history as opposed to the narrative history, so our online components are going to be looking at how we can extend the storytelling experience with web documentaries, and interactive documentary,’ Jones says. ‘This puts the fiction in a historical context, the rise and fall of civilisations, Babylon, Rome, Greece, the Crusades and into the modern era.’
While The Heritage Project deals with antiquity, it’s a response to contemporary interaction with narratives. As Gold explains, ‘People can now have entertainment mobile through iPads and tablets, all sorts of different downloadables, it really is an entirely different world to the novel, the novel is really the 20th and the early 21st century.’
Gold and Jones believe that Simon & Schuster, and their US partner Atria, are the only publishers with the foresight to achieve the ambitions of The Heritge Project.
‘We wanted the right publisher who could see the bigger picture about what publishing is, it’s not just books, publishing is about getting a narrative to n audience and providing it in many ways that can be in different forms,’ says Jones.
The love fest is mutual. Head of Publishing at Simon & Schuster Australia said in a statement: ‘In a time where the book industry is experiencing an incredible amount of change it’s exciting to be publishing a project that from its very inception gives us an extended reach outside of our own traditional space and audience.’
Change is often seen as a bad thing, but one of the most important aspects of the Storyworld example is how it highlights the increased opportunities for writers and creative’s to engage with a range of audiences. Projects like this don’t signal the death of the book, but it’s evolution.
‘For publishing and for broadcasting there’s an awful lot of negativity and doom and gloom that “digital is killing this” or “no one pays for this”. I think the only thing in danger is business models. There’s no shortage of stories or people who want to see stories and there’s never been so many mediums to put stories on,’ Jones contends.
‘Books aren’t going anywhere – the Storyworld concept is just using them as a place to anchor a bigger development process.’