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Storyworlds: Cooperation in Transmedia – how does it work?

FAQ/ Startups (download pdf)

Interactive “enhanced” books pose huge challenges for publishers, in terms of both production and marketing, and the publishers need competent partners in this area. That usually means working with start-ups in the games or software sectors, as very few publishers have the necessary competences in-house. Frankfurt Academy Quarterly (FAQ) has looked at some of the most prominent examples and asks, how well does the cooperation work?

 By Nicole Stöcker


What are they all talking about?

The answer is: transmedial storytelling – something which is becoming increasingly important for the traditional publishing sector. The media platform StoryDrive and the Berlin-based agency newthinking communications recently conducted an international Market Climate Survey on the Future of the Content and Media World. More than half of the 1,400 media representatives questioned claimed that crossmedial and transmedial forms of storytelling and value addition are already part of their daily work.

Only very few publishing houses have editors, games developers and designers sitting together under the same roof. One of those that does is Scholastic in the USA. “We have an in-house team devoted to gaming and web development for our multi-platform properties,” says Nick Eliopolus of Scholastic, who recently spoke in Beijing at the conference StoryDrive China. “They’re involved at every step in the process. So you could say that we’re an example of constant contact and collaboration between the book and gaming industries.” Eliopolus is editor of the company’s multiplatform Infinity Ring, a time-travel adventure for young adults consisting of seven books, as well as online games.

Due to the lack of relevant in-house capacities, this kind of interdisciplinary work is more often performed in cooperation with experimental start-ups in the digital entertainment field – companies that are probing the limits of what is feasible. Dan Franklin, digital publisher with Random House UK, summarises the advantages and disadvantages of such cooperation: “A start-up’s slanted perspective on the industry introduces new thinking and encourages innovation as these companies are untainted by the esoteric nature of how the publishing industry works. Having said that, it’s also the source of frustration and misunderstanding. Especially when it comes to how rights are treated, a lot of start-ups are in the dark.”

Cooperation between publishers and start-ups is something Sophie Rochester knows a lot about. As the founder of the online magazine and consultancy The Literary Platform, part of her job is to bring publishers together with potential partners in other creative industries. On the subject of rights, Rochester observes that the sharing of intellectual property – who holds the rights to the texts, or to the games structure – is particularly difficult in such complex works. It becomes even harder when social media are introduced as an additional component to supplement the finished products. An important job for the future, she says, is to consider ways of protecting the rights of all the creative people involved.

There is no fixed division of roles when developers and publishers collaborate.

Depending on the project, the roles in the cooperation can be distributed very differently. Start-ups such as Failbetter Games and Popleafcan provide the development,

Black Crown

design and platform for a product which is 100% financed by the publisher – as was the case with the close collaboration between Random House and author Rob Sherman for the free-to-play browser game Black Crown.

The Story Mechanics based their product on John Buchan’s espionage thriller. They persuaded Faber and Faber (UK) to get involved as the publisher for the Mac App Store and Google Play Store platforms, while Avanquest is responsible for retail sales of the physical boxed product, and KISS for online PC/Mac distribution. As Rochester explains, “Games companies like The Story Mechanics are keen to partner with traditional publishers, such as Faber, on projects like The 39 Steps, as the book publishers still offer a better chance of getting publicity for them in the media.” Getting access to big author properties also makes the cooperation with publishers attractive. Faber and Faber has had positive experiences elsewhere with such cooperation arrangements. The iPad app for T.S. Elliot’s The Waste Land, produced in collaboration with developer Touch Press, covered its costs within just a few weeks of its release in 2011.


An example of a cooperative project in which the publishing house and the start-up both act as publishers was the enhanced multimedia e-book Frankenstein, released in 2012. This was the work of independent British publisher Profile Books, in cooperation with the Cambridge-based creative design company, Inkle. While the app is based on Mary Shelley’s novel, the text was rewritten by Dave Morris as an “interactive gamebook”, which lets readers choose the storylines they want to pursue.

This project is profitable, with 17,000 copies sold to-date (May 2013). The source of income from apps sold to users as well as from B2B licensing. “Selling apps is remarkably similar to selling print books,” says Michael Bhaskar, Digital Publishing Director at Profile Books. “What we’ve learned is that you have to market and publicise digital projects even more than print, because the app store is just a very narrow window, a tiny little window to the world.” Profits are smaller than for “traditional” publishing projects, because they need to be divided among a larger number of interested parties.

New cooperation arrangements often lead to new business models…

For the publishers, meanwhile, with the assistance of their partners, it is interesting not only to try out innovative products, but also to test new business models and their related sales channels. For instance, the browser-based game Black Crown is available free of charge. As Dan Franklin explains, users can make micropayments “if they want to, to buy story strands, to expedite the narrative, or acquire status in the story world.” It is just a few weeks since the launch of the project, so it is too early to say much about its profitability, especially as the calculation is more complex than for traditional book projects. “We have new-fangled, complex targets – we need to set key performance indices for a project like this around average revenue per user, audience churn and absolute revenue.” Black Crown is the first real foray by Random House into the world of free-to-play (F2P) games. In the other direction, several games companies are increasingly turning to literary plots in order to make their game-worlds more exciting. An example is Bigpoint, whose browser-based Game of Thrones draws on the book A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin.

39 Steps

Faber and Faber has already made a profit with The 39 Steps, Henry Volans informs us. At the same time he also points out that, if nothing else, the marketing of such new products is not without its problems.People are not sure where The 39 Steps fits, and they have different expectations depending on whether they come from a books or a gaming background. The product has had a fair bit of criticism, as well as lots of praise, but the vast majority of commentators do see it as a step towards a hugely exciting new product category.” And after all, The 39 Steps has been nominated for the UK games industry’s Develop Award, in the “Use of narrative” category.

Most of the partnerships discussed so far have been located in the world of games and (digital) books. Meanwhile, in the field of transmedia publishing some really ambitious projects are being pursued by Kristian Costa-Zahn, Head of Creation with UFA Lab, which has offices in Berlin and Cologne. The UFA Film & TV Produktion’s multimedia production unit, which views itself as a “content laboratory for new media”, has already implemented a range of marketing campaigns for German publishers, using transmedia elements. As a first for Germany, it is now working on a story that uses inter-linked platforms: book, TV-film, the internet, and physical events. This will be presented in an “advanced state” at the Frankfurt StoryDrive conference in October. According to Costa-Zahn – who, with representatives of different industries, co-authored the Transmedia Manifesto at the Book Fair in 2011 – the most important prerequisites for cooperation between the various creative industries are openness and flexibility. “You have to be able to question existing processes.” This is not least a plea to the authors as the originators of stories; for not every author is prepared to take part in this kind of collaborative work.

Meet Kristian Costa-Zahn, Ufa Lab and other experts from the world of transmedia publishing

You can meet Kristian at the StoryDrive Conference  (11 October).

StoryDrive is the international forum for trends and innovation in media and entertainment. Since 2010, this event has focused on new forms of storytelling and pioneering business models. Leaders from the publishing, film, TV, and games industries, from marketing, design and sociology, gather here to present their visionary narrative concepts and to offer new perspectives on the media world of tomorrow. Under the motto “Fiction is real”, this year’s Frankfurt StoryDrive is dedicated to a new generation of stories. They’re from the future. They’re more realistic than ever before. You can touch them, experience them with all your senses and actively influence them.

When: 11 October 2013

Where: Frankfurt Book Fair, Room Europe

Contact: Britta Friedrich, Director Conferences, at friedrich@book-fair.com


  • Nina

    A recent survey adds some interesting insights: 41 per cent of publishers outsource ebook production, 45 per cent do it inhouse http://bit.ly/1b8nqrv