Monday, 30 April 2012

A thing of bolts and stitches?

How do you create a monster? Victor Frankenstein isn’t telling. His excuse, eminently reasonable in light of how things turned out, is that he wants to prevent others from rediscovering the process. We're not sure if he's giving life or restoring it; we're left in the dark as to whether it involves sparks or smells or both. A possible clue: recounting his early influences, Victor mentions Paracelsus and other practitioners of alchemy and occultism. Benjamin Franklin and Luigi Galvani don’t get a look in.
“I pursued nature to her hiding-places. Who shall conceive the horrors of my secret toil, as I dabbled among the unhallowed damps of the grave, or tortured the living animal to animate the lifeless clay? […] I collected bones from charnel houses and disturbed, with profane fingers, the tremendous secrets of the human frame. […] The dissecting room and the slaughter-house furnished many of my materials; and often did my human nature turn with loathing from my occupation.”
As John Sutherland wrote in his essay “How does Victor make his monsters?” there is nothing in the original novel that says the monster is a patchwork of body parts from rifled graves:
“It remains unclear whether [Victor’s] motive has been research into primal tissue, or the kleptomaniac filching of limbs and organs with which Fritz’s midnight forays in the films have made us familiar.”
Fritz (the inimitable Dwight Frye) is of course a creation of the movies; in the novel, Victor has no assistant, hunchbacked or otherwise. The location he chooses for his second laboratory is a tiny island in Orkney, and he goes there alone. Unless he brings with him a stack of coffins, we can safely assume that no corpses are harmed in the making of the second (female) monster. Certainly the island’s population cannot provide Victor with raw materials – there are only three cottages, one of which he rents. No cemetery or morgue is mentioned, supporting the theory that he constructs or even grows the bodies before animating them.

Mary Shelley may have drawn her inspiration for Victor from her husband’s enthusiasm for amateur science. Three or four years before Percy Shelley met Mary Godwin, his friend Hogg described his room at Univ:

“Books, boots, papers, shoes, philosophical instruments, clothes, pistols, linen, crockery, ammunition and phials innumerable, with money, stockings, prints, crucibles, bags and boxes were scattered on the floor and in every place, as if the young chemist, in order to analyse the mystery of creation, had endeavoured first to re-construct the primeval chaos. The tables, and especially the carpet, were already stained with large spots of various hues, which frequently proclaimed the agency of fire. An electrical machine, an air-pump, the galvanic trough, a solar microscope and large glass jars and receivers, were conspicuous amidst the mass of matter.”
It seems that Victor is a (bio)chemist, not an engineer or physicist. The only reference in the original text that justifies the leaping, coiling, thrilling bolts of electricity that arced above Colin Clive and Boris Karloff is where Victor says, “I collected the instruments of life around me, so that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet.” The rest of the passage describing the monster’s birth is tragic rather than climactic. He seems to slip reluctantly into the land of the living, and Victor has no exultant shout of “It’s alive!” His mood is one of anxiety, hopelessness and disgust.

Disgust is a big part of Victor’s relationship with the monster, a disgust evidently born of self-loathing. Novels are not literal, of course, so we need to remember that on another level the monster
is Victor – the side of him that leers with “a ghastly grin” when he shapes the female creature’s flesh under his hands. Victor even describes him as “my own vampire, my own spirit let loose… forced to destroy all that was dear to me.” He is a proud, lustful, physical creature who makes a stab at pretending to be civilized. As do we all.

And what about that grin?
How exactly is it “ghastly”? There’s no spare part surgery in Mary Shelley’s book; if Victor isn’t a physicist, still less is he a surgeon. And, however Shelley envisaged the monster, she surely meant him to be stranger and more disturbing than Robert De Niro criss-crossed with catgut sutures:
“His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion, and straight black lips.”
I don’t think an actor in make-up is going to cut it. People who encounter the monster react with fear and loathing – not, “Look at that poor chap,” but “Kill it! Kill it!” He must be terrifyingly deformed. In my version of the book, his skin is grown on frames similar to the ones that Victor’s cousin/fiancée uses for needlework, and it is literally transparent - a bug that Victor decides is a feature, as it will make it easier for anatomists to study the internal organs of his creation.

My Victor is a chemist and physicist - not terms that were actually used in English until the mid-1800s, but it’s all a translation, after all. He studies a little anatomy, and later has the chance to practice surgical techniques under the tutelage of Dr Robert Campbell. (If you convince Victor to do that, it means he is able to make the second creature far comelier than the first.) When we meet him, he’s collecting guillotined heads – but not to bolt onto his monster. He just wants to study the structure of a larynx so that he can replicate it:
“I need the small cartilages of a human voice box – a very intricate structure, much too time-consuming for me to build by hand. If I can find one fresh enough, chemicals can be used to stimulate its growth to suit the creature’s scale. Or perhaps I’ll use it to make moulds in which I can nurture bone cultures. There are a thousand excruciating details like this.”
Soon after, Victor talks about the monster’s brain:
“The structure of the brain is far beyond my power to replicate, so I implanted tissue from the brains of several unborn children, bathed in certain internally secreted chemicals that appear to stimulate growth, and grafted this to a fully developed brain stem. Thus the creature will be born with an infant mind, but the mind should mature at a greatly accelerated rate. As to the nature of its thoughts and feelings – they may be like yours or mine, or they may be something entirely new.”

“So it will learn?” you (it's an interactive novel) may ask Victor.

“It is learning already. The brain is active, though sleeping as in the womb. Perhaps it can even hear what we're saying.”
I have provided more details of the monster’s creation than Mary Shelley did. Readers today will expect some flesh on the bones. The story has become very familiar, from books and movies and plays, and so it’s necessary to push a little if it is still to have power to surprise and shock, but hopefully I’ve kept some of the ambiguity and mystery. I want you to read into the creation process your own private horrors. James Whale made the moment cinematically exciting, but in doing so he lost the most important aspect of Victor’s solitary act: the fact that it is unbearably sad and rather squalid. The desperate loneliness of the staring animal eye, the sudden intake of breath, the reflexive shudder – all for something that can be achieved more wholesomely outside the workshop of filthy creation.

Frankenstein is published by Profile Books. Now on sale in the App Store.

Thursday, 26 April 2012

When is it right to reboot a classic?

Like most writers, I could probably use more exercise. And I wouldn’t get even as much as I do if not for Luke Navarro and Kevin McGill, who host a books podcast called Guys Can Read. It’s easy to spend an hour listening to Luke and Kevin, and then you look up and realize you’ve run ten miles without going anywhere. With them, workouts are (almost) fun.

The idea behind Guys Can Read is to look at books from a guy/geek perspective. If you’re worried that means they only review genre stuff, not a bit of it. They might discuss an SF novel, but they’re just as likely to be talking about Steinbeck or Dickens. What they care about is great storytelling, and I haven’t yet heard any of their shows where there wasn’t at least one really profound insight that made me pause my MP3 player, slow down the treadmill, and have a good long ponder.

This morning, with glorious sunshine beating down on southern England, I couldn’t face a couple of hours in an air-conditioned gym, so instead took Luke and Kevin for a walk around the verdant lanes of Great Bookham. They were talking about Sherlock Holmes, and how the BBC television version in particular may have seemed like a terrible idea to purists, but has actually turned out to be a very good way of making the characters relatable for a modern audience. (And, sure, I apologize for using the word relatable, but this stuff does matter.) Asked which was best for a modern audience, the Conan Doyle originals or the Moffat/Gatiss revamp, Kevin didn’t miss a beat before replying, “
Sherlock, hands down.”

It’s not just a question of putting the characters in a present-day setting. The recent movies also managed to make people care again about Holmes and Watson, and they did it (like the TV show) by letting character drive the storyline. As Luke and Kevin point out in their show, the breadth of knowledge with which Holmes astounded Victorian readers doesn’t look quite so impressive now we have Google, so it’s important to find new ways to make us gasp at his genius – and to see how being that kind of remarkable genius affects him as a person.

But, more than that, nowadays we want stories that take us on a journey of discovery through characters and relationships. J J Abrams did more to develop the core Star Trek characters in one movie than had been attempted in the seventy-nine episodes of the original series. Abrams's story wasn’t just an intriguing science fictional problem, or even a challenge of morality and courage. It got personal. And suddenly these characters mattered again.

Not every old story needs a new telling. Nobody need rewrite Pride & Prejudice or Great Expectations; they’re just fine as they are, and still selling strong. The rip-roaring adventure rides of yesteryear, though, do tend to date (look at John Carter) . More generally, the problem comes when an old, much-loved story was built around the motor of plot or high concept. Then, over time, the grand idea becomes familiar – too familiar. As Erica Wagner said recently in The Times of Sherlock Holmes and Frankenstein, those works “escape the bonds of literature and take on a life of their own”. When the surprise value of the core idea is already disseminated into public consciousness, and if the work has no real development of character to give the story structure compensatory support – that’s when you need a reboot.

And that’s where I came in with Frankenstein. What a powerful idea it is. An ingenious, obsessively driven man creates artificial life. It has become almost the defining archetype of runaway science – never mind that it’s not actually a novel about runaway science, at least not in the original 1818 version.

But that was then. Take a look at it with the core idea extracted. There’s very little expatiation of character, still less actual character development. Victor Frankenstein is highly strung and brilliant, but those are just ticks in boxes. Despite spending the whole novel inside his head, we barely know Victor well enough to recognize him at a party, as we would Lizzy Bennet or Long John Silver, unless he came over and started telling us about his plans for creating life.

The Mary Shelley novel hardly concerns itself at all with personality. We are introduced to Victor’s friends and family as types. He has “a great friend”, Henry Clerval, who is “of singular talent and fancy” and who invariably “exerts himself to amuse” while expressing “the sensations that fill his soul”. (Whatever those sensations may be, we are left to guess.) We are shown very few concrete scenes between Henry and Victor. There is no banter. The relationship never changes. Henry exists – as most of the characters do – merely to tell Victor not to mope quite so much.

This is why you’ll find a lot of people who have read Mansfield Park or The Pickwick Papers, near-contemporary works, but not so many who’ve done more than dip into Frankenstein. I hadn’t read it myself before I began working on the interactive version. And I didn’t want to stick it in a modern setting and get sidetracked by stuff about cloning, but I did feel that it needed a complete overhaul on the level of the characters. How they feel about things, and how the events of the story change them, is given much more emphasis in my version. For instance, when the monster finds a hat and a bag full of clothes, he ventures out at sunset and waves to a farmer on the far side of a field. And the farmer waves back - which, as you can imagine, is a pretty big deal if you’ve only ever been chased, persecuted and pelted with stones.

At 155,000 words, my Frankenstein is more than twice as long as Mary Shelley’s. Partly that’s because, in an interactive book, the reader weaves through different story threads and necessarily doesn’t get to read everything. But even a single read-through of the interactive Frankenstein should produce a longer novel than the 1818 version. In much of the new material you’ll get to know Victor, and observe (and influence) his relationships with his father, his fiancée, and the monster. You’ll understand his friendship with Henry, and you can see how that develops as Victor changes under the pressure of old unburied demons closing in.

It is the old story remade - as stories have been throughout history, in fact. It’s only in the era of publishing that we started to think of them as something to lock down. My intention in remaking Frankenstein like this is that you’ll be able to come to it with the fresh interest and wild surmise of those readers of 1818 who opened the pages to find something both modern and timeless. Now you tap your fingers on the glass instead, but otherwise little has changed.

Frankenstein was conceived, designed and written by Dave Morris and is published by Profile Books. Buy it here in the App Store, and listen to Luke and Kevin review it here.

Friday, 20 April 2012

When a character asks you for advice

About ten years ago, Leo and I developed a show called Dilemmas for Flextech. It was an interactive cartoon for 9-12 year-olds featuring a teenager called Cathy who would often break the fourth wall by turning to ask the viewer for advice.

Dilemmas arose out of adventure games, but it always bothered me the way those games would focus on things like how to stack up the crates in the right order to reach the rope that you could tie to the hook... You know, puzzle stuff. It treats a story as a problem to be solved. The really interesting choices in a story are the personal ones: white lies, temptations, keeping your promises, letting down a friend, etc.

Not that Dilemmas was about picking the right moral path. That's just another kind of puzzle: "Well done, you score 20 Niceness Points". Instead, in Dilemmas, you had to build a relationship with Cathy. She would almost always take your advice (unless it was really dumb) but the outcome often depended on how well you knew her. Things could go badly wrong if you hadn't judged the course of action that suited her best. She was actually quite an effective liar, for example - so suggesting the fast-talk option often worked. But she didn't always feel good about lying, and that would have an effect too.

Some of the outcomes might appear better or worse, but the important thing was that whatever you suggested for Cathy to do, you'd get a story. There was no fail-and-start-again stuff like in a game. And she remembered the advice you gave her, and whether it got her into trouble, so there was that sense of advising a friend rather than steering a puppet-like character through the hoops of a plot. Over time, you could earn Cathy's trust and then she'd open up to you more.

As I said, Dilemmas was targeted at 9-12 year old girls - not, in 2001, considered a very big potential games market. And it suited a style of play where a bunch of viewers would sit watching on the sofa, calling out suggestions or letting Cathy get increasingly impatient till she did something off her own bat. Back then, not a chance. Flextech asked us to work on a steampunk thing called Dr Mysterio instead. But I always liked the idea of interacting as confidant to the lead character, and in the end I got to use it in a very different kind of story: Frankenstein.

The images above are not from Dilemmas, however, but from the game I designed at Elixir Studios, Dreams. That too was about making relationships with the characters. Our design motto was: "This is my town. These are my friends. Here are our stories." And the scene here (a snippet from a longer story arc involving a love triangle that you could nudge, chivvy along and generally meddle in) is not a faked-up sequence; it was a genuine, working part of the game. More about Dreams next time.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Stepping into the story

With my book app of Frankenstein out next week, I’ve had several reviewers asking about the first-person interactivity. Unlike a traditional choose-your-own gamebook, where “YOU are the hero”, in Frankenstein the main character narrates the story and turns to you for advice. You’re his Tyler Durden – or maybe I mean his “Jack”.

This form of interactivity is new to gamebooks, as far as I know, but certainly didn’t leap into being just for
Frankenstein. It’s an idea prototyped in various interactive drama projects that I’ve developed over the last ten years. I’ll talk some more about some of those projects next time, but first, by way of introduction, here’s a piece I wrote in Game Architecture & Design (1999) that started me thinking along these lines:
Most of the time when you’re playing a game, what you’re doing is just that – play. You’re exploring, running, jumping, or thumb-twitching furiously to unleash a barrage of bullets. Which can be lots of fun, but a game that only had that going for it wouldn’t be fun for long. Gameplay enriches the experience. It’s the difference between idly kicking a football about in the back yard, or setting up a pitch with goals and having a match.

But gameplay is only one way of interacting. Consider a sandbox-style driving game like GTA or The Getaway. If it consisted of only city streets for you to drive around in, that kind of game would soon pall. The first thing you want to do is be able to interact with your environment. Bump another vehicle off the road, smash the doors off a police car, run somebody down. It’s violent fun – but it’s still fun. Kids play the same way, building bricks and knocking them down. So you need to have enough opportunities to interact that the setting becomes more than a backdrop; it becomes an environment.

A game like that will be better still if you can, for instance, knock over a fire hydrant and leave it spouting water. Then that pool of water makes the road slippery so that a passing car skids onto the sidewalk. A pedestrian has to dive out of the way. He hauls the driver out of the car and punches him. Now, what if the driver identifies you, the player, as the source of the trouble? He points, the pedestrian looks your way, and then both characters start yelling at you. That way, the interaction has created a story with tension, the promise of action, and emotions running high.
As an aside, this cascade-of-events kind of story emergence may seem an ambitious goal, but it was part of the Dreams game I worked on at Elixir Studios. More on that later.
When you are playing a game like Black & White or The Sims, most of what you are doing hardly involves gameplay, by which I mean strategic choices. You might just be routinely uprooting trees or steering characters out of the door in time to catch their bus. You don't mind (you probably don't even notice the lack of gameplay in those activities) because you are having fun. But if these products weren't interactive, you would certainly notice that. Then you might start wondering if your time wouldn't be better spent reading a book, watching TV, or throwing a frisbee around in the park.

Consider the ways that a player could potentially interact with a game:
  • Affecting the game world, either by changing the difficulty settings or (in simulations and god games, for example) as part of the game itself
  • Directly controlling the actions of a character or group of characters
  • Influencing a character's actions at one remove (for example, by giving the character advice, clues or items, like Zeus aiding a favoured hero)
  • Influencing a character at two removes (for example, by leading him somewhere or pointing something out for him to look at, like a Muse providing inspiration)
  • Deciding who to follow, rather than what happens – an invisible observer flitting between narrative strands
  • Selecting what is interesting to you personally and making the game give more time to those elements - as any child will, when told a story at bedtime
How many of those kinds of interactivity do you commonly see implemented? The first, certainly, but only insofar as I can make the game easier or harder, or change the speed. Why shouldn't I also be able to say to a computer opponent, as I can to a human player, "Hey, let's build up a big army before we start fighting," or, "Don't attack me because I just want to have fun building a city"?

The second kind of interactivity in that list – direct control of the characters – accounts for pretty much everything else. But interactivity doesn't have to be about what happens. It is often more interesting to think about why something happens, or how it caused other things to happen.

"If you are a process-intensive designer [...] then the characters in your universe can have free will within the confines of your laws of physics. To accomplish this, however, you must abandon the self-indulgence of direct control and instead rely on indirect control. That is, instead of specifying the data of the plotline, you must specify the processes of the dramatic conflict. Instead of defining who does what to whom, you must define how people can do various things to each other."
Chris Crawford, writing in Interactive Entertainment Design, April 1995

Games guru Chris Crawford talks about process (the laws of the game world) as opposed to data (the details of what happens in the game world). To illustrate this, think back to some of the early discussions of interactivity using broadband TV. Systems were proposed in which the viewer could decide what the characters did. Essentially, they were talking about that unlamented genre the interactive movie.

Would that work? Imagine an interactive version of the television series ER. You get to choose. Does George Clooney obey the hospital rules, does he give the experimental drugs to the sick kid, or does he just go outside and play basketball? Is that a rewarding way to experience interactive drama?

No. It assumes that the point of all drama is simply to find out what happens next. If it's good drama there ought to be a whole lot more to it than that. In the hypothetical example, is the point of the player's choice to guess what George Clooney’s character would really do? Then the interactivity reduces merely to an empathy test. Is it to make him do things he wouldn't normally? Then the interactivity is just a nerdy way to test the storyline to destruction. In neither case is characterization explored in any detail, and the only theme we are apt to uncover in this story is that it's kind of weird when people behave inconsistently.

Now consider a different way we could have played our interactive ER. This time we don't get to choose what the characters do or say. Now all we can do is choose which character to follow around the hospital. Dr Carter quarrels with Dr Pratt over a diagnosis - both storm off. We follow Carter, who gives his version of events to a third character. Later we switch back to Pratt, who by now has spoken to various other characters and is pursuing another agenda. It is only later, if ever, that we may stumble upon the resolution or aftermath of the quarrel that we witnessed at the start.

This example in itself isn’t a sufficient condition for interesting interactive drama. But it illustrates an important point. All drama, whether interactive or not, derives momentum from the viewer’s relationship with the characters. A rule often quoted in writing classes is that a character has to change and develop – hence the ubiquity in screenwriting of the redemptive story arc. In fact, characters don’t necessarily have to change to be interesting, but our understanding of the character has to change. We need to see things that will build on our first impressions and, ideally, that will surprise us and force us to reassess those impressions. That’s because the viewer is part of the system – and if that’s true of non-interactive media, you can bet it’s even more so in the case of games.
The aim of all storytelling is to make the audience care. Interactivity is a new(ish) and powerful technique in the writer’s repertoire for achieving that goal. The ER example is only arms-length involvement, in that you are still interacting as an external observer. It’s better than pressing a button every time you see a white rabbit, or brushing virtual dust off text so you can read the story – but it’s only just better. However, it is also possible to offer interactivity that draws the reader or viewer into the story, by developing a direct relationship with the protagonist. That’s what I used in Frankenstein and, ten years earlier, in a teen drama for Flextech called Dilemmas, which I’ll talk about next time.

Monday, 9 April 2012

Urbane fantasy

"April hath put a spirit of youth in everything," and to mark the rebirth of the year, you can pick up a free Kindle copy of A Minotaur at the Savoy (US edition here) all this week. Yep, right up until Friday 13th. Good thing I'm not superstitious.

This little volume, as regular readers will know, is a tie-in with the world of the Mirabilis graphic novel, fleshing out the background by means of fifty Dunsany-ish tall tales woven around the postbag of the Royal Mythological Society. For example:
Dear Prof Bromfield and Dr Clattercut

Recently I was taken by a friend to a restaurant in Fitzrovia. As we were settling down over whisky and cigars after the meal, I glanced at the menu and noticed that the à la carte listed
Dodo Véronique. Intrigued as I was, I had by this time already put away a dozen oysters, the onion soup, a smoked haddock dish, two helpings of beef wellington, a lemon soufflé, a plate of almond biscuits, a bottle or two of Chateau Yquem and three large brandies. Also, I’d had a bit of a gyppy tummy earlier in the week, so at that stage I really didn’t feel up to fitting anything else in. I now rather wish I had, as I went for a bit of a walk to see if I could find the place again and there’s no sign of the street. I remember it had a little blue sconce of flame over the door, and a sort of curtain of ivory beads to keep the fog out. My friend has gone on a trip to Venezuela so no use asking him.

Sincerely, Edward Plunkett, The Attican Club, Pall Mall

Dr Clattercut replies: O rara avis in terris!

Prof Bromfield: Latin? You’ll have lost most of our readers right there, old man.

Dr Clattercut: I merely remarked on the pang of missed opportunity. Who knows how long before Mr Plunkett will again find himself in a restaurant with dodo on the menu?

Prof Bromfield: I doubt if there’s honestly any cause for regret. From what I hear, dodo is a tough, gamey sort of fowl. No use cooking it like chicken. Dodo meat is more like what you’d get on a year-old pheasant: tough if served pink, and dry if overcooked. Much more sensible to put it in a curry or a spicy Mexican dish. A Véronique sauce would be all wrong. There’s your explanation, Mr Plunkett – you can’t find the restaurant because it’s gone out of business.

Dr Clattercut: Perhaps the words of another rare bird, the Swan of Avon, will offer some consolation: “Things sweet to taste prove in digestion sour.”

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Forget the shop, I'll just have the window

Another London Book Fair rolls around. Last year, quite a few publishers had begun to embrace the digital era, albeit in some cases with the same wide-eyed stare and frozen grin you see on the faces of presenters of TV wildlife shows as they allow pythons to be draped around their necks.

I showed one publisher the
Mirabilis app and demonstrated how you could buy issues from the in-app purchasing screen. “This screen could be your whole back catalogue. New books too. It’s a direct connection to your customer.”

“We are not booksellers,” she replied, as witheringly as if I’d pulled out one of those pythons and suggested a place to drape it. “That is not our core business.”

I reckon a lot of MBA students must have missed a class or two before taking up their jobs in publishing. No, indeed you do not want to distract yourself from your core business - if the business you’re in is relatively stable. But when it’s going through the biggest disruption it has experienced in over fifty years, you might need to rethink what your core business is. Possibly on a quarterly basis.

What will publishers be doing in a couple of LBFs from now? Let’s start by stripping down the whole business of how a book gets into a reader’s hands:
  • An author writes a manuscript
  • A designer/typesetter turns it into a book
  • A printer makes copies of it
  • Marketing and publicity make people aware of it
  • Publishing and distribution allow an interested customer to buy a copy
We all know that the last part of the equation, the high street emporium of books, is under threat. Even if the ebook didn’t exist, I’m still not going to buy a hardback for £12 that I can get on Amazon for £8 and not even have to lug home. “Oh, but we’re an oasis of calm in a busy world,” say the booksellers, “and would you like cinnamon on your latte?” If you think that’s a sustainable business, open a chain of high street zen gardens. The rest I can get by taking my newspaper to Starbucks.

The high street remains a good place to hook people’s interest, especially the non-tribal reader. I can get 50 megabytes of furry steampunk whodunits for 99 cents with one click, but if I just want a good book that isn’t any specific genre, a window display is still one of the most effective ways to get my attention. Certainly I can browse online, but like most people I am more engaged by the real world and, particularly on the way to and from work, I am actively looking for distractions.

The window display is still useful for selling books, then. It just isn’t worth sticking ten thousand square feet of shop behind it. I already talked about how Tesco used virtual shelves – screens displaying their products – to cope with a lack of physical stores in South Korea: I’m just a bookseller and I want my corners. Freed of the need to front an emporium, “window displays”, in the sense of screens you can buy from, can be more widely distributed: on the subway, as bus stops, on buses and trains themselves, even on the wall of Starbucks. And yes, go on then, just a sprinkle of cinnamon.

“But I want my book to go,” you say? And so you can. This post isn’t really about ebooks – I’m addressing the sale of physical product here – but there’s no reason why, having bought the book from one of these virtual windows, you shouldn’t immediately get it on your e-reader. That should be part of the package. The print copy will arrive a day or two later, but you can be reading it right away.

But wait… is that the icy crawl of cold sweat down your back as you survey this glittering LCD-lit utopia? Then you must be a bookseller, and you have recognized the fatal flaw. If you pay for a bunch of virtual window displays, and you go to all the trouble to inform me there is a new Andrew Miller or Lloyd Shepherd book out, what’s to stop me shopping around to find a better price? If I can save a few quid with one or two clicks, I will.

Okay, so here’s the bitter pill. The people paying for these virtual window displays – they’re not the booksellers, they’re the publishers. See, just as long as I’ve noticed their books, they don’t much care if I use Amazon or Barnes & Noble to fulfil my purchase (though increasingly they may encourage me to buy direct, like Waitrose). There’s a poetic justice to this evolution of the business, you must admit, seeing as publishers are the people who pay for window displays even now.

So the guy that owns the wall or the bus stop will make money. London Underground will be happy. The people who make books are happy, as are the people who read them. But the bookseller? Well, in the world of 2020, will that even be a separate trade, or will it just be one of the functions of a publisher?

Monday, 2 April 2012

Tibetan wolves and firing squads

How anonymity can help organizations to take risks
In Tibet there’s a problem with wolves, which prey on the livestock in remote areas. That in itself would be a nuisance. What makes it a problem is that the people of Tibet are Buddhist. Not supposed to kill, you see. So everybody goes out to corner the wolf, and they all have guns, but only a few of the guns have live ammunition. So each huntsman can come home thinking that somebody else did the killing. It’s a win-win. Unless you’re the wolf.

We’ll come back to Tibet. Meanwhile, in a galaxy far, far away – book publishing, to be precise – there is another problem. Every time there’s a big success like
Harry Potter or Twilight, publishers come out with a spate of boy wizard or vampire romance books. They do this even though everybody knows that “the next Harry Potter” will look nothing like Harry Potter.

There’s a reason for this, and it’s nothing to do with karma. Suppose I’m a book publisher and this week two manuscripts land on my desk. One is dystopian SF with teens killing each other. The other is – well, anything else. Say it’s a story about a robot butler who is left to raise the last two children after a plague kills the rest of the human race.

Okay, I have no idea if either of these will sell, but I feel reasonably secure that there’s a moderately sized spill-over market that will buy The Famine Arena. Whereas G-VES to the Rescue could be either a big hit or a short circuit. My business runs on hits, so I should be looking for those, but my career runs on not being seen to make a mistake that my rivals in the company can seize on. If you publish a Hunger Games clone and it goes nowhere, you can legitimately say, “Well, who would have known?” There’s your Teflon coating.

This isn’t just about books, by the way. A few years ago I worked at Elixir Studios on a game that was targeted at Sims players. We knew that fans of The Sims already had that game and all the add-ons. Our game needed to be something different that appealed to the same non-hardcore market (in those days an unknown quantity). But the publisher kept fretting over anything that moved us away from being a Sims clone. It was hard to find those few brave souls who were willing to stick their necks out and champion a different approach.

In entertainment, we need the big breakout hits. For all the talk of long tails, the hits still drive everything else. That means we must be willing to experiment and take risks, whether it turns out to be spending more money on Lord of the Rings or spending any money on John Carter. The upper echelons of publishing, television, games and Hollywood are full of people who took some risks when they were younger and are determined never to do so again. A lot of the senior executives I’ve encountered spend their whole time manoeuvring so that they don’t have to actually make a decision, while remaining close enough to grab a little credit if an ambitious young turk happens to strike it lucky.

Success means taking risks, which means flirting with the possibility of failure. We all know this. Tim Harford has written a whole book about it. But, on the other hand, nobody wants to poke their head over the parapet. So we need a way to let the entire organization take a risk without anyone getting sacked if it doesn’t pay off. What to do?

First stage: the publisher must decide how much of their portfolio will be in high-risk, left-field books. That’s a strategic decision. In the games industry, for example, original IP still makes more on average than licensed product – but that Avengers tie-in is a safe bet, while original IP can leave you with oil on your face - or with egg. Looking at something like John Carter, I think even my mum could tell them you don’t stake more than you’re able to lose. At the same time, there’s no point investing in left-field projects unless you’re going to do enough of them to have a decent chance of a hit. (Small publishing companies are therefore best advised to play it safe – though it's there, in fact, where you will actually find the risks being taken.)

Okay, so we know how much of the budget will go into these risky projects. I submit that it is pretty easy to agree objectively on whether a submission is from left field. It’s also not hard for a group of editors to agree whether a story is well told. So there’s our longlist.

Now here’s where the Tibetan farmer tactics come in. Because the editors and marketing people must do a secret ballot to pick which projects to green light. No one person gets the credit, no one person gets the blame. What’s the point, then, you ask? Well, the rational actor should always favour the greater good: the organization as a whole picks a good range of original properties, some of those will be the Next Big Thing, and your job is now more secure - while the publisher that's still trying to cash in on The Hunger Games has to consider a new round of redundancies.

Taking risks from within the safety of the group can help keep the wolf from the door. Just like in Tibet.