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Is Endworlds the Future of Science Fiction publishing? London Calling talks to creator Nic Read

2 March 2012 Tom Hunter

Kids of my generation had books, tv and film, and sometimes soundtracks of those films to geek out with. Video games weren’t an industry yet. So if you were lucky, a story like Star Wars would come along and you’d get all these different ways to experience that universe at once, because they planned and coordinated a rich world for the fans to inhabit.

As the music industry has changed in the face of digital downloads, so too will the world of publishing, and what better genre to lead the charge for change than science fiction? London Calling talked to Nic Read, the mastermind behind multimedia project Endworlds, to find out more about the future face of the worlds most popular genre.

London Calling: Endworlds is a book, a transmedia project, an album and more. Is this the way you envisioned the project initially or are the results the organic culmination of your researches in storytelling?
 

Nic Read: Kids of my generation had books, tv and film, and sometimes soundtracks of those films to geek out with. Video games weren’t an industry yet. So if you were lucky, a story like Star Wars would come along and you’d get all these different ways to experience that universe at once, because they planned and coordinated a rich world for the fans to inhabit. I saw the movie when I was 10, bought the vinyl double LP that weekend to replay the film in my head, and then the novel, toys, trading cards and comics followed quickly. I think Lucas had the right idea building so much and releasing it at the same time. It’s no coincidence that franchise went on to be the most successful in history. Other franchises tend to start with an author’s story, which gets re-imagined for tv or film, and reinterpreted in music and game almost as an afterthought to cash in on the gravy train rather than be an integral part of advancing the plot and fan experience.
 
LC: You put a lot of time into ‘the formula’ for this project, looking at blockbuster films, novels and so forth to try and distil (for want of a better word) the essence of what makes a 21st Century popular culture hit. What form did this research take, and now you’ve launched the project can you share any of the behind the scenes secrets?
 

NR: I went to the Big 4 consulting firms and led a team of analysts to crunch data to identify what made a book or film into a blockbuster based on the past 50 years of inflation-adjusted box office and publishing sales. I wanted to see the combinations of genre, character arc, plot, rhythm, emotion markers, gender balance, and how sub-themes and support characters helped or hindered fan appreciation.
 
50 years of material, thousands of films and books…this took serious analytics muscle to complete. What came of it was that there is no ‘one thing’ that makes a hit. It takes a combination of things, working in harmony, at exactly the right pitch, angle and speed, to make fire. Back in the days of rubbing sticks together, some people almost got it right, but couldn’t get a spark. Then someone examined it and designed the match so people could ‘put it all together’ and make fire every time. That’s what the research achieved. And I wrote Endworlds based on that.
 
One of the rules I will share is that fans respond either to motion or observation. One or both must be present in a book or film for it to be a hit. Motion is where the plot carries forward and each new burst of surprise propels the reader to keep reading. Observation is where the world is described in rich (even boring) detail—it creates authenticity and therefore stickiness when writers put hard science into their science fiction. Think
Herbert (Dune), Asimov (Foundation) and Crichton (Jurassic Park) in books, and Blade Runner, Empire Strikes Back or Avatar in films. As good as these were, it was the scientific and cultural detail that sold them to their target audience. Each genre has its own tells.
 
But beyond examining past works, I wanted to see over the horizon at what was coming next. You know, stories today are told in books, film, games, graphic novels, and many other ways. The Generation X and Y cloud-crowd has a different way of engaging with their entertainment, and sharing opinions about it.
 
They can surf many areas of interest at once, but they trend to being loyal to ideas that offer a labyrinth of experience. Once they select an entertainment, they bite hard, dig deep, and you better have enough content to keep them entertained because they’ll bounce back out just as fast if you betray their expectations. Take LOST for example, or Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. If you can offer a twisted maze, puzzles or a quest to navigate, any book can evoke the same appeal as a multiplayer videgame. There are serious reservoirs of physical effort readers of books and viewers of movies will expend to inhabit the world of the characters they’re reading about.
 
My research identified this latent energy had the potential to be captured by books. Though tablets weren’t invented yet, the data said I needed to build Endworlds for a tablet-enabled world. Why? Was it because they would be a new way to ‘display and distribute’ a book to make money (most publishers seem to think this is what e-readers are for)? No. They don’t get it. The reason e-readers started selling and why we now have iPad and all its copycats is because of the same trend my research showed would emerge.
 
People now want an interactive, immersive, connected experience from their entertainment, whether it’s literature or a tv franchise. It really isn’t about the manufacturers building a cool device. Remember, Apple launched the Newton tablet once, similar to the iPad, and it flopped. It was the right technology, but the wrong timing because we didn’t have a generation of ‘digital natives’ back then. We do now, and they consume differently.
 
So a component that had to be in Endworlds was a game layer, not on the screen, but in the real world. This informed how the book was structured, because we needed to show the characters completing the first level of this game so fans would know what we wanted them to do later in the physical world. At the end of the book the characters challenge the reader to join them on the next game layer, set in locations around the world. There are puzzles and maps on our website. People solve them from the ease of their armchair. These lead to GPS coordinates—a kind of global geocaching game that they have to walk through their front door to complete. I call it The Hunt.
 
The people who are first to solve the puzzles and get to these sites (or send their friends if they’re closer) will find artifacts buried there. There are six treasure sites around the world. If they dig in the right place, they’ll find...well, that would be giving away too much of the fun. But I can say it’s key to the sequel because I’ll write these people into the sequel for the small part they play in the broader adventure. It gives them a degree of immortality and if the YouTube videos we ask them to make of their Hunt show them to be a more colourful character, they’ll get more airtime in the novel when it’s telling how people around the world helped find these objects. So you see, in completing The Hunt, they cross over and become citizens of my literary world. I call it “Reality Literature”, and it can play across any genre.
 
LC: Many seasoned publishers would tell me that its impossible to create a formula for a successful book or film, no matter how obvious wizard schools, teen vampires and Jedi Knights might seem in retrospect. How has the publishing industry responded to the project?
 
NR: Great question. Hollywood and Big Publishing don’t like being told there’s ‘a better way’, especially by an industry outsider. I’ve had the snooty emails and withering looks at every step of this project. They say: “That’s not how we do things”, “Get with the program” or—my favorite—“Come back after you’ve taken all the risk away using your own money.” I understand. The way Endworlds is put together is brand new. It’s high concept. Most people have trouble picturing how all the moving parts come together, even when it’s the sum of pieces they are already familiar with. You have to be a visual thinker to picture it. I draw on the back of a lot of napkins. And I bankrolled it myself to prove the concept works. It makes no difference: they’ll all be producing books this way five years from now.
 
LC: You worked with popular, and prolific, science fiction novelist Alan Dean Foster on the book part of the project. Was he involved with creating the storyline and/or world building, or was it more of a case of realising the vision from your concept, more as you would with the novelisation of a screenplay?
 
NR: Yes, from reading his books to collaborating on one. It was a treat. I chose Alan because I had this massive story bible of the plot, characters, races, science, cultures and so on, and for some writers it would have been too daunting to take on. But Alan has long carved out a reputation for novelizing studio screenplays, so we treated it like that kind of exercise. I gave him broad strokes where I needed him to paint a rich canvass, and prescriptive detail where specific beats needed to happen. It became an iterative process. He would write. I would rewrite and expand. Then we’d polish. Alan was a dream to work with, fast, generous and professional at all times.
 
LC: While the publishing industry has clearly had more time to start thinking about the digital world than, say, the music industry, it’s clear we’re only at the beginning of a period of rapid technological change in the industry. Would you want to be brave enough to make some speculative predictions about where the industry might be going?
 
NR:
Publishers must wake up to what their job has become. It’s not about contracts and distribution deals, paper and ink anymore. It’s about content and accessibility. The importance of these two words will dawn on publishers in the next few years, and they’ll need to retool their strategy or risk further obsolescence.
 
Mergers and acquisitions will follow by necessity with crossmedia partners in technology, film and video. We won’t see print disappear altogether. It seems unthinkable. But we will see schools migrate to low-cost tablets and eventually to OLED flexi-screen devices as rising obesity and health problems in youth make the arcane ritual of lugging heavy texts in a backpack a hot topic. A glut of second-hand print books should fuel an education revolution in developing economies.
 
The reading experience will be much more interactive, with the content of smartbooks available anywhere, anytime through licensing to the individual rather than to the device.
 
We’ll see eBooks update with new content from the author on the fly, eliminating the carbon-heavy need for additional print runs. With this capability, books will be sold before they’re finished. Fans will comment and collaborate to shape the narrative. Editing will be done with consumer input to make a better product. Fiction authors who want to update chapters, tweak dialog, add appendices or include fan work, will be do so and get their books out faster as a result. Business texts with financial tables will be updated through live feeds. Education texts will be updated and not thrown out when ideas change. “Pluto isn’t a planet anymore?” No problem.


Experience Endworlds, join the Longcoats...

More than a novel, Endworlds is a vast adventure taking place across books, music and the internet. There are clues to solve and adventures to begin, and here's our suggestions for some of the best places to start

Community:
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Website: http://www.longcoats.org

Downloads: [url=http://itunes.apple.com/gb/book/endworlds-1.1/id461437672?mt=11]http://itunes.apple.com/gb/book/endworlds-1.1/id461437672?mt=11[/url]
 

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