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The Next Chapter in Interactive Storytelling: interview with Jeremy Ettinghausen

30th July 09

Posted by Mel Exon

Posted in creativity, interactive

“There are always at least two ways to tell a story”
Mohsin Hamid

Launched last month under their Puffin label, We Make Stories is the latest in a long line of digital publishing innovations masterminded by Jeremy Ettinghausen (@jeremyet), Penguin’s Digital Publisher.  This is the second piece we’ve done in recent months looking at the publishing industry as a whole.  Back in May we wrote about the transformational change going on at TMG in the UK (also check out the ever brilliant Nieman Lab for a far deeper examination of journalism in this respect).  Why are we so interested in what’s going on here? In short, we’re witnessing a radical re-shaping of an industry we believe we can learn a lot from. An industry which – aside from its sheer cultural importance in the first place – has been experimenting with new creative & organisational solutions for some time now.

The launch of the new service from Penguin was a good excuse to catch up with Jeremy and find out what he’s learned from this and other past projects, as well as ask him to share his thoughts on the future of digital publishing, the struggle to monetise content & services online, the impact of the web on storytelling and finally, what role he sees for brands in this space.  So just a couple of meaty topics then…

We Make Stories homepage

Before we get much further, a recap on some of the interactive projects Jeremy’s been responsible for during his 12 years at Penguin, which include an early foray into Second Life and the insanely audacious wikinovel project, A Million Penguins:

'A Million Penguins' goes bananas

And, more recently, the award winning digital fiction project We Tell Stories:

The 21 Steps by Charles Cummings, a story you follow as it unfolds across a map of the world

The 21 Steps by Charles Cumming, a story you follow as it unfolds across a map of the world

Which brings us to Penguin’s latest interactive project, We Make Stories.  The service strikes us as a wonderfully designed, useful tool to help children create, print and share their own stories in different forms. If you want to know more about the site, check out the Penguin blog on the subject and the site itself. It also includes some tips on storytelling that wannabee grown-up writers might do well to read.

Labs: On your blog you describe WMS as part of a experimental new approach for Penguin, the creation of a publishing service versus conventional content. Could you tell us a little more about that?

JE: I guess my interest in creating services comes from all the debate about the falling price of digital content. At Penguin we spend a lot of time discussing what we can charge for content – whether it’s for ebooks, iphone applications, or print titles. I’ve also been thinking about the music business – how sales of music have become a loss leader for other music services such as concerts, merchandise and access to artists. So I’ve been thinking about what our expertise is as publishers, and whether it is transferable from content into services that people might pay for. What do we know that we can sell, and who can we sell it to?

Labs: Where did the idea come from?

JE: It is a cliche but the idea came from watching my children, particularly my son and his (obsessive) computer use. I tried to get him creating a comic using comiclife which is an excellent and really sophisticated tool to create comic books. This gave me the idea to produce similar storymaking tools specifically designed for young readers and writers. When I started looking I couldn’t believe that there was nothing similar out there.

We Make Stories: Ettinghausen's 'research assistant' shows him how it's done

We Make Stories: Ettinghausen's 'research assistant' shows him how it's done

Labs: What about the behind-the-scenes practicalities of producing a project like this?

JE: We started seriously thinking about the site nearly a year ago and spent a few months finding developers who shared our ideas about how the site might work. We’ve actually used four different developers to build the various tools which has been a challenge, but has given each of the tools their own identity. We’ve spent a lot of time thinking about user experience, particularly with the audience the site has aimed at. There is a huge range of abilities and experience in the target age group (6-12 year olds) and we’ve been conscious about creating tools that are child-appropriate but also sophisticated enough for children who have grown up gaming to enjoy. It’s been a really interesting process – happily I have a tester at home who has provided me with unfiltered feedback at every step of the way!

Labs: What would you have done differently with the site, knowing what you know now?  Do you have any plans to develop the site further?

JE: We are making some tweaks to the site – nothing major, but adding a walkthrough video so people can see what they are paying for in advance and being a little more blatant about the fact that it is not a free service. If all goes well, I’d love to add further tools (perhaps looking at sponsored tools) and make it a deeper and richer experience.

Labs: There’s a huge amount of discussion and opinion at the moment about the ‘free economy’: the expectation that services and content online should be provided free, with monetisation occurring when you offer an upgraded experience in some way. Did you consider offering a free version of WMS?

JE: With the budget we had we didn’t really have the option to offer a free version and add enough material to make a premium version worth paying for. We are looking at how we might offer schools a free trial. One of the things about the site is that we are not using it as a stealth marketing route to sell books – it’s about selling a service, not selling books. If we didn’t charge for it there would be no business justification for it to exist.

Labs: What about the criticism that Penguin is getting children to write stories to which Penguin then owns the publishing rights?

JE: We have to include legal language in the terms and conditions which allows us to reproduce, transmit, publish and display the stories, but the children retain ownership of copyright and other rights in the material they have created.

Labs: How have/will you judge success?  How is the site doing so far?

JE: So far so good – unlike previous projects I’ve been involved in (http://wetellstories.co.uk and http://amillionpenguins.com) wemakestories can be judged by sales and revenue, not simply traffic and attention. I’m discovering that money is a very focussing force.

Labs: What do you see as the key emerging trends in the publishing industry? Where do you see publishing in 18-36 months’ time?

JE: It’s been an interesting year in digital publishing and I don’t see the converging pressures on publishers easing at any point soon. There are going to be all sorts of channels for us to try and reach readers and one of the challenges is choosing which channels to go down and what deals we should strike. I think everyone is scared of doing a deal now that comes back to bite us in the ass 18months from now, which probably makes publishers look more luddite than they really are.

Labs: Technology seems to have had an explosive impact on the industry.  In terms of hardware like Kindle, through to the fact there are so many new ways to tell stories: cross-platform, interactive etc How would you describe technology’s impact on storytelling?

Labs: Do you think interactive storytelling improves the reader experience?

JE: I’m going to link these two questions together because I think that technology is not simply impacting on the way that readers interact with stories, but on the way that people interact with content. I was struck by the comments of Fred Wilson when the Kindle first launched “I don’t want to consume media that I can’t interact with,” he wrote. “When I come into contact with media, I want to do something with it. Tag it, post it, reply to it, comment on it, favorite it, share it, gift it, quote it, whatever … When are people going to understand that digital media, be it a book, a song, a film, an article, or whatever else, is not passive media. That was analog’s gig.” So I think that the change in reader expectation is the significant thing, not that we can tell stories across different platforms. The great web movement is towards openness and collaboration – printed, single authored books, by their very nature, are closed. This is something that will undoubtedly change as books and stories move online.

Labs: You seem to embrace ‘remix culture’ pretty fearlessly.  How have you navigated copyright issues with previous projects?

JE: By being open and transparent about the fact that we are experimenting and don’t know all the answers.

Labs: Looking to the future, what are you excited by?

JE: Whilst not a gamer I think games are really interesting and I’m looking forward to seeing how we can make books and the reading experience more playful and game-like. Levelling-up would make most experiences more interesting.

Labs: Do you see a role for brands working with Penguin in future?

JE: Definitely – we love partnerships that can bring us and our authors to a new potential audience. We’ve already worked with some awesome partners and since, as a general trade publisher, we publish for every age-group and demographic there are spaces around the Penguin list for all sorts of relationships.

Labs: What advice would you offer a brand looking to partner a publisher?

JE: As with any other partnership – everyone’s got to have a win. For Penguin the wins have historically been the ability to reach (and sell books to) a new or clearly defined audience. But cash also works.

Labs: Penguin has a longstanding, much celebrated heritage of great design.  Again, recently we’ve seen some stunning limited edition collections.  Not to mention the Flickr sets dedicated to vintage Penguin bookcover design… Is design something you see as key to Penguin’s future?

JE: Definitely – there is so much competition out there for people’s attention and their money. So everything we sell should be remarkable, both in terms of content and as a product. We’re really flattered when we see people using Penguin’s iconographic design creatively, like this and this – it’s a lovely position to be in.

Labs: Could you tell us a little bit about what your job involves?

JE: As Digital Publisher at Penguin Books I am responsible for examining and developing new methods, technologies and business opportunities for Penguin to promote, sell and distribute the works of our authors. A proportion of my job is focussed on ebooks and working with sales teams to make sure that the right books are getting to the right channels. But as our definitions of book and story and indeed author stretch, and the variety of channels grows, so does the opportunity to spend time doing creative digital publishing and inventing new forms.

Labs: What’s been  your proudest achievement at Penguin?

JE: Probably We Tell Stories winning the best in show at the SXSW Interactive awards. I’m also perversely proud of producing the wikinovel A Million Penguins, described on several blogs as ‘the worst novel ever’.

Labs: What persuaded you to get into publishing in the first place?

JE: It was as an accident – I went to journalism school, learned to type and got a job at Penguin as a temporary secretary. I realised that publishing was full of smart interesting people who didn’t mind me reading books at my desk, and that was that.

Labs: Finally, which other publishers (companies, individuals) do you admire most and why?

JE: Harlequin (in the US) – out of all publishers they seem to be the most reader focussed.

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To conclude, lots to chew on here, but our initial thoughts in terms of the implications for brands and marketing are as follows -

1. Marketing as Service, Service as Marketing. Tangible services and products you can share, discuss, review are marketing and PR platforms in their own right. Obvious conclusion no.1: think about how your marketing campaign is helping people do stuff better, quicker; would they pay for the privilege? Conclusion no.2: think about talkability at the outset when you’re designing new services.  Conclusion no.3: brands need to do more to explore their own territories in this respect: create platforms, partnerships etc.  We’re seeing more and more brands behaving like this, but it still feels like early days.

2. Commercial accountability only gets more important, not less. Whether it’s the economy or the nature of interactions on the web, nowadays there is both more pressure & more opportunity to create and measure direct commercial impact.  Or put another way, more pressure to demonstrate the value of brands as intangible assets.

3. Experimental thinking is nothing without experimental doing. And the importance of a company culture that encourages this.  Was the wiki novel (the sheer audacity of which we love) a failure or a success?  Discuss. Okay, so we’ve revealed our bias already – but at the very least it laid the ground for future Penguin projects that perhaps have been deemed ‘successful’ in the more conventional sense of the word.

4. If It’s Digital, It Must Be Interactive. In a wholly digitised future, is there any room for content you can’t interact with, content you can only passively consume (in other words, get with the program or die with analogue?) OR conversely, in future will there be secret libraries with zero connectivity where nostalgic readers can go sit, smell the pages of old books and read in Zen-like contemplation?

5. The Rise and Rise of Game Culture. Because games are by their very nature interactive…Jeremy is not alone in being excited by how gaming can invigorate storytelling, often blending real and virtual worlds.  The likes of Campfire already do this with considerable style (their Frenzied Waters work out earlier this month just one recent example), with Mike Monello also drawing our attention to The Hidden Park iPhone app with his comment on our recent Foursquare Town Holler post.

As always, please let us know what you think.  In the meantime, a big thank you to Jeremy for the interview. In his own words: “I guess I feel strongly that in good times, experimentation is a luxury and in bad times perhaps it’s a necessity.”  Amen to that.

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