Book publishers turn to cross-media storytelling

Think about publishing and you think about reading, but not about watching, interacting or playing. Producers tend to seek out publishing companies only when looking to acquire the film or TV rights to a particular book. However, radical changes and exciting developments have been afoot in the publishing world—arguably more so than in any other media industry—and these developments warrant closer scrutiny.

It’s a given now that audiences have more and more control over where, when and how they consume content—be that as readers, viewers or players. With multiple devices available to consumers to access stories, forward-thinking publishers are carving out new opportunities and, consequently, new business models in response to audience expectations.

In 2011, e-book sales surpassed print sales, and this served as a wake-up call to many industry veterans who believed ‘digital’ would never take off in publishing. A similar attitude had been mirrored in other creative industries. Who could have predicted YouTube’s $1.65 billion sale to Google or the spectacular demise of EMI? Traditional business models had broken and old and new players alike had to be nimble on their feet in order to survive.

That same year, Bertelsmann-owned Random House announced a new partnership with gaming company THQ, seeing an opportunity with digital to extend its story I.P. (intellectual property) across multiple platforms. Despite THQ’s demise since then, this desire to create and develop original I.P. is becoming a mainstay in the publishing world and leading to many houses to forge new relationships outside the world of books.

Novel Games

In May 2013, Random House UK launched Black Crownthe debut from prodigious writing talent Rob Sherman. Set within the mysterious Widsith Institute, the story unfolds through a free-to-play, browser-based game. Whilst choose-your-own-adventure books are nothing new, the book’s digital presence meant that potential new revenue streams as well as meaningful data could be extrapolated through measuring audience interactions. Three months from launch, the interactive novel had attracted 6,000 subscribers—with 5% of those making in-game purchases to unlock new story content—and the community has been steadily growing ever since. Whilst it was assumed the project would appeal mostly to fans of sci-fi and fantasy novels, it is in fact gamers who have responded most favourably to the novel so far, with the strongest reviews coming from amongst the gaming press.


Penguin holds gaming rights to Charlie Higson’s young adult series of novels The Enemy. This author is perhaps best known for his cult British TV series The Fast Show produced with Paul Whitehouse. The publishers have been working alongside indie games developers Daredevil to develop the story world of the book series initially as an app-based game, and plans are in the works to develop a console game further down the line. The purpose: to attract a new gaming audience to Higson’s work.

New partnerships, new ways of thinking

Last July, Penguin Random House was established from the merger of Random House and the Pearson-owned Penguin Group, with an array of interesting work being developed around its mantra ‘We Tell Stories.’

The new entity recently came on board the project Touch, from award-winning Canadian duo The Goggles. Developed through Sundance Institute’s New Frontier Story Lab, we follow a family in a small town in Saskatchewan who has decided to rescue a collection of books from destruction. The collection is so vast that the family has to purchase a second house just to store the 350,000 titles. Contrary from what could be expected from a publisher, there is no intention to create a print version of this story about the death of print. Instead, Touch will be an immersive, interactive story told using words, pictures, art, sound and animation and intended for the iPad and other electronic tablets.

Penguin is also on board Gruff Rhys’ (the frontman of Welsh band Super Furry Animals) American Interior. Described as a multimedia psychedelic travelogue, it is being produced through ie ie Productions and includes a film, book, music and app. All of the project’s partners—from the record company to the music publishers to the film’s distributors to Penguin—are involved, at least conceptually, in the entire project’s development, with each partner owning a share of the intellectual property. These shifts in traditional right splits and new types of collaborations are key to producing work that resonates with modern-day audiences in the new media landscape.

Egmont UK, another top children’s publishers, is also moving past books and magazines to explore interesting new collaborations. Shipwrecked has been developed through the company’s partnership with Canadian TV production company DHX Media announced in 2012. Touted as Gossip Girl meets Lost for young adult readers, the publisher, TV company and author, Siobhan Curham worked together from proof of concept to make the book series as TV-friendly as possible, with DHX giving feedback on how the story could play out for TV and helping shape elements of the storytelling to create a cohesive story world for the brand. Egmont has retained copyright in the concept whereas the author has retained copyright in the text, but all three parties will receive a share of the revenue generated across each platform.

Magazine-led documentaries

Newspapers and magazines are also innovating in response to changing audience behaviours and technological disruptions, with many now commissioning documentary films as part of their online offering. Examples include: The New York Times’ Op Docs strand; short-form documentaries produced by renowned and emerging filmmakers; UK youth culture magazine, Dazed & Confused’s series Visionaries; and VICE magazine which is now as well known for its irreverent online video series as it is for its print magazine articles.

The publishing industry has the same concerns about paradigm shifts, new platforms and partnerships as the other media industries. Broader conversations are being brokered at events such as the Digital Minds Summit, part of the annual London Book Fair, but there is still huge scope for these to be opened out to include other industries.

There are exciting new partnerships opening up for digital content producers but it’s crucial to remember that audiences will only engage with a compelling story—be that through reading, watching or playing—regardless of the tools and platforms used to tell it, and that is something that will never change.

Tishna Molla
Tishna Molla is a film agent, producer and consultant based in London, UK.
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