Digital Storytelling, Transmedia and Crowd Sourced Funding with David Varela

Many times when I’m thinking about digital I’m focussing on ebooks, enhanced ebooks or apps. It was really interesting yesterday to attend a session at the Australian Society of Authors with UK writer David Varela where he discussed the options available to authors, including transmediacrowd sourced funding and how he arrived at this interesting point in his career. David studied poetry at College in the UK, and has worked in advertising, theatre, radio and film. These days he describes himself as a storyteller – in whatever medium the story requires.

Do you have a burning desire to write? Then this point in time is offering many options for you to fulfil that passion. Writers are able to work collaboratively in developing their projects online in spaces like Book Oven or receive ratings along with way with Authonomy with a chance of a publishing deal dangling like a carrot. Writers can digitally print and sell their book, or create an ebook for sale on a number of sites. But some writers are exploring other options and David shared the example of J.C. Hutchins.

When Hutchins wrote his first book it was a mammoth 300,000 words long and publishers and agents really didn’t know what to do with it and the rejection slips mounted up. He decided to take control and started to record himself reading his stories, available as podcasts for free. Along the way he realised that instead of having a dream about being published he really wanted to be a story-teller. After some time he started charging a small amount of money for podcasts. The podcasts were being downloaded in the millions and not surpisingly he has since been published. (Point of interest: Hutchins has been published by St Martin’s Press who picked up self-publishing success story Amanda Hocking.)

The point that David was making is that Hutchins already had an audience and did his own marketing and promotions. He isn’t just a writer, but his own PR Department as well. If a writer is willing to take on these burdens then they can bypass the gate keepers.

David reminded us that there are a lot of new opportunities available and you can be the ‘author’ of your own career. Perhaps you need a change of mindset and think of yourself as not just an author of the written word but as a storyteller using many mediums.

When thinking about David’s advice to rethink the multitude of ways your writing skills can be used with transmedia it reminded me of a great post on Booksquare called Rethinking the Publishing Company. Although published in September 2010 I still find this is very apt when having a conversation about transmedia projects and the potential future of Publishing. Kassia Krozser suggests that in the future acquisitions editors will need to consider:

Is it text, is it a web-based community, is it an application, is it a living, interactive experience? One or more of those?

She goes on to suggest: “The editor of the future will consider what serves the work rather than what serves a format, and that editor will be required to consider enhancements for every book published, deciding if they are truly transformative or merely marketing on a case-by-case basis.”

Although it disturbs some to think of ‘content’ versus a book, to me it is the creative process AND the words that excite me. While there is no doubt a book whether in print or digital appeal to me as a preference, I applaud any chance for people to expand their creative knowledge and vision.

So what is the future of writing? It seems as though the only limits are those of your own imagination. And how are some people funding exploration in these new forms? Crowd Sourced Funding!

What could you do if you had funding support to pursue your dreams? These days we have available a number of crowd sourced funding sites – but read the fine print! Some may require you to to have a US bank account, others if you don’t reach your desired funding objective may keep 90% (amended 28/11) 9% of what is raised, or pledged funds are not collected. David and some of the writers he works with have used Kickstarter (note: Need a US bank account if collecting money) but others mentioned were Indiegogo and Aussie site Pozible. Remember to read the fine print to decide which one is best for your needs.

David told us the interesting story of how Andrea Phillips had written a 2,700 word SF short story called Shiva’s Mother (A Story), her favourite piece of writing. She couldn’t get anyone to publish it and as an alternative to self-publishing she decided to put it on Kickstarter with a target of $250. If she reached her target she’d put it on her website free for anyone to read. Those that pledged would receive various benefits depending on the size of their pledge. She received funding of $616 and although that may not seem like a huge amount of money, it is more than most publications would have paid her to publish the story. You can read more about her experiment here with receiving the funding.

There are many other examples you can explore of writers raising funds and Balance of Power is one that David is working on with Adrian Hon, Adrea Phillips and and Naomi Alderma.  David made the point that although the money raised split four ways isn’t going to them rich, but it’s not just about getting money but about getting audience and spreading the word. The funding allows them to develop other assets that they can sell through their site. In a lot of ways it makes a lot of sense to pitch an idea and only go ahead if enough people want to support it.

The biggest and most ambitious project that David and his writing colleagues (Adrian Hon, Adrea Phillips and and Naomi Alderma) worked on was Perplex City – an impressive alternative reality game that spills out into the real world. This project over 2+ years had half-a-million words, dozens of websites and blogs, hundreds of puzzle cards, magazine, album, live street games, board game and live text adventure. The players themselves shaped some of the timing and although they scoped out a plan they needed to re-evaluate based on what the players themselves discussed or decided – all of which they were able to monitor.

The culture of the game was solving puzzles and an example David shared was how to help a character get access to a library that was only available to published authors. The players themselves decided write a book for the character. Within a matter of weeks they had designed, written and published the book through Lulu. True, the quality of the writing may have been questionable, but the players managed to solve the puzzle in order to move forward in the game.

Interestingly enough Andrea was the only one of the writing team based in New York and she met her London-based writing team only once through the whole Perplex City project spanning over two years. The wonders of Skype, Google docs and work processing software online enabled them to collaborate from different locations.

I hope that reading about some of David’s experiences will encourage you to find out more about about some of his projects. It’s an exciting time to be a writer, publishers or creator across any medium and it’s inspiring to find out how some people are fully utilising the various delivery mechanisms.

10/12/11: You may also be interested in reading this post about Transmedia Opportunities on Publishing Perspectives.

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