Friday, March 21, 2008

Penguin UK: "We Tell Stories"

On Tuesday, Penguin UK launched an interesting new interactive fiction project called "We Tell Stories."

Over the next six weeks, six classics books will be reworked into a series of short stories, each written by a notable contemporary author. The first story, by thriller writer Charles Cumming, is inspired by John Buchan's 1915 mystery novel "The 39 Steps" (currently the subject of a comic adaptation on Broadway, incidentally.) It uses GoogleMaps to tell a story about a young man with a shady past who gets embroiled in a scheme involving Renaissance art, a family of Greek shipping magnates, and a murder in London's St. Pancras station. You click on little pop-up balloons to advance the text, and a little blue line traces the protagonist's path through London and, eventually Edinburgh. It's a neat concept, but it gets a little old after a while.

Still, I'm looking forward to the next five stories, which will apparently use different kinds of web technologies. The whole project is designed by the alternate reality game firm Six to Start, who were behind the massive-scale ARG "Perplex City," so I have faith that it'll develop into something more substantive.

[ARGs--which I wrote about for Alyssa Katz's class last semester--are sort of a cross between a story and a game. They're multi-media narratives that play out in real time, using the web, email, phones, and sometimes live events to transmit elements of the story. "Perplex City," for example, had a staged event that involved an actor getting whisked away in a helicopter after leaving a bunch of clues for players. They're usually played by hundreds or thousands of people at once, who gather to share clues and solve puzzles on message boards online. See ARG Network for more info.]

As an added bonus, the Penguin project has a hidden surprise, according to the "About" page:

"[S]omewhere on the internet is a secret seventh story, a mysterious tale involving a vaguely familiar girl who has a habit of getting herself lost. Readers who follow this story will discover clues that will shape her journey and help her on her way. These clues will appear online and in the real world and will direct readers to the other six stories. The secret seventh story will also offer the chance to win some wonderful prizes in addition to the prizes on offer on, including The Penguin Complete Classics Library, over £13,000 worth of the greatest books ever written."

Americans aren't eligible to win the Classics Library, but maybe there'll be some fun stuff for us in the "secret" cache of prizes.

Penguin has been doing a lot of digital experimentation over the past few years, with varying results. (A Million Penguins, Penguin USA's collaborative writing project, fizzled quite spectacularly.) Still, "We Tell Stories" is really exciting, and I'll be tracking it with interest over the next month and a half. It's great to see traditional publishers playing around with the Internet for more than just marketing or distribution.

[Side note: Scholastic will be launching a similar, ARG-ish project in September. It's called "The 39 Clues"--not to be confused with "The 39 Steps."]

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Book videos on the net

This weeks sees the debut of two book-themed online-video initiatives.

Yesterday, Barnes & Noble (aka my old employer) launched B&N Studio, a special section of the website that hosts a range of video programming. It has a mix of archival material (videos of in-store lectures and other live events) and original "mini-documentaries."

Tagged!, a weekly series, gives the back story on new books. I watched the first episode and it was a little excruciating. The host, Molly Pesce, is set on high chirp mode, and the actual content was pretty thin--the three-and-a-half minute clip rounds up three authors who visited prisons to research their latest books, points out that Anne Rice and her son both have books coming out, and, pegged to the Oscars, lists books that have had recent movie adaptations. It's the video equivalent of an FOB chart, and the video format only emphasizes its fluffiness. Book Obsessed, a series that profiles all kinds of bibliophiles, is more fun, but I wish it would up the camp factor a bit. Obsessions are ridiculous! (As our Portfolio class is learning.)

I'm more excited by the archival stuff, like the hourlong "Upstairs at the Square" programs, in which authors get paired up with musicians and present their work jointly. (These seem to be a mix of audio and video recordings.) Now I just need to figure out how to download these to iTunes--because even if I'm excited about hearing Gary Shteyngart perform with Sondre Lerche, I'd much rather listen to it on my iPod, on the train, than on my laptop.

The other big debut is Titlepage, which is being billed as "a 21st century version of the Algonquin Round Table." (It was the subject of a NYTimes piece last month.) Hosted by Daniel Menaker--the former executive editor at Random House as well as a New Yorker fiction editor--the hourlong show features four thematically-linked authors sitting around a table, discussing their work. It promises to be a literary version of the oddly-compelling Dinner for Five, the Independent Film Channel series where Jon Favreau (of Swingers fame) gets a whole bunch of movie celebs drunk and blabbing. Unclear whether Titlepage has an alcohol budget.