A Creator’s Guide to Transmedia Storytelling, by Andrea Phillips. 2012, McGraw Hill. ISBN 978-0-07-179152-6. $28 hardback.
When the Flip editors got an email about Andrea Phillips’s new book on transmedia, they immediately thought of me. Because I’m kind of crazy that way—I’m always going off about how awesome multi-platform content is, and how new ways to connect mean new ways to engage an audience in a storyworld. So I was thrilled to get this assignment.
As a disclaimer, I have had some interaction with Andrea Phillips before my interview with her, in the weekly transmedia webchat she hosts on her site, deus ex machinato. She’s a real gem of a human being, but I’ll try not to let her general awesomeness reflect too much on my review of her work.
My initial thoughts:
This book has a fairly large scope; it tries to be a little too much of something for everyone, in my opinion. I’m not sure that’s entirely avoidable though, at this early point in the development of the transmedia-content-creation canon. “Transmedia” is one of those terms that’s getting bandied about a whole lot, and too many people don’t even know what it really is, much less how or why they should (or shouldn’t) be employing it in their content development. So while I understand that it might help to have an explanation of the most basic concepts of transmedia content theory in the book, I found it lent a somewhat remedial feel to the early parts.
Getting into the groove:
A Creator’s Guide is set up in five parts: Introduction to Transmedia, Storytelling, Structure, Production, and The Big Picture.
It was in the Introduction that I was most distracted by what seemed to be “stuff that people who have bought this book likely already know.” Similarly, despite starting off with a great chapter on “the four creative purposes for transmedia storytelling,” the subsequent chapters in the Storytelling section felt as though they were written for a more “noob” audience of people who need to know why they want this type of content, and not how execute multi-platform production.
Once we’re clear of these early chapters, though, Phillips’s personal experience really starts to become the focus. And this is where the book becomes a very useful thing. How writing across multiple platforms is different from single-offering stories is only the beginning of the information offered—to close off the Storytelling section, Phillips goes into the mechanics of how online distribution changes characterization, and conveying action across multiple media.
The Structure and Production sections are by far the standouts in A Creator’s Guide. In the Structure section, the reader is often presented little bits of knowledge that are patently obvious when reading them in a book (use media that your target audience has access to), but could easily be overlooked by a creator who hasn’t thought about her/his project in the right light (for example, a subway billboard that sends users to a URL that can’t be accessed by a mobile device). Broad-picture strategies for engagement, user-generated content, and employing the audience as potential characters are exactly the sort of thing I was looking to this book to tell me. By no means prescriptive, the suggestions and examples Phillips puts forward are more about how to think about transmedia content conceptually, which is invaluable because it empowers the reader to come up with her/his own solutions to potential problems before they happen.
I also really enjoyed the Production section. The problems of transmedia production are exponentially more complicated than those for single media (“Producing a transmedia project can feel a lot like planning a wedding and shooting a feature film all at the same time…”). Making sure that content stays consistent across platforms as well as getting done on time and on budget requires work, and lots of it. A Creator’s Guide doesn’t pull any punches here about realistically setting out to get the job done and your content out to the world-at-large. While it’s a good section, I’d have liked even more depth here, since this is where too many artists get stalled (it doesn’t matter if you’re the next Orson Welles, if your own “Citizen Kane” never gets finished).
The section on the Big Picture closes out the book. Really, this feels like almost more like it’s answering the questions that everyone is sure to ask than it is a “big picture” view of the art. The answers aren’t really all that shocking, either (how does one get a job in transmedia?—start making content that gets you noticed). A touch on legalities and ethics is the exception, leaving me feeling like I did just get a good quickie overview of things to keep in mind when I’m planning a project.
All in all:
I really liked this book. While it isn’t perfect, it is a great addition to the library of anyone who wants to create a solid transmedia offering in the near future. As the push toward cross-platform content keeps growing, it’s books like this that will become the foundation for even more in-depth how-to resources.