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Digital Publishing in an Age of Convergence Series: Innovation in Context

This paper seeks to explore transmedia as a strategy to navigate converging landscapes. As the publishing industry crosses into previously segmented creative fields such as entertainment and gaming, differentiation becomes increasingly difficult.

Editor’s Note: We got a little off track with our own publishing schedule of this wonderful ongoing series by Lauren Sozio, so apologies to our readers for that. In light of the our conclusions regarding the strategies being successfully employed by the GRIT 50 firms to grow their brand awareness as well as last week’s announcement by Google on their use of digital content as a respondent gateway, partner monetization program, and incentive system I believe the topic of digital publishing convergence remains highly relevant to the market research industry. Lauren’s analysis of the history, drivers, and future of this trend is just fantastic, so we’re very happy to be getting back into the groove on publishing the installment. Enjoy!

By Lauren Sozio

The age-old relationship between man and machine is a volatile dialogue, contested, embraced and eventually naturalized with each innovation.  There is a complex and interdependent interchange between technology, individuals and community: a multilayered discourse that is the foundation for my study.

Digital idealist Yochai Benkler illustrates technology’s membership in a greater ecology.  As “different patterns of adoption can result in very different social relations”, technology becomes inseparable from its milieu.  Within this oxygen-rich environment, it defines and is defined by the individuals who employ it. Nicola Cavalli argues the importance of context, as she distinguishes innovation, which, unlike invention, warrants not simply technological development but social adaptation.  Media historian Lisa Gitelman  furthers that innovation is not a technologically driven process, but defined by the complexities of cultural engagement. User integration is as integral to innovation as the production of new technology itself.

This paper favors a more robust, interdisciplinary approach to address the tension between old and new media, and seeks to examine technology in conjunction with community.  Henry Jenkins develops this notion, as he prescribes merging the fields of political economy and audience research to account for technological changes.  While the political-economic approach allows for insight into the structural mechanisms that drive production, audience research allows for in-depth analysis of consumption patterns.  This integration of both perspectives allows for the co-existence of industry and culture, and consequently of the material and the symbolic.

Context is also about creating parallels.  The digital disruption of an analogue model is not isolated to the publishing industry.  Over the past decade, the music and video industries have been similarly shaken by this transition.  Peer-to-peer file exchange and direct musician to fan portals have complicated the record labels’ role as a gatekeeper. Telecom providers, Direct Broadcast Satellite, and online video aggregators break apart a space once controlled by networks and studios.  These new entrants (along with piracy, which has challenged the practice of windowing) have forced incumbents to revise their business models in order to stay relevant. Consumers expect convenient and customized viewing, from content to ads.  Preferences are driven by algorithms and social networks. Viewers consume content simultaneously on multiple screens, as television sets have been crowded-out by mobile devices and gaming consoles.  The publishing industry is in a prime position to learn from these trends, as well as from the errors their counterparts have made along the way.

In spite of the technical differences between industries, they all share the same fear: becoming obsolete as new technology cannibalizes old.  When examining this shift, it is critical to keep in mind the ecosystem comprised of organizational structures, consumer behavior, next generation electronic devices, the many permutations of content, the incumbents and the new kids.  There is no simple dichotomy.  It is more complex than the novel eclipsing the outdated, as each of these elements coexist, contradict, complement, and confuse one another.

 Convergence in a Networked Ecology

The conversion from an industrial, material-centric era to a “networked information economy” (Benkler) breeds creativity and confusion in ways that would confound those in industrial times. Benkler describes this conversion from a linear, material-centric era to a “networked information economy” that departs from the hierarchical rigidity of the past.  These newly collaborative ventures enable consumers to make personal choices unencumbered by commercial media, and to cultivate “experimental behaviour, diverse viewpoints and an understanding of the value of failure” (Potts & Mandeville).

Tech entrepreneur Tim O’Reilly, recommends thinking outside-the-box, as value can be created “by simply assembling [these components] in novel or effective ways”.  Nonanta similarly insists on a diversity of perspectives, “open-ended” dialogue and internal redundancy where professional roles overlap in order to stimulate creative solutions. Chesbrough posits that it is disadvantageous for firms to privatize R &D; rather, the most successful strides occur when firms practice “open innovation.” Protecting innovation from the outside world has become a nearly implausible task in the information age, but instead of seeing this as a threat, these scholars embrace Nonanta’s declaration that “new knowledge is born in chaos”, and view these non-linear structures and processes as opportunities for growth.

Their optimism is dependent on adaptable business models and flexible actors that are poised to seize the opportunity of such disruption. Melody, while acknowledging ICTs’ potential, remains skeptical and theorizes that they could either “serve to improve the efficiency and equity” or “create market imperfections, inefficiencies and equity distortions”.  The “serendipitous” nature of innovation that Nonanta applauds could alternatively wreak havoc on the orderly assembly lines of industry.

As these two eras collide, a new language has been devised that encapsulates the volatile digital age.  This destructive process of “breaking down boundaries of formerly separate activities” (Potts and Mandeville) is convergence, the buzz-word of the dot com era.  In most cases, convergence has become a ubiquitous, misconstrued term that band-aids fears of digital disruption.  Because convergence encompasses many processes, from technological to cultural to economic, its scope is wide-reaching, its actors diverse and its power dynamics in constant flux.

Jenkins catapults Pool’s “convergence of modes” from analogue to digital, as he expounds on Pool’s notion that the “transformation of the media occurs not in a vacuum but in a specific historical and legal context”. Emphasizing the social and cultural aspects—as comprised by content, ideas and relationships—in addition to its technological components, Jenkins is able to illuminate convergence in a humanist light, not simply bundled with wire and hooked to modems.

Jenkins reminds us that media convergence is “a process but not an endpoint” in order to illustrate the flux of relationships and to stress the necessity of negotiation that occurs at the juncture of production and consumption.  He illustrates the collision of seemingly disparate entities, creative commons and conglomerations, professional and amateur culture, mass and independent networks, and “commercial media” and “collective intelligence”.  This process is paradoxically controlled yet chaotic, facilitating yet complicating, homogenizing yet diversifying and expanding yet fragmenting culture.

In this offbeat but dynamic interface, which is a major deviation from the linear transmission model (see Carey, 1992), Pool’s proclamation that “the relationship between technology and institutions is not simple or unidirectional”, and Jenkins’ wisdom that convergence is a “process”, not a resolute “end point” provides guidance. It is this fluctuation understood to be inherent in convergence that makes it both fascinating and frustrating to use as an analytical model. The strengths of working with this networked model are also its weaknesses.

Convergence in the publishing industry is represented by the merging of once disparate media, technology, and industry players.  This fusion occurs on many levels. This study will focus on the convergence of devices, content, and the characters involved in the creation of these elements.

Platform Distribution: Translating Text for Multiple Screens

Is it the device or the content that drives this convergence?  Most publishing houses would be damned to admit that anything but content is king; however the shifts in the tablet ecosystem over the past few years have forced them to reconsider before dismissing devices as irrelevant.  In the past, the device was the hardcover and the paperback—and the content was a title—a single, coherent narrative.  In the digital era, as book and information processor merge, hyperlink and plain text unite, and tech developer, editor and reader become indivisible, the picture has become more complex.  A story is no longer confined between bookends, but can coexist in a cloud of endless narratives.  Suddenly the device becomes an interactive window for multitudes of content.

The device can either serve to constrain or liberate text.  Although “digital” often connotes freedom from the constraints of an analogue age, many publishers, along with hardware and software creators, are still governed by the principles of the physical world.  Because the prototype was bound, it is often difficult to think about packaging text beyond the cover.

Mr. Ratliff, founder of digital platform Atvar, informs the New York Times that the future of publishing depends on more than just the “one-to-one transition from book to e-book” (Wortham, 2011). Ratliff continues, “We shouldn’t be bound by those constraints.”  The restrictions of physical print do not apply to mobile devices, PC monitors or gaming consoles.  These multiple platforms allow a reader to travel within and beyond the page.  This hyper-contextualized experience, which can be accessed anytime and anywhere is just the beginning of this on-demand era.

Books are suddenly being redefined by many contexts. Text becomes governed by screens, operating systems, formats, interfaces, and browsers. Adrian Taylor, Creative Director of interactive marketing agency Springbox, projects that “content strategists and creators must begin to think more contextually about their output. The lines between platforms are getting blurrier every day” (Taylor, 2011). Publishers speak of creating device agnosticism, and employing a formatting standard (ePub) in order to maintain parity across devices. But as more tablets, app builders and telecommunications providers enter the digital publishing space, competitors seek to carve out their niche.  With this differentiation, there is growing asynchronicity.  Should books on mobile devices be shorter than on tablets? Will images and sound triumph over text on mid-size screens?  Will the Android prove a more amenable interface than an iPhone?

Delivering information with clarity and purpose has become one the greatest challenges in an age of information overload. The following section explores one way that multitudinous content can be translated into a user-friendly package that serves both the consumer and the producer.

Two Dimensional Books in a Transmedia World:  Extending Content Across Platforms

Like convergence, transmedia has become a buzz-word of the digital age.  The Producers Guild of America recently created a unique title around the concept: Transmedia Producers who “develop cross platform storylines on Film, Television, Short Film, Broadband, Publishing, Comics, Animation, and Mobile”.  This strategic move has enabled the traditionally conservative film industry to harness the power of new media under one umbrella.

Although the transmedia concept has been more formally explored in the context of video, similar patterns have emerged in the publishing industry. Transmedia can be analyzed from both a narrative and marketing perspective.  While the first is based on story-telling, the later is focused on brand extension to reach new markets and build stronger franchises.  While some media analysts favor the narrative approach, I offer that both perspectives have to be considered before making the decision to extend content.

Transmedia delivery is one strategy for creating coherence and extending narrative across platforms. These platforms combine traditional with new media, and the physical device with an intangible cloud. Seize the Media, a creative agency that thrives in this domain, offers that “the execution of a transmedia production weaves together diverse storylines, across multiple outlets, as parts of an overarching narrative structure” (2011).  Instead of aggregating or pulling content, transmedia delivery involves the dissemination or pushing of content.  Alternatively, transmedia can act as an “aggregate” for “fragmented audiences” (Seize the Media, 2011). In essence, transmedia generates new energy and drives traffic for media properties.

Transmedia delivery can be employed to extend a brand into previously untapped markets. Brand strategists who wish to extend assets beyond their prescribed package evoke the term platform proliferation. The founder of the Digital Book World community, Guy LeCharles Gonzales,  cites Star Wars as a prime example of an entertainment franchise that has taken advantage of transmedia, and postures that these “projects are really just cross-media marketing initiatives and/or brand extensions, driven by licensing deals and a parceling out of rights in a manner that often includes loss of creative control by the author.”  It can describe the licensing of media properties to new formats (similar to the windowing practice in film and television).

At a more literary, narrative level, transmedia delivery, according to Gonzales, “puts the author’s creative vision at the center” (2010).  Similarly, Jenkins postures that it “represents a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience” (Jenkins, 2007b). Diction like “systematic,” “unified,” “coordinated” are central to the definition.  Transmedia may transform the way we viewed pre-Internet storytelling.  While narrative chaotically flows beyond the page, beyond the bounds of age-old oral tradition, transmedia acts as a grounding force.  It is the central nervous system that enables us to comprehend in a world of competing interfaces.

This paper seeks to explore transmedia as a strategy to navigate converging landscapes.  As the publishing industry crosses into previously segmented creative fields such as entertainment and gaming, differentiation becomes increasingly difficult.  In order for the industry to preserve its role as a professional filter, it is critical that industry actors learn how to successfully manipulate narrative across media.


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