Digital platforms and devices have become the place where stories that are usually ignored by mainstream distributors find welcome viewers. Among others past, present and (being) adapted for television, there’s viral hit An African City, Snapchat series Literally Can’t Even, and Roots drummer Questlove’s original animated series STORYVILLE. But, increasingly, telcos and tech companies are taking more of an ownership stake in the content viewers flock to their sites or services to watch.
NetFlix’s stable of streaming programs and Amazon.com’s Emmy-, SAG-, and Golden Globe-winning series Transparent are probably the best tech companies creating original shows that have found cult audiences, but new players are entering the fray. Back in February, Apple announced it was working on an original TV show with legendary hip-hop producer and Beats Music Co-founder Dr. Dre tentatively entitled Vital Signs–the first step in creating a bundle of shows for AppleTV. Earlier this month, traditional mass media powerhouse Vivendi announced plans to put €25 million behind a new venture called Studio Plus which aims to create original series for mobile phones and tablets.
At MipTV, an annual event that brings global media and content players together in Cannes, France, the head of Vivendi Content Dominique Delport said of the move, “We’re aiming to tap into the booming consumption of short formats by the mobile generation and address the scarcity of quality mobile-ready scripted content for the millennials.” Delport told Variety Studio Plus will launch in France with 25 scripted, short-format, 10-episode series.
Also announced this month, telecommunications giant Verizon has teamed up with media conglomerate Hearst Corp. to purchase Complex Media. According to Ad Age, “Some Complex Media content will be distributed across Verizon’s platforms, such as the telco’s Go90 video service.”
Complex chief executive Rich Antoniello said, “When you get an opportunity to create unfair and competitive advantage disproportionately in the marketplace, you take it.”
Abiola Oke, CEO of okayafrica, the largest digital platform for new African content, says he’s been in several meetings with telcos focused on funding or creating new content for their subscribers. He noted they are not just looking for streaming content, but literature too.
What does this mean for us writers tapping at our keys, scrawling ideas in journals and on napkins, or simply staring at a blank screen?
There’s something to be optimistic about as we toil in the refiner’s furnace of creation: Even as traditional publishing opportunities constrict and mutate in the digital age, new digital platforms may be the way to get our work to our audience. Successful traditional authors are already exploring and experimenting with digital distribution formats.
At the end of 2015, a New York Times story announced multi-million copy selling author Wally Lamb’s plans to release his sixth novel I’ll Take You There as an app, via e-book publishing company Metabook. Fellow bestseller Margaret Atwood has been ahead of the digital wave for years. As I noted in a 2012 post:
In 2012 specifically, she launched an app called Fanado which allows authors and fans to connect and sign books virtually. She has been actively promoting online writing community Wattpad.com. Now, USA Today reports, Atwood is planning to write her next book, Positron, as a serial that will be released on Byliner.com. (Byliner was just in the news for partnering with the New York Times to publish original long form articles by Times writers.) Atwood told NPR the internet has ironically made it possible to revive the serial fiction culture of the past.
Aspiring and emerging writers are taking advantage of the free distribution digital media provides too. In 2015, Aziah King practically broke the internet with her tweeted tale about a stripper’s wild weekend in Florida, and Penguin Random House joined the Association of American Publishers to host the Twitter Fiction Festival. Earlier this month, literary agent Beth Phelan hosted a pitch session for writers to share ideas with agents and editors on Twitter called #DVPit.
Whether it’s participating in social media pitch sessions, sharing new work on platforms like Wattpad, leveraging social media to share stories with our following, there are obviously lots of different ways to get the word out, but how do we make money?
This is where writers and agents need to get creative. Perhaps it’s setting up pitch meetings with the appropriate Content/Programming lead at a telco, or getting a group of writers together to create a collective and pitching a social or digital platform on a content channel/series that’s exclusive and lives behind a pay wall. Similar to JayZ’s Tidal, which creatives from every genre should follow closely (mistakes and successes) to learn how an artist-owned platform can eventually work.
Because we, as a culture, are still understanding the ocean of possibilities digital platforms can power–even as tech and telecommunications companies innovate at breakneck speed–the only thing really standing in our way is imagination and knowledge. If writing is something we want to do professionally and sustainably, we need to educate ourselves about the changing market and how and where we might fit in; and we must be willing to think creatively and pursue fresh options when traditional doors remain closed or only open a crack.