Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Story Business

Q: Why don’t book publishers own Hollywood studios?
A: Because they realized too late that they were in the story business.

I was struck by news last week in the Wall Street Journal that Random House, “eager to cash in on the lucrative videogame business, has set up an in-house team to create original stories for videogames and provide story advice for games in development.”

In the first instance, this is an eerie sign that the cash cow of backlist books has begun to resist further milking. Random House publisher Gina Centrello comments, “We need new revenue streams.”

Gulp. There’s a thought every writer can dig. But maybe there’s something we can learn from this move. Let’s take a look.

In the article, Random House director of creative development, Keith Clayton, says, “There is increasing emphasis on storytelling in the videogame business.”

This is a fascinating and exciting observation. It means consumers of video games [it’s still two words in my book] have gotten over being wowed by the new technology experience and now require something deeper, something more resonant. Something, my friends, that lies at the heart of the human condition: a need to experience good stories.

If book publishers hadn’t been confusing their distribution channels with the real drivers of their business for so long, they’d own every industry that relies on great storytelling, including the video game biz.

We all know that conglomerates frequently own book publishers, but what we too easily forget is that book publishers were mining stories for profit long before anyone knew how to deliver moving images. If they’d thought of themselves as being in the story business, rather than the book business, they might have embraced the new technology earlier and would own it, rather than being owned by its newfangled practitioners. The same might be said for comic books, television production, video games, and so on.

It’s easier to see this in retrospect, of course. Others have observed that the railroads would own airlines if they’d realized sooner that they were in the transportation business; that FedEx, perhaps, would own email if they realized they were in the message delivery business; that newspapers would own much of the web if they’d realized sooner they were in the information business.

With all the changes afoot, however, writers who now ask themselves what business they’re in will have an edge. Not all writers are equal. Some of us are storytellers, others information gatherers, and still others are synthesizers. Next time someone asks Malcolm Gladwell what he does for a living, maybe he should say, “I connect ideas.” And maybe editors of fiction and narrative non-fiction, at least, should answer, “I facilitate stories,” or something like that.

Strictly from the position of rooting for book publishers, I am encouraged that Random House has seen this glimpse of video-gaming light for what it is: an opportunity to reinforce its position in the story-delivery business.

Writers, in their turn, should ask themselves what business they’re really pursuing. No matter the answer, don’t limit yourself to a single medium or channel of distribution. Rather, let’s think harder about how best to exploit the contributions that we have to make.