Recently, Latitude launched an innovation study on The Future of Storytelling. Why? So we can uncover the questions, challenges, and aspirations of tomorrow’s storytellers and identify how they can better align with audience’s changing expectations. Every week for the next several weeks, Latitude will share its conversation with a different influential individual. We’ll follow the series with a summary of best practices and insights for content creators and businesses from Latitude’s former SVP, Neela Sakaria.

This week’s spotlight on Xavier Waterkeyn:

Xavier Waterkeyn is a literary agent and best-selling author. In just five years, his books have sold over 1.5 million copies. He has worked, in no particular order, as a director, interviewer, adult educator, tour guide, actor, manager of a psychic centre, graphic designer, photographer, marketer, bookseller and editor. Despite his many careers, Xavier likes to think of himself simply as a storyteller. And perhaps a bit of a know-it-all.

It’s great to speak with you, Xavier. We know you’ve been quite busy working with your partner, author Nathan Farrugia, on The Chimera Vector—a transmedia project that involves a lot of different components: an eBook, an audiobook, a graphic novel, and an app down the line. Can you tell us a little about your experience creating and overseeing the production of all these different pieces?

The Chimera Vector is primarily a technothriller novel. It takes you into a world of conspiracy where various people in various organizations are striving to accumulate power—creating chaos and mayhem—and it’s all about secret operatives and what they’re trying to do to stop all of that. So, we’ve got a core text that appeals to people ages 18-30 generally, and we’re looking at the kind of media this target market engages with: social media as well as the traditional media of book, film, and so on. The Chimera Vector novel is being simultaneously adapted as an eBook, as well as being sold print-on-demand.

Who do you see as the primary audience for transmedia, and how do you think transmedia can fulfill varied audience needs and preferences?

It’s now hopelessly outdated to think of people simply as “readers” or “viewers” or “audience members”—since, at any one point, any number of different texts in different media will appeal to all of them. And there are different personality types as well, and people who have different sense modality prejudices; there are the visual people who want to see stories; there are the audio people who want to hear stories; there are the readers who want to read stories.

There’s also a range between the totally passive to the actively engaged super-fan. So, people who just want to look at something, read it, watch it, listen to it, go away—and then there are people who immerse themselves in a world and become contributors and co-creators to that world.

A transmedia experience should ideally encompass all of those different worlds. That’s what happens when you do transmedia properly. So, what you need to do then is use the technology that you have available to the best of your ability to engage an audience member in that process.

Do you approach transmedia by thinking everything through from the get-go, and or is there a sizable element of improvisation—which could mean flexibility with regard to bringing in a new platform, or letting the audience influence the storyline, and so on?

I believe that you cannot sit down and second-guess the creative process. And as creators, we have to leave ourselves open to the possibility of things happening during a co-creative process that we might not have thought about originally during any planning stage. However, our process from the very beginning is to think of as many possible points of engagement and as many different media and forms of communication because, ultimately, we’re talking about the communicative act in the entertainment industry; we’re talking about bringing somebody into our world. It doesn’t matter if it’s an MTV video equipped for a pop song or a video game that’s taken five years to develop—creators think from the very beginning, “if we’re going to do a game called ‘Myst,’ let’s think of what a novelized version of that would look like and read like.”

Image from The Chimera Vector graphic novel

A certain amount of audience participation—and, in many cases, co-creation—seems essential for transmedia. How do you get people engaged, and strike the right participatory balance so that people are motivated, but not feeling like they have to work too hard?

If the core text is engaging, then a fandom will arise spontaneously. Now, we’re not saying, “let’s control fandom,” but instead “let’s factor that in from the very beginning and let’s make it easy for fans to engage in the process.” In short: the one thing fans want is engagement, and the one thing that we have to do as creators is make that engagement as easy as possible for them. For creative reasons? Who knows. Some of the best fans do become creators, and that’s okay.

So, to get people engaged from the start, we’re saying, “why don’t you come in and join with us in the creation of the world? We’re starting you off with this novel and with this world and with these characters and their concerns—but we’re inviting your active participation.” We might listen to suggestions about plot events and write that scene into the next book. Or we might think how a fan’s suggestion could inspire an entirely new plot line.

What are some of the pitfalls or mistakes you’ve seen?

Marketing-wise, I think that people don’t think as globally as possible. I don’t believe they cross-promote enough. Take Heroes, for example. Did you know they created a graphic novel for the series? I didn’t, until I specifically started researching the space. So, there’s a graphic novel out there; somebody has gone to the trouble of drawing it, creating it, designing it, publishing it and you don’t know that it exists—but you know about the television series.

It would be so easy to product-place the graphic novel within the series. The problem is that the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing. That’s the core marketing mistake: you’ve got a whole bunch of people doing different things, and they didn’t think about their strategy holistically. It’s the absence of holistic thinking that’s bringing people down, not only for creative reasons but also strictly for marketing and economic reasons.

As somebody who’s creating in this space, is there anything that you wish you knew about people’s mindsets as they’re having these experiences? Or is it more about creating and seeing how people react to the world you’ve built?

I think it’s both. Personally, our initial approach has been “build it and they will come.” But, in terms of research, the sort of things that I would like to know would be “who are the people that are into this?” More than that, what turns them on?—and not just the text, but what style of engagement works for them? People have sub-languages; for example, Twitter and Facebook are creating their own languages. Relatedly, I’d want to know: “how do you use social media without sounding as if you’re doing a sales pitch?” That’s really important.

What we really want to know is, how we can talk to you without talking at you or down to you? How do we invite you into this process and make it as inviting as possible? How do we communicate how fun it could be? That’s the challenging part.

This interview was conducted by Neela Sakaria, former SVP at Latitude.