Wordplay: IP and the future of entertainment


Hello!

I'm writing from my hotel room in Boston, where I'm attending Boskone 56. It's a long-running, annual science fiction / fantasy literature convention that I've gone to the past couple of years, and like any convention, it's a good opportunity and place to meet up with fellow writers and fans, take in some panels, and indulge at the dealer's room. If I'm lucky, I'll end up heading home with just four books in my bag, although there's a couple of hours left yet to snag another one or two.

It's been a good convention thus far. I've been able to meet up with some people whom I've chatted with online over the years, caught up with some old friends, and met some new people that I'll no doubt be running into in the years ahead and online.

Cons can sometimes be frustrating (your milage will vary from con to con), but I've been finding these sorts of events excellent for networking within the SF/F field, but not so much for getting anything productive out of them when it comes to the panels and programming. My standing advice for authors — if you're looking for inspiration / advice / information that will be useful to you as a writer — is to hit up industry conventions and conferences instead. My trip to the West Point Modern War Institute's conference last fall generated more useful ideas and talking points than I've gotten at places like Boskone or ReaderCon. I did get one solid idea for a story out of one panel, and I'm going to try and write that up this week.

But it's the points where you break out and chat with folks one-on-one or in a small group that I've found most interesting.


One of the things that's been coming up again and again in a number of conversations that I've been having lately is the idea of generating Intellectual Property as an author or entity, and how important and central that's becoming in the entertainment world.

A good instance of this happened a week and a half ago: streaming giant Spotify picked up podcast studio Gimlet and podcast creator Anchor. The Gimlet acquisition is a huge thing in this particular marketplace, because of Spotify's reach and desire to snap up subscribers. The studio has produced a number of pretty well-regarded podcasts over the years, and it could be a really good exclusive that Spotify can dangle before potential subscribers as a way to sign up.

But more than that, it gives Spotify a company that is actively producing IP. Not only that, but IP that's pretty valuable, as it can be flipped into a film or television show. We've seen this with Homecoming, which recently became an Amazon Prime Video series. Now, Spotify could use that down the road, as a way to generate additional, follow-on revenue that comes with such options and series-pickups.

Spotify isn't the only one doing this. There's Serial Box, a startup that focuses on serialized fiction for the web, which produces a number of really interesting "serials" that read like podcasts or TV shows, which collectively come out to about a novel's length work each season. There's also Slate's Future Tense short fiction series, which I hear is used as a potential IP that can be packaged up and sold, which would offset the cost of running it. (You should check out the stories — they're uniformly interesting science fiction.)

The collective material that an author generates is also valuable in the long run. Certainly, there's a book or body of short stories, which generates revenue via sales or options to studios. But something that I've seen recently with a couple of authors is the desire to branch out and produce ancillary works that sit alongside those main novels. (This practice isn't exactly new — authors like Heinlein, Le Guin, Asimov, and others produced vast bodies of work in expanded universes and shared worlds.) Mary Robinette Kowal has published a number of shorter stories — most recently "Articulated Restraint" — set in her Lady Astronauts series. James S.A. Corey has produced a number of shorter stories set in their Expanse series, which have been pulled into the TV adaptation for entire episodes and critical plot points. And Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson have build upon Frank Herbert's original Dune novels, building a vast world built on his notes. All of these things go into generating a richer world that can be drawn upon in a variety of ways that scale up to larger audiences, like film, television, or gaming.

In a lot of ways, I think that's one of the most important things that authors should be considering as they write. The potential for adaptation isn't (and probably shouldn't) be the end goal for any creative work (Andy Weir's Artemis is an example of what I'd call a book in search of a movie), but it's something to keep in the back of one's mind as one plans or plots out a larger story or franchise. The industry is increasingly geared towards favoring longer-form storytelling that wasn't possible 5 or 10 years ago, and that's good for authors.

One way to look at it is that streaming platforms are in a race against their competitors to lock in subscribers and to continue to grow, and a way to do that is to offer up appealing catalogs of content that someone might favor over another. That's why Netflix has Stranger Things, and Hulu has Handmaid's Tale. Netflix recently aired the first season of Altered Carbon, by Richard K. Morgan. It's a good choice, because it's gritty, and lasts for a couple of books, which can be drawn on for future seasons. The streaming platform also optioned John Scalzi's Old Man's War. That to me seems like an even better choice — there's six novels in the series, with more likely to come in the near future. That's a lot of potential content there for a show, and Scalzi's already got a pretty good following. Obviously, that show might not happen, as it hasn't been greenlit, but the potential is there.

While at Boskone, I was talking about this a bit with some friends, and it's a good time for creatives to experiment. One idea that came up was that authors need to be willing to collaborate more and more in the coming years, either working on writing teams like in Serial Box, or via small studios that produce content that can be produced quickly, and which can scale up. A model concept might be akin to a studio that produces a project like Better Worlds — it can generate fiction, produce it as a video or podcast (or subcontract out the video part — podcasts and audio are cheaper), produce artwork, and handle the distribution and PR. If you produce something that hits with fans and grows in popularity, rinse and repeat. Such a body would also be in a good place to be self-critical, and identify where they run into issues and essentially self-correct. That type of studio could become a valuable property in and of itself, if executed properly. If I had my guess, that's something that we'll see more of in the coming years as the media landscape evolves as we consume our entertainment in different ways.

Reading List

I'm still on a handful of books that I've been working through the last couple of weeks. I just finished Ben Winters' Golden State, which I reviewed for The Verge, noting that it flips the dystopian novel neatly for our age:

Like any good dystopian yarn, Golden State shows just how insidious this line of thinking is, and how any organization or government can warp good intentions into truly harmful ones.

I'm currently still working through Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James, and Anything You Can Imagine by Ian Nathan, as well as Charlie Jane Anders' latest, The City in the Middle of the Night. I picked up a handful of interesting books at Boskone, including two books by Laurie Marks— Fire Logic and Earth Logic — which sound fascinating, Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord, which I've been meaning to read for years, and Dan Moren's forthcoming The Bayern Agenda, which I've been intrigued by. March and April are shaping up to be excellent for new and incoming books, and I've got a couple that I'm excited to pick up.

Additional Reading

Speaking of upcoming books, I rounded up a bunch for The Verge for the rest of this month (one I really want to pick up is The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon). Another interesting read that captivated the literary world is A Suspense Novelist's Trail of Deceptions in The New Yorker.

That's all for now — I'm headed out of the con today and have to meet up with some folks before I go. If you've been reading this letter, let me know what you think, and what you'd like to hear more about.

Andrew