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How Neal Stephenson’s The Mongoliad is Revolutionizing Immersive Online Storytelling

By Michael Bhaskar

People constantly talk about social reading as the next business model for publishing. Well, it’s here, it’s The Mongoliad.

Mongoliad creator Neal Stephenson

The Mongoliad creator Neal Stephenson

In the febrile, occasionally paranoid, always news hungry world of digital publishing, it seems strange that something so important should have slipped by so unnoticed, yet The Mongoliad seems to have been largely overlooked by the publishing Establishment. Perhaps it’s the name. Perhaps it’s the knights and swords. Perhaps because it’s from a bunch of SF writers and outside the science fiction imprints this style gets short shrift from the literati. Perhaps people just don’t care. This is a mistake. The Mongoliad is one of the most radical experiments in the history of publishing and writing that, if it works, could reshape the nature of both for generations. Yes, really.

Where Did It Come From?

To explain what it is, you will have to bear with me for a second (and forgive me if you’ve heard this before). The story starts with the Seattle-based writer Neal Stephenson, a legendary, visionary writer who started with a kind of post-cyberpunk literature, before moving to novels set in the seventeenth and eighteenth century, with a grand tapestry of a series called “The Baroque Cycle.” In the course of the research for this vast and historically fine grained work Stephenson stumbled on a largely forgotten tradition of Western Martial Arts, essentially the lore of sword craft and street fighting, chivalry and battle-hardened trickery, that had grown up in the West, forming a body of thought and action complementary to that in the East. He and a few other writers from the area began to practice and, being geeks, got really into it.

Thus the seeds of The Mongoliad were sown. At its most basic level The Mongoliad is the story of a group of elite knights around the time of the Mongol invasion of Eastern Europe in the 12th century. Having ravaged the vast steppes of Asia, the Mongols were marching into the heartlands of Christian Europe, no one could stop them, and we pick the story up from there…

Subutai Corporation

The Logo of the Subutai Corporation

However, keep in mind, this isn’t a book. Rather than go the traditional of route of “author writes book, publisher publishes it,” Stephenson and his fellow writers, including luminaries such as Greg Bear, formed the Subutai Corporation -– a company that bought together the writers with programmers and business development people. (It helped that they were all well-connected to the West coast technology cream. But the point here is that was this was the way they decided to tell the story.)

What Is It?

The Mongoliad is a website that works on a subscription basis ($10 for a year). Every week a new chapter of the story -– derived from one of its many independent plot lines -– is uploaded to the site. This is supplemented with pictures, videos, animations, first and second drafts, development scenes, weapons, portraits and maps.

The website incorporates a strong community element. There are very active forums for the discussion of the work, the history, or -– really -– anything else. There is a wiki of the world called the “Pedia,” which is open for users to edit and develop. There are freebies, gifts and teases of what’s to come.

The writing is done collaboratively and, because of the additional materials, is open to readers so we can see the process unfold. We see how a fight scene was developed and can join chat rooms to recreate the process.

Mongoliad Publishing Model

The Mongoliad Publishing Model

The Mongoliad is noteworthy on several levels:

First: There is nothing to my mind strictly analogous (with perhaps the exception of Stephen King’s doomed efforts a decade ago) in the scope it’s literary ambition and Publishing 2.0 implementation. What’s more, The Mongoliad utilizes no DRM and relies entirely on the good will of the community of readers – something I think is an important element of its success.

Second: These are some of America’s best writers with respectable track records of selling books. Yet they have completely disintermediated the publisher. (In terms of getting cut out of the deal, this is pretty much a nightmare scenario for publishers.)

Third: The Mongoliad is a modern iteration of the subscription serial novel, an idea that is time tested -– after all, as is commonly pointed out, Charles Dickens and many other nineteenth century writers wrote episodically for serial publication, something that’s not a million miles from the contemporary soap opera. And while The Mongoliad is in that tradition, it has fully updated it for the Internet era. The creators understand that you cannot simply chop up a pre-existing novel for subscription, but have re-imagined the creative process altogether.

For example, the writers feel much more comfortable revisiting or returning to old scenes, if in the weeks that have elapsed, they feel the reader needs a refresher –- something novelists can’t do without seeming repetitive. In The Mongoliad it feels not only appropriate, but grounding and enjoyable.

This isn’t a novel, so much as a new form of writing. Or rather, it actually is novel.

Fourth: The idea of the “enhanced e-book” and of capturing the discussions around books has never been adequately achieved until now. The major reading platforms generally do not support multimedia or sophisticated social functionality. By making a website the locus of the story, the Subutai Corporation has side-stepped those problems and built both a deeply social and a rich media experience.

Beyond all of this, The Mongoliad is just great story telling. Sure the writing might be a little blander than we would expect from some of the writers, couched as it is in the curt voice of the mass market. Sure knights and broad swords and warmongering hordes might not be to everyone’s taste. And sure, the website design is a little mid-to-late nineties. But it works, and it works in a completely new way, one that not only teaches publishers what we have been doing wrong, but in the end, supersedes us as well.

Michael Bhaskar is Digital Publishing Manager at Profile Books. He can be found on Twitter as @ajaxlogos.

DISCUSS: Is Collaborative Transmedia the Next Business Model for Publishing?

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6 Comments

  1. Posted November 29, 2010 at 10:12 am | Permalink

    Check out Eric Flint’s “1632 world”.. and the Gazette.. http://1632.org/

    Bestselling authors and niche celebrities and personalities is where this will apply.. forget the format uniqueness… once again, quality writing sells. and, can we call this Social Media too?

  2. Posted November 29, 2010 at 11:34 am | Permalink

    I have no doubt this is ONE of the new models. Actually when I think about it, it is an OLD model, Dickens was mentioned in the article. Soaps have been around a long time, and , interaction is so strong that a percentage of magazines and broadcasting is devoted to speculation about soap stars, their private and their screen lives.
    This idea is so neat, it suggests to me that publishing is organic in nature, everyone should stop panicking about e-publishing replacing books, we are in a growth environment, so much creation going on. The real issue is about unitisation of literature, who owns and who pays. Writers have to eat like everyone else.

  3. lisa
    Posted November 29, 2010 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

    agree w/ above statements. idea radical only in that it took a lot of preexisting elements and folded them all together. not to denigrate the site, but seems sort of obvious. the format might provide a nice venue for people to channel their creativity, the way a lot of fan fiction sites do. might help to offload the volume in the swamp of books out there right now.

  4. Posted November 29, 2010 at 7:10 pm | Permalink

    Wow, what a cool idea. I am definitely interested in watching and subscribing I wish them great success.

  5. jimbo
    Posted November 30, 2010 at 9:09 pm | Permalink

    Iseems to me that it is very novel , right now! But the contributing “creators”. Who so skillfully swing their literary swords will not swing it fairly for lon because creations creators create with passion un measure by the wirld and its safe to each of them wish andx think themselves to be the pinacle! Believe that! Jimbo

  6. Posted January 1, 2011 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

    Like you, I’m also really surprised this hasn’t gotten more attention from the publishing community. I remember when I read the initial release on this project and believe the concept is ground-breaking.

    My husband is an avid role-play gamer and his favorite part is the collaborative story telling. I believe that this overlapping of communities — gamers and storytellers– will spread to other communities.

    It already does to some extent with cooking — people post comments on recipes and how they’ve adapted them. And I can think of lots of other non-fiction ideas where this concept could apply.

    It will be interesting if it could apply to other fiction generes. I’d love to see a mystery for instance.

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