By Roger Tagholm
LONDON: Is the novel the right format to attract young readers in the short, sharp, fast-moving world of social media where text is consumed in small bursts and often on the move? Trying to answer that question led former marketing executive Jonathan Williams to establish a new, online e-book publishing company that launches its first titles in the UK this week (21 November).
Boxfiction is taking its cue from the success of long-running TV dramas and trying to replicate that episodic approach in e-book form. The first release is a series of Silent Witness stories, bringing back the original forensic pathologist Dr. Sam Ryan who was so popular when the BBC show was first broadcast in the UK in the Nineties (it was also shown in the United States on “Mystery Monday” by BBC America).
Storytelling for the Social Media Set
Williams believes it’s an innovative approach that suits the way people consume entertainment today. “We stood back and looked at the whole world of the screen and what people do. The industry is in a state of flux -– the future is not defined. I think publishers have been very focused on how to replicate the book in digital form, and very focused on the novel. But is that the right format? How does that fit into the world of gaming and social media where there are so many calls on the consumer’s time. Is it necessarily about 80,000 words now? We want to explore alternatives. If the novel is like a feature film, what’s the written equivalent of the TV series? We looked around and couldn’t find it, and so we created Boxfiction.”
Williams’ background is in marketing. He founded and ran an agency that worked with big brand names from Unilever to Vodafone and Heinz. He sold to M & C Saatchi three years ago and with his business partner Conrad Persons has been eyeing the publishing industry ever since. Persons, who is originally from Atlanta, but now lives in London, is a writer and journalist whose work appears in the short story collection Richmond Noir published by Brooklyn’s Akashic Books. Together, they established Arkstone Publishing, a small company based in Covent Garden, and BoxFiction is their first imprint.
“We’re interested in storytelling, and in the world of publishing and books, and we felt we could offer something different. I think it’s a good time for outsiders to come in with new ideas.
He thinks consumers are ill-served when popular characters leave TV shows. “When a character that people know and like leaves a series it might because the actor has been offered something else, or if a show is cancelled it might be because it has become too expensive, or the audience has fallen six million to four million and it is deemed a failure. But there are still many, many fans out there who are interested in those characters and want to know what happens to them. So, for example, our Silent Witness books will pick up with Professor Sam Ryan where the TV series left off.”
Launching Original Episodic Stories
Although BoxFiction will concentrate on one well-known TV show initially, it is also launching what it calls “pilot series” -– original episodic stories, not linked to television, one set in the world of the security services and one in corporate intelligence. Each episode will follow the same characters in self-contained episodes and a social media part of the website will allow members to have a say in how the plots should develop.
The company primarily wants customers to buy via its website, but the titles will also be available “from the top e-book retailers. We want people to be able to access the stories on the platform they prefer -– whether it be Kindle, via apps on the iPhone and iPad, or on their computer screen, and we hope to be available on Android in due course.”
As ever, the challenge facing Boxfiction is how consumers will discover their books. To that end an unusual event has been planned for London’s Victoria Station (the capital’s busiest) on December 1st. “Since what we’re offering is ideally suited to commuters –- a half-hour read on their way to work -– on that particular day they will come through the barriers at the station to discover a ‘crime scene.’ We will have a marquee set up, covering the area where the ‘incident’ took place, and we’ll have people dressed in white, ‘forensic’ body suits, handing out fliers. The creator of Silent Witness, Nigel McCrery, will also be with us.”
Boxfiction is advertising on Facebook and has a branded murder game that can be played on its website. It is also receiving advice from experts in the industry, among them John Bond, former managing director of Press Books at HarperCollins, who left the publisher in the summer.
Boxfiction’s arrival comes at a time when both Random House and Bloomsbury have announced short story initiatives. That would seem to tie-in with Boxfiction’s thinking, but Williams isn’t convinced. “We’re looking at what the future is outside the novel, and I don’t think short stories are the answer. Once you’ve finished one of those, you have to start all over again with a new set of characters. What we’re offering is easier for people to access, because it will have the same people in each ‘story.’ We’re also learning a lot from TV in terms of the ruthless editing of scripts to move the stories forward.”
It’s a forensic approach to the business of which Dr. Ryan herself would be proud.