Spreadable Media - Henry Jenkins

16 May 2012 in Future of Publishing

Last night I went to hear Henry Jenkins give a talk at the University of Westminster.  He’s doing an unusual thing - at least it was a new one on me - a tour to promote ‘Spreadable Media’, a book that won’t come out for another six months, long after this particular tour is finished.  Interestingly, Jenkins is as concerned with spreading his ideas, its seems, in advance of publication, as he is selling the book.  On the other hand, Jenkins is an academic with a full-time, probably very well paid, job, so his attitude toward book sales is likely a little different than mine.

Jenkins had many interesting things to say last night.  He began by discussing why he has rejected the term ‘viral’ to describe how media artifacts pass between viewers/readers, with its connotations of illness and disease, the ‘smallpox blanket theory of media’.  For Jenkins, ‘spreadable media’ is a much more appropriate term, and he’s happy to embrace the fact that the word ‘spreadable’ makes many people think of butter and jam (much better than H1N1 after all).  He talked distribution vs circulation, about how old media or mass media was all about controlling distribution, while networked media is about circulation; ‘circulation is the new moral economy’.  He discussed how media artifacts, like ‘Charlie Bit My Finger’ or a video distributed by a group of activists, change meaning as they are passed from one viewer to the next, how meaning is affected by circulation. 

I think that for writers thinking about how to engage with participatory culture, this distinction between circulation vs distribution is very useful.  When a work is widely circulated, what new forms of meaning are acquired?  If you are circulating your work instead of distributing it, will new ways of generating income from it emerge?  Our project ‘Inanimate Alice’ has changed status via widespread circulation among educators; what started out as an entertainment title has become an education title.  My involvement with this project has resulted in my being granted all kinds of additional currency in a wide variety of spheres, including the education sector, the transmedia sector, and the games industry.

When it comes to more traditional forms of media, i.e. long-form prose fiction - the novel - the circulation vs distribution model becomes more difficult to directly translate.  Jenkins highlighted the work of Cory Doctorow in this field, and the way that Doctorow has built a large readership who buy his books by giving away electronic versions of his books online.  But, as far as I know, Doctorow remains an anomaly.  In some ways, his model has been overtaken by the indy-publishing model, those writers who manage to establish themselves via self-publishing online which then translates into big traditional book industry deals.  But these writers - Hocking, Wilkinson, Shades of Grey, etc - did not circulate their works online for free; they might have charged only 99p, but 99p is still 99p. As well as that, these indy-writers publish within the silo that is Amazon’s Kindle epub format.

A few months ago, Dan Franklin, the digital publisher at Random House UK, sent out a tweet that said ‘Sculpt the frontlist, sweat the backlist’.  When I reminded him of this the other day, he gave himself a virtual slap on the forehead and said, ‘I do talk s**t sometimes.’  However, that line, catchy as it is, has remained with me.  My own backlist is stuck in a kind bookish version of hell.  Rights are spread across a number of different territories, some editions are in print, others are out of print - the whole thing is a big mess.  For the most part, these books are accessible to readers via the secondhand market only (AND DON’T GET ME STARTED ON THAT!).  None of them exist as ebooks.  So, as far as the online circulation model goes, they are dead.  ‘If it doesn’t spread, it’s dead’, Jenkins says.  I need to fix this.  That backlist needs to feel the heat and do some sweating. 

In January of this year, Jenkins devoted two posts on his blog to a discussion of transmedia and education, with ‘Inanimate Alice’ as one of two highlighted works.  You can find Part One here, and Part Two here.

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