Publishers’â Forum on May 9 & 10, 2019, in Berlin: Key speakers announced. Early Bird tickets available until Feb 28.
February 26, 2019 by ruediger
The strategy dispute in the publishing industry: Drive diversity? Or focus on the core business? How to increase efficiency in either case!
New perspectives, reorganization, implementationÂ â these are the key guiding principles in publishing in 2019. After last yearâs self-critical debates over dwindling customer numbers, ever more complex markets, and new competitors, it is time to turn our gaze back to the future. Â Check out details and speakers atÂ www.publishers-forum.com.
At the conference, youâll hear first-hand accounts of how publishers and other media like TV and film are vying for the best author talent and the attention of consumers in the area ofÂ storytelling.
The speakers for this focal topic stake a broad field with their lessons learned.
Â·Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â US publisherÂ Michael Reynolds, for example, first helped makeÂ Elena Ferranteâsstroke of geniusÂ âMy Brilliant FriendâÂ a bestseller in North America and has collaborated on a TV adaptation for HBO and RAI.
Â·Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â At the worldâs largest trade publisher,Â Penguin Random House,Â Sara SargentÂ is responsible for collaborations with digitalÂ communities such as Wattpad, unearthing the most excitingÂ material and fledgling authors â particularly for younger audiencesÂ â so that Penguin Random House can hold its own against smartphone and TV.
Â·Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Before he returned to publishing to strategically reposition Denmarkâs biggest publishing house,Â Gyldendahl, for the era of new media,Â Morten HesseldahlÂ first brought the world some of the most successful international TV series (âBorgenâ, âThe Killingâ, âThe Bridgeâ).
However, new perspectives require that theÂ financial foundationÂ produces stable results, even in a turbulent economic environment.Â JesĂșs BadenesÂ will speak to this subject. For over a decade, he has been pilotingÂ Planeta, theÂ largest Spanish publishing groupÂ and thusÂ one of the worldâs leading trade publishers, through especially rough conditions.Â Market slumps,Â new business modelsÂ andÂ competitorsÂ and, of course,Â radical changes in consumer behaviorÂ are factors that top the list of challenges in many countries.
How is the position of translated literary fiction evolving as compared to literature in general? How are diverse linguistic communities finding their respective audiences, especially by comparison to a globalized culture with English as a predominant lingua franca? And how successful are sponsors of various forms of support to translated literature in the aim of sustaining cultural diversity through grants and other ambitious programmes that often use taxpayersâ money? These are the key topics explored in the âDiversity Reportâ series since 2008.
In 2018, we could focus on three lines of research:
- Mapping the share and scope of translated fiction in selected countries, to better understand the remarkable differences in the appreciation of readers and publishers for foreign fiction, but also to at least tentatively match translated books with changing consumer demographics;
- Track which authors are readily translated, and where markets and gatekeepers throughout the cultural landscapes resist;
- Characterize support models for translated fiction in a handful of countries, by describing policies and compare where and how aims and practices differ.
The share of translations as compared to fiction published in the original languages varies significantly between countries. While it is common knowledge that translations into the English language must overcome high barriers, this is not the unique characteristic of âbigâ languages. Sweden also welcomes a limited number of works in translation in a small market, possibly because many of its most avid readers are used to read in English, too.
Tracking authors in translations stands, as in previous editions, at the core of this report. Together with earlier research, we now have followed over 500 mostly âmid-listâ writers of very diverse backgrounds, tonalities and profiles across a dozen European languages, to see what works in translation, and what does not connect.
Based on this field research, we started building a bibliographic database of translated fiction across those 12 countries and languages, aggregating by now close to 2000 bibliographical records, organized in a database.
The new, 2018 edition of the Diversity Report adds two features to the model of research and analysis:
- What insights can be taken from specifically emphasizing on two smaller countries, Austria and Slovenia, one a small market of 8 million inhabitants neighbouring a much larger Germany that is sharing the same language; the other, Slovenia, with a population of just two million, yet with strong ambitions to find a broad international audience for its literature and culture?
- How are new models of publishing in the digital age impacting on the old trade of translated literature?
This edition of the Diversity Report, which has been financially supported by public institutions from Austria and Slovenia, is giving special attention to translations of authors from Slovenia and Austria, yet in a wider Europe and global context. As Slovenia will be the guest of honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2022, these findings will hopefully add value for calibrating the strategic compass in that extraordinary event.
Understanding translation markets at a critical moment of transformation
The opportunities and the challenges that we will tackle in the Diversity Report 2018 provide lessons for stakeholders in many different places and positions, across Europe, at a moment in time when anyone in culture and media is facing a deep and simultaneous change in readersâ â and more broadly in consumersâ â preferences and choices that coincide with a profound transformation triggered by digital technologies:
- Reading and books became immersed in a phenomenal offer of any kind of media and social interaction, obliging each to compete for attention and the time of consumers;
- Publishers find themselves in complex relations with both old established and newly emerging media operators of various scale;
- Smaller local actors face both the opportunities of catering their products directly to a dedicated community of followers, as well as the immense challenge of sustaining their visibility in a world where literature of any sorts, from pure entertainment to the greatest refinement, from any background or geography, become accessible somehow, in translations, or in the original, or as a media adaptation of a different format than the book;
- Public sponsors of translated as well as original literature, and of cultural diversity in general, may want to look at their efforts in the concert of others, who pursue similar endeavours, yet perhaps with different accents and experiences.
The Diversity Report 2018 aims at providing orientation in such a complex environment, by combining solid data research with unambiguous analysis, by offering fresh insights as well as a continuously growing resource of original data which are offered to specialists in the field of translation for further research.
The Diversity Report 2018 was made possible by financial support from the Arts and Culture Division of the Federal Chancellery of Austria, the Slovenian Book Agency and the City of Ljubljana through the City Library of Ljubljana and with the help of the Ljubljana UNESCO City of Literature programme.
Written by RĂŒdiger Wischenbart, Miha KovaÄ, Yana Genova, Michaela Anna Fleischhacker
(***Deutsche Fassung hier***)
Where do we begin? Itâs probably best to start with the tried-and-tested turnaround of storytellers â a surprise coup of death and rebirth.
- New television? How boring!
âHow boring!â, Iâd still have declared a few years ago when the medium of TV was the talking point and to discuss how digital storytelling instantly stirs things up across the entire media industry. Because for almost two decades there were repeated murmurs about the âconvergencesâ of TV and Internet. In one of the first Virtualienmarkt columns here I had quoted the former Bertelsmann boss, Thomas Middelhoff, who dreamed of exploiting content across all formats and channels in the global village. But this much lauded convergence never happened.
Until of all quarters to give the most unlikely hint of revolution suddenly news emerged of a new style of narrative, thrilling stories and fantastic craftwork: from American cable TV networks. With âSex in the Cityâ (from 1998), the mafia clan episodes of âThe Sopranosâ (from 1999), or the crime-thriller series âThe Wireâ from Baltimore (from 2002), the premium network HBO laid the foundations for a new look at television. At the latest with the fantasy epic âGame of Thronesâ (from 2011), based on the novels by George R.R. Martin, this approach has become the new standard for storytelling in the mass media.
The decisive note in this case is that this ânewâ television is mainly digital, distributed online through streaming and paid for by subscriptions. It can be consumed on TV sets and computers and tablets. However, probably a different device â the smartphone â is the most important driver of the ânew TVâ.
Consumers can decide at whim and depending on their circumstances which content they play back and when. This TV content, particularly TV series, influences a fundamental shift away from linear television, where a broadcaster could decide at the end of a long and exclusive value-added chain when a story can be received. Everything is reversed in the new world. Here, the consumers decide (and, as we will see, several new network organizations as well): now I want to, and no matter where I am â online, offline, at home or even on the go âÂ I can catch up with the âGame of Thronesâ episodes that Iâve missed. But Iâm paying a regular subscription for this.
In autumn 2017, the American-British childrenâs book author and TV producer Jeff Norton bluntly stated: âTV is now the dominant medium of culture.â
- Why series?
When I was immersed in the middle of the third volume of the Swedish âMillenniumâ crime-thriller series by Stieg Larsson (1954â2004), I was not only sure that the real model for the journalist, Mikael Blomkvist, could only be a certain Swedish friend of mine called Lasse, who of course is also a journalist. One day en route to my regular Viennese coffee house, I also caught myself expecting almost instantly to meet Mikael Blomkvist here. At the latest, mid-way through a season of âBreaking Badâ â and Iâm also convinced about this â most people identified their close circle of friends with the main characters in this series.
Of course, the trick of identification is old hat in literary history. HonorĂ© de Balzac (1799â1850) called his great novel series âThe Human Comedyâ to highlight the universality of the narrative. Marcel Proust (1871â1922) resorted to âIn Search of Lost Timeâ until every reader made the moment of lingering over the cup of tea with madeleine cakes their uniquely personal experience.
The American modern-day Balzac counterpart âDoonesburyâ by Garry Trudeau (*1948) appeared from 1970 in consistent daily doses as a comic strip in about 1,400 newspapers. An overflowing repertoire of fictional and real people (Donald Trump was already included in the late 1980s) revolves around the figure of the football quarterback B.D. Over 43 years, the comic strip developed into a chronicle of America that was even awarded a Pulitzer Prize. The continuous storytelling came to an end when Amazon Studios commissioned the Doonesbury inventor Trudeau with the production of a satirical WebTV series which premiered in April 2013 under the title âAlpha Houseâ.
The interruption and its quite ironic punchline is no dramatic ending, but rather a transition to new forms of serial storytelling.
- Commerce plus art, thatâs the trick
To make a direct comparison here between the pioneers among the writer-producers of the new series genre like Jill Soloway (âTransparentâ) or the Coen brothers (âFargoâ) with Balzac, or even with Proust is certainly a âstretchâ (in new-American speak). However, their contributions are respectfully considered in the serious literary feuilletons, and this clearly signals to us: in this case, something important is going on here!
The stars of conventional authorship have long since been asked about their favourite series (Daniel Kehlmann (*1975): âMindhunterâ) and whether they also intended to write a screenplay for Netflix. (Kehlmannâs response: âWhy not? Only, so far nobody has asked.â Iâm surprised about this because I could certainly imagine him as a fantastic partner in an unpredictable and new kind of production.)
What is more interesting to me here is that among the foibles, at least of the series for upper cultural classes, it seems to be common to argue unexpectedly and extensively about the essence of ânarrationâ and each time with a warm-up that obviously signals: pay attention! Now, real thoughts are under consideration!
One example suffices: at the end of the first season of âWestworldâ, with the meaningfully glammed-up title âThe Bicameral Mindâ, and after another round of countless fatalities, Anthony Hopkins comes forward (signal:Â âCultâ! âSilence of the Lambsâ), who mysteriously controls the whole series in the background as âFordâ. (Dr Ford naturally appeals to pioneers of serial production in the US car industry whose âFordismâ had already inspired Aldous Huxley to write his novel âBrave New Worldâ). In short, Anthony Hopkins suddenly strikes this omniscient fatherly tone, âSon, Iâm now telling you something importantâ and murmurs: âYou will lose control over us!â (The wildly labyrinthine story of âWestworldâ is about artificial people that stage Wild West-themed simulated scenes in infinite loops with deviations from the narrated storylines for paying guests, while the real humans are allowed to mow down the artificial people (âItâs only a simulationâ). But soon everything somehow goes to pieces.
Then, Ford/Hopkins unveils the alter ego Bernard, so the point is simply how we should all be âsavedâ because in the end itâs always about âThe suffering. The pain that the world is not as you want it to be.â Cut. Then Hopkins/Ford continues: âSince I was a child, Iâve always loved a good story. I believed that stories helped us … become the people we dreamed of being.â And this self-reflexive musing ultimately indicates that at this point nothing less than the âbirth of a new peopleâ is at stake. Credits. End of the first season. Everything is left open for the next series.
All components of the âopen work of artâ, as the semiotist (and bestselling novelist) Umberto Eco (1932â2016) called it, are recycled here; they are shaken up to be re-used again and newly combined according to all the rules of narrative art, like in a puzzle. This is not meant in a derogatory sense. Classical modernism also engaged in something similar to the sublimity of ancient art, and therefore already laid the foundations early on for a thriving modern art market with its stars and gallerists, collectors and muses. In the beginning, it was in a few avant-garde cities like Paris, Berlin or New York, but nowadays this is global with new, prospering hubs in Asia, Hong Kong, Singapore or Manila.
For the viewers, perhaps Anthony Hopkinsâs slightly awkward theory-murmuring fulfils the proven purpose â as presented in the open work of art â of creating blank spaces, which we fill, inquisitively and creatively, with our projections in the narratives and pictures that were kept deliberately ambiguous. But now the debate becomes intriguing and the artworks become relevant, because thanks to these interactive movements they are suddenly suited to offer formulae and patterns for a present that overloads us through routine daily experience.
- Narrating like on amphetamines
Narration in many of the series is primarily achieved with picture setting, cut, rhythm and the sequencing of scenes, and only on a secondary level with the actorsâ text, or quite often thanks, too, to some narrator voices offstage.
As a reader of novels who often has already forgotten the plot halfway through the book, already shutting and pushing aside an entertaining crime thriller two chapters before the ending â and then still insistently recommending the book, since I enjoyed it â what fascinates me most is the visual narrative flow of many good series. Just like the sound of a novel captivates me and carries me carefree over the pages â W.G. Sebaldâs âThe Rings of Saturnâ, where 250 pages further on I frankly confessed, I didnât quite know what the book was about that I was just devouring. In exactly the same way, I occasionally slid into an episode of the series and into a maelstrom of visual impulses!
A good example of this is âFargoâ by the Coen brothers. Only a month or two after I surfed my way through scores of episodes, I read through some content summaries in amazement at how my memory of the story almost completely dissolved. But images, moods and especially the rhythm have made an impression.
Some series grant the stories that they relate seemingly unlimited time. They are almost the radical opposite of the supposedly so impatient âmobile phone cultureâ of their core target group of âmillennialsâ about whom it is always claimed that they just about have the attention span of mayflies. A great number of series are rampant with a plethora of individual characterizations and deviate massively from the main narrative plot. My personal paradox as a reader is that the epic scope of most series far overreaches my patience to memorize temporary minor characters and storylines, or even such peripheral details that maybe suddenly turn up again later in an episode as the central feature.
In fact, plenty about these loops and turns occurs not mainly as ânarrativeâ, but as a picture sequence, as a visual and unpredictable patchwork. In the very best moments such sequences then remind me of 1950s and 1960s experimental literature, of the Nouveau Roman when this became a narrative depiction like Nathalie Sarraute (e.g. âTropismesâ, 1957) or Alain Robbe-Grillet (âLâAnnĂ©e derniĂšre Ă Marienbadâ, a âcinĂ©-novelâ, 1961), or Ernst Jandlâs poetry (1925â2000) whenever he placed his trust purely in words and sound. There is an impertinence about this that I like. However, the aesthetics of the series gives this impetus in another dimension.
I am fascinated and equally shocked, like in series such as âFargoâ, where every performance, every dialogue implodes seamlessly on the viewer. Breathlessly. Ecstatically. Itâs narrating like on amphetamines. It is, and yet these are irreconcilable contradictions, a seamlessly woven narrative tapestry that is simultaneously filled âÂ the key word is âopen work of artâ â by those open, since meaningless projection fields for my fantasies, which modernist art had made so provocative. However, similar to the way in which post-modernism excludes itself from modernism, there is a random aspect, almost boredom, which is ideal for blissfully losing oneself binge watching on the sofa with friends on a Sunday afternoon.
- Sofas: placeless, story: from the village.
The setting comprising a sofa, friends and binge watching is placeless. The same applies for many of the previously mentioned series. Itâs an adequate condition, if we imagine a middle-class environment somewhere between Minneapolis, Barcelona, BogotĂĄ, Copenhagen, Dubai or Singapore â so, people who have the time, education and financial means to devote to this frivolous exercise. These middle classes have grown over the past two decades by hundreds of millions of households around the world. They are globalizationâs target group and their greatest beneficiaries. They incorporate the most diverse cultural identities, religious affiliations and political preferences. Recently, a fair number of them vote in democratic elections for those who are fighting precisely this globalization. What unites them is above all the option to design parts of a âprivateâ life.
One aspect of this design incentive is to tell one another stories in which thoughts, fantasies and also anxieties as well as life plans and rupture points are repeatedly woven into new tapestries.
This is why many of these stories work almost everywhere in the global village. But in one way or another each one of these stories is also simultaneously quite specific.
Even if the output, which is now difficult to keep track of, and the growing rivalry, of the major US companies like Netflix, Amazon Studios and HBO (and soon several more from Disney to Comcast) is dominating the world market for TV series, several striking alternative examples are worth mentioning.
Denmarkâs small public broadcaster DR â with âBorgenâ, âThe Bridgeâ and especially âThe Killingâ â is regarded as a breeding ground for the âDanish mini-series wonderâ, the series-counterpart for the preceding world hit of âNordic Crimeâ with books such as Stieg Larssonâs âThe Millennium Trilogyâ.
The magic formula for the series (and also for the preceding crime-thriller books) is: âKeep it local, put the author at the centre of the production and avoid TV adaptations.â Thatâs the verdict of Morten Hesseldahl. He was responsible in the decisive years for all these productions from the TV channel DR. He has recently changed medium â once again in his professional career â and in these times of abundant and surprising turnabouts he now directs the biggest Danish publishing house Gyldendal.
The motto âkeep it localâ and âtrust the authorsâ, not some intermediaries, has in the book world already catapulted several worldwide popular hits via a kind of wormhole shortcut from the extreme margins to the global distribution centres of the culture industries. An early example is the South Indian village story âThe God of Small Thingsâ by Arundathi Roy (*1961) from Kerala, published in 1986, long before the Ayurveda holiday boom. But the journey of J.K. Rowling (*1965) also belongs in this group. At about the same time, she wrote the first volume of her Harry Potter series â when series were still regarded as unmarketable âÂ in Edinburgh coffee shops.
Today, Netflix repeatedly presents a Cinderella glass-shoe writer, usually from the margins ignored by the culture industries, such as the Croat-Bosnian Ivica Djikic (*1971, Netflix series âThe Paperâ, 2018, ), or Hannah Gadsby (*1978) from Tasmania whose âNanetteâ, according to USA Today, even ârevolutionizedâ the genre of stand-up comedy. Admittedly, itâs mostly local writers who in their â sometimes still so small â home market have already earned their laurels and put their professional skill-set to the test. Even Cinderella only had the biggest break after the begrudging stepmother had noticed her.
Not all new series formats are aimed at a global audience. On the contrary, once the format is developed it allows for thoroughly national spin-offs. Franceâs Canal+, as a production partner for decades a pioneer of European as well as African authors-cinema, jumped on the bandwagon of the series model with nothing less than an homage to the sun king and his belief in the progress of the âGrande Nationâ. The three seasons of âVersaillesâ about King Louis XIV (1638â1715) and the architect of the epoch-making palace and gardens of Versailles firstly present a computer-generated design, that is, if you wanted to fit the French universe as a whole on a games console. And sex and naked flesh donât miss out, there is even a fleeting glimpse of the kingâs pubic hair concealed in his mistressâs lap.
Itâs more fascinating, because itâs more surprising how the evolution of technology during the early modern period, the connection of science with confidence in the circle of visionary thinkers is interwoven as a minor theme amidst all the chatter of simpering courtiers that satisfy the taste for gossip and stories. And in the grand spectacle surrounding todayâs rather tired, middle-ranking power, France, only a mischief-maker may stretch things from Louis in Versailles Palace to the current reform enthusiast Emmanuel Macron in the ElysĂ©e. However, itâs silly that after the third season âVersaillesâ already came to an unscheduled and premature end. Ultimately, not every homage is borne out by the people.
The examples listed here of last decadeâs boom in the series are, of course, only a heavily edited âbest-ofâ review and not a representative cross-section of the immense output of the new digital video stories.
Perhaps, the real surprise about the success story is totally different: namely, the unbelievable volume of anecdotes and stories, of narrative styles, themes and genres, which obviously for a long while went unnoticed in the conventional feature film departments of most television broadcasters and by many book publishers.
- Netflix as a paradigm
With 124 million paying subscribers from 190 countries, 11.7 billion dollars revenue in 2017 and strong gains of 40 per cent in the first half-year of 2018, currently Netflix is the brand icon of the new global media industry. In the current financial year 2018, Netflix plans to invest 13 billion dollars in its own productions. In 2017, the figure was 6 billion.
As a comparison: the worldâs biggest publishing company, Penguin Random House, reported sales of 3.359 billion euros for the financial year 2017. As its German parent company â also including the RTL television group and magazine publisher Gruner & Jahr â Bertelsmann achieved sales of 17.190 billion euros, however, without eye-catching expansion fantasies in recent years.
âNetflixâ is not alone here on the wide media spectrum. With a massive injection of its own funds, Amazon Studios has long since stepped into the ring. The scale of the funds involved here becomes clear from a shortÂ report in the Financial Times in spring 2018 that suggested Amazon plans to invest one billion dollars to film the Chinese science fiction trilogy âTrisolarisâ by Liu Cixin (*1963, âThe Three-Body Problemâ, âThe Dark Forestâ and âDeathâs Endâ). The resulting series should become a new âStar Warsâ. This is possibly more a PR gag than a factually based preview of a commercial plan, but the note clearly pushes the bar upwards.
In summer 2018 a bidding war with stakes into the high two-digit billion figure between Disney and the cable TV group Comcast for parts of Rupert Murdochâs Fox empire also made clear that here an almost epic battle for the future control of content and their consumers is being fought out on a truly mammoth scale. (A summary can be viewed here.)
Three strategic dimensions overlap here:
- Linking global range and simultaneously local proximity
- Linking content to pinpoint personalization;
- The confrontation between all the conventional, national or regional content providers with new global competition that acts financially on completely different levels.
Taking these into consideration together, itâs probably no exaggeration to discern the step towards a new age of entertainment media here.
Markus Dohle, the boss of Penguin Random House, who is well aware of how infectious his youthful self-confidence can be, gives an assured performance on all platforms where he appears. Dohle believes in good times for âstorytellingâ which has always been the core of book culture and the publishing business. However, he adds the caveat that the publishers should understand that their authors, not themselves, should stand at the centre of all their activities.
Netflix has particularly grasped the latter part of this statement and made it a pivotal point of its global expansion. Of course, Netflix is also in discussion with classical book publishers and has even commissioned a respected New York literary agency to carry out âpublishing scoutingâ to discover interesting book material. Successful books naturally are a constant source of material for popular TV series.
Elena Ferranteâs worldwide bestseller âUna amica genialeâ (âMy Brilliant Friendâ) was recently distributed with great acclaim in Venice when HBO screened the first instalments of the film version of the series. The coproduction with Italian TV channel RAI was âstaged deadâ grumbled German broadcaster, Deutschlandfunk. Naturally, all the major national stations rushed to secure the rights, starting with the Parisian Canal+ for France and French-speaking countries in Africa, Sky for Great Britain, HBO via its European subsidiary for Spain, the Scandinavian countries and large parts of Central and Eastern Europe, VRT for Belgium and Digiturk for Turkey. Whether the broadcasting rights have now finally been awarded in Germany was still unclear at the time publication of this article. But Suhrkampâs acquisition of publishing rights for the books already happened later than in most other major book markets irrespective of Italophilia among German readers.
Occasionally, it can even happen that the series dynamics outstrips the creative powers even of an ingenious writer. This also happened, and is widely cited at HBO, of all things with âGame of Thronesâ when the logic of the series and the worldwide fan base demanded the ending, but Martin couldnât deliver the final volume. In the end, the original book and the series script went their own separate ways. (More about the bookÂ and the series)
Itâs obvious that book publishers are no longer involved as coproducers in these projects. Rather, they become one member among numerous service providers in a wide-branching value-added chain that other entities control. For Ferrante, it was good fortune that the additional revenue boost was substantial, and there was also a consulting role for the film version as a double package from two smaller publishers, the Italian Edizioni E/O and its American sister publisher Europe Editions. This highlights how the new world of the series not only involves an arrangement among the established major players.
However, the enthusiasm of Penguin Random House and its CEO Markus Dohle about the new dimensions of storytelling also confronts entirely different parameters that even overwhelm the worldâs biggest trade publisher, of all things, because of a lack of wide-ranging appeal. Because âtalentâ and âcontent developmentâ are one strength of Netflix and the others. The really long arm to the consumer â both worldwide and individually â is the other, strategically presumably decisive element in the new story about storytelling.
In spring 2018, Netflix posted a job advert in Manila on the Philippines. The ad was for an âeditorial analystâ whose main tasks were to âwatch, research, rate, tag, annotate and write analysisâ. However, the specific requirements of the professional binge watcher also aimed high: âThe ideal candidate has a deep knowledge, 5+ years experience, and education in the film and/or television industry, can write efficiently with attention to detail, is comfortable using a variety of publishing tools, and is thoughtful in the delivery of information while working on a diverse teamâ, and he or she should preferably be fluent in another language besides English.
Netflix, just like all other major digital groups, employs growing armies of people who at first manually and by virtue of their human intuition accomplish a painstaking process of âtaggingâ â or indexing using thousands of keywords â the deluge of digital content. The deluge is to some degree shared out in streaming, waves and then divided up even more in individual drops and compiled in miniscule structures in databases. This material is then further processed via âmachine learningâ and artificial intelligence so that ultimately âÂ and adjusted for the individual viewing habits of every single subscriber â it is used to set up personal favourites lists. This longwinded process is certainly immensely more worthwhile for a series with countless instalments and seasons and running for months and years than for a single film lasting 90 or at best 120 minutes. Series that captivate, engage, entice and disappoint me as a viewer and then reconcile with me again are simply better suited to finding out what I like, and who I am!
Based on this process, Netflix, just like Amazon, is not only a content provider or marketplace, but at least halfway to being a technology business as well.
In the end, all of these favourites profiles are different. They make each one of the currently 124 million Netflix subscribers an unmistakeable individual customer, while simultaneously granting Netflix an equally unique treasure trove of data.
This is where the true distinction runs between Netflix, Amazon, Facebook, or Google on the one side â and the rest of the world.
- Industrializing writing
And what does it all mean for writers?
First and foremost, new options. In light of the shrinking book markets across Europe and around the world, this is primarily excellent and significant news. Because alongside the possibility of new commissions and publishing models, itâs a groundbreaking sign that narration â even in differentiated forms with everything that goes along with storytelling and discourses â does not represent a dying pleasure of outdated cultural elites. On the contrary. The present-day with its overexerting confusions, its unclear perspectives and interpretations once again searches for the maximum diversity in terms of projection fields in new stories. Because, as already mentioned, the most astonishing thing about the boom of the new media groups and the series is that these stories have not predominantly found their forums with the traditional establishments â from publishing houses to national TV institutions.
It is plain how far these two worlds of old and new have already drifted apart not least in view of the most recent stars.
Jill Soloway must be mentioned here for multiple reasons. Without knowing the name, I first got hooked thanks to a video sequence lasting only a few minutes and not somewhere online, but in the Jewish Museum on Upper East Side in New York. A handful of video clips were playing in an infinite loop as the most up-to-the-minute examples of Jewish-American identity. I went back again specially to watch a scene a second and third time: obviously, a Jewish wedding party is being ushered together for a group picture; everyone is chattering among themselves, everybody is celebrating his or her personality foibles, until finally someone takes control and begins to direct them â once again, a hint of self-reference of the genre â until the official photographer finally has the proper, valid picture in the box. This miniature is staged with a virtuosity and simultaneous nonchalance that is breathtaking.
In the middle of the anarchic troop, an older man in white womenâs clothes spins his small pirouettes â and by now, itâs already clear for series fans that the scene must be from Jill Solowayâs cult series âTransparentâ. Okay, the fans have in any case long since internalized this scene!
The episode opened the 2015 second season of a self-ironically narrated, semi-autobiographical story about Solowayâs father coming out as transgender. âTransparentâ was produced by Amazon Studios, Jill Solowayâs most important client. The main character Morton Pfefferman is delightfully played by Jeffrey Tambor. But all the success couldnât prevent the scandal that erupted soon after the broadcast âÂ and caused the cancellation of the series âÂ when Tambor was accused of sexual assaults. Soloway and her lead actors â only recently a dream team â fell out. Not only that, meanwhile Soloway has also changed her own sexual identity and will no longer be addressed by âheâ or âsheâ, but only in the neutral form âtheirâ.
Here, itâs not (or: not only) about an intertwining of artistic biographies with the zeitgeist and even with social policy. Instead, topics are tackled head on that are hardly addressed in the conventional culture industry. This relates not merely to content, but also to design as well as organizational forms, in which radical new ground is broken. This is happening not in some isolated âoffâ niche, but professionally and commercially with sights set on the mainstream and realizing with self-awareness that this is turning the great wheel of the new media industry.
Soloway is both an author as well as producer and makes her personal life a manifesto and her personal identity the linchpin of higher ambitions. The production company is programmatically called âToppleâ, derived from âtopplingâ patriarchal power relations. Recently, Soloway is also responsible for a book programme under the publishing arm of Amazon and focusing on âqueerâ topics, naturally also under the label of âTopple Booksâ.
All this doesnât mean, of course, that in future all writers have to mutate to media entrepreneurs. But the option is more obvious than in the past. And the changing terms from (ingenious-solipsistic) âwriterâ to âtalentâ and from the âworkâ â that is to be sent ready-packaged to the editor please âÂ to âcontent developmentâ certainly allows a suspicion to resonate that not only one individual is striking a high tone here. This transforms the old handcrafted creative process into a much greater thought-out, industrial framework.
If necessary, even the stories by the most respected icons, as happened with George R.R. Martin, can be drawn to a conclusion by a team. Conversely, however, quick as a flash, all ignored stories can suddenly form a new centre.
For authorship this means the risky leap from the late 18th century, a time of revolutions and risk, into a rough landing in the 21st century, which most likely is not characterized by accident both by incomparable turmoil as well as similarly lofty hopes of something new.
- Whatâs next? Like starting over!
âEverything remains differentâ, we can sum up with a nice pun. Books never had a monopoly as the best, or even only medium, of delivering stories to the audience. From the epic troubadours of pre-history to theatre and opera and all the technical media of the past two centuries âÂ photography, film, television â there were always several competing and cross-fertilizing formats for the ultimate question, which small children already intuitively express, about prolonging the good night story, about another twist â or instalment: âWhatâs next?â
There is more than only one valid form of telling a story in the right way. However, there are amazingly few long-lasting variants. These are neutral as far as media and formats are concerned.
On the one hand, aesthetic forms are fundamental. The basic tendencies to introduce and develop characters, to build tension levels to a crescendo and then calm them down, to create surprises, to disappoint, to evoke laughter and emotions have not changed much since the early days of recording stories about two and a half centuries ago. There are not many basic building blocks.
On the other hand, there are very clearly distinguishable lines. Chinese or Indian epic tales function in a different way to all traditional Greek dramas. Thatâs still true today. Excellent examples of this are the wonderfully light film adaptation of the classic Chinese novel âJourney to the Westâ (è„żéèš) by Cheang Pou-soi from Hong Kong, a series of feature films, but created as a popular series exactly like the 16th-century novel by Wu Chengâen (ćłæżæ©), which it is based on. Where one escapade and adventure follow another, and the characters remain stoically unchanged, you feel as though you are transported back in time to the early modern icons of European narratives â from Cervantesâ âDon Quixoteâ to the Flemish âTill Eulenspiegelâ and the picaresque novel âThe Adventurous Simplicissimus Teutschâ by Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen, published in 1668. All of these are pioneering narratives and, incidentally, reading them today is not only worthwhile but also works well.
The contrasting post-classical Greek mode of high dramatization in complicated arcs and theatrical forms, which abrupt cut frame-sequences in the current series are also aesthetically committed to, this is all extremely fertile post-Shakespeare territory. Perhaps for this reason, too, itâs important to have the ever-recurrent self-reference for self-legitimation. The worldâs literature and theatre festivals have long since discovered these riches. More conservative corners of the cultural worlds still shy away from an inquisitive break-out into these zones. But that will still happen.
WhateverâŠ The game that we are witnessing is certainly older than we thought when this provisional research began. This game is audacious, relentless and decadent. Which is why we like it so much.
âA great while ago the world begun,
With hey, ho, & c.
But thatâs all one, our play is done,
And weâll strive to please you every day.â
(William Shakespeare, âTwelfth Nightâ, Epilogue)
Translated by Suzanne Kirkbright