By: Sam Ford
In the second of my three-part series on writing about how convergence culture is changing one of television’s oldest genres–the soap opera–I am focusing on the printing of a transmedia book based on the soap opera As the World Turns. I originally wrote this for the C3 blog on Nov. 25. See yesterday’s post for a little bit of an explanation of my background from Henry.
Oakdale Confidential has now entered its first reprinting stage, and just as the writers wove the initial printing of the book into storylines for the soap opera As the World Turns, the reprint is becoming perhaps an even greater catalyst for events happening on the show. The book–which sat at #3 on the New York Times bestseller list for two weeks in a row and made it as high as number five on Amazon’s seller list–is being reprinted with the addition of a new story by author Katie Peretti, a character on the show, who reveals a major town secret in the book now that she has decided to publicly acknowledge her authorship of the book. In a chance to get revenge on her ex-husband for what she sees as ruining her current marriage, she writes what would–in the real world–be sure libel in accusing that ex-husband and his girlfriend of stealing expensive jewels, an accusation that is, in fact, true.
Following the ups and downs of this book’s release, both its major success as a transmedia experiment and also its pointing at some of the troubles with creating this type of text and its subsequent instructions on future projects of this sort, has been worth following throughout 2006. Unfortunately, because of what I perceive as a bias that marginalizes certain types of content even as its popularity should rank it as mainstream, the successes of Oakdale Confidential have not been that well covered or examined. I am going to attempt to trace that history a little bit here.
Last December, I wrote about this limiting approach to marginalizing certain types of content, particularly the two types of American entertainment I study most–soap operas and pro wrestling. Both were among the earliest of television staples and both have proven to be immensely popular throughout the past several decades, yet neither are regularly understood or reported on by those supposedly covering “the entertainment industry.” Wrestling and soaps are both only covered by their own press, and it is clear when the occasional feature is done on either most of the time that the “mainstream” entertainment press either have a complete lack of understanding of the genre and/or a disdain for the genre that clouds their coverage. That’s largely not because there are no journalists who are fans of wrestling or soaps but rather that’s the only stories that have the likelihood of getting run. (The reverse is the glowing and too positive stories in which the journalist is so surprised by discovering the popularity of one of these entertainments that they don’t give a nuanced account at all.)
At the time, I wrote, “Considering many of the ideas people now celebrate as complex television came from soap opera, and considering how much of an innovator WWE has been in transmedia storytelling and many other aspects of media convergence, it just makes me wonder how many other extremely popular and profitable areas of popular culture are ignored by most mainstream journalists.”
The plans for Oakdale Confidential were announced in early 2006. Back in February, I first asked what Oakdale Confidential would be. The announcement of a novel that would in some way be related to the show directed a lot of speculation from fans as to who or what would be the driving force behind this book. At the time, I wrote, “Whatever the case–this is another step in the right direction, if done well. How can a novel become a piece of transmedia? If done well, the television plot will in some way hinge on the contents of the book, so that the television show promotes the book but also requires viewers to read the book to understand the full implications of the impact the book has on the residents of Oakdale. The show has been very tight-lipped about what Oakdale Confidential is, and Amazon’s page on the book has next to no information about the contents…Which makes all of the fans all the more determined to find out what’s going on. There’s great potential here for an interesting experiment in transmedia storytelling.”
The book was a major success, as mentioned previously. In April, after the book had been released, I wrote, “What makes the book most intriguing is that viewers are looking through the text and examining shows carefully to get clues as to who authored it. There are several factual discrepancies in the book from what we have actually seen on screen that are illuminating for close watchers of ATWT, and my thoughts on the message board look into those parts of the text that stray from the ‘truth’ we’ve seen on the screen in detail to get a better sense of who might be the author and why they may have either gotten facts wrong or deliberately chosen to omit certain things in their rendering of the story.”
The television writers and the book’s author did not sync perfectly with each other, and it’s important to realize that the book was written by someone with the company but not on the writing team of the show and that there was not substantial collaboration between the two creative forces. That hindered the quality of the project, and I would argue both that there were major factual inaccuracies that hindered the enjoyment of the book for longtime fans and also that there was not enough coordination between the book’s author and the writers of the show to really make for greatly compelling television. But, because it had not been done on the show previously, this type of experiment was intriguing, and it was instructive as to what does and doesn’t work for future transmedia projects and also a cautious tipping of the toes in the water that–to me, anyway–proved that there is substantial market interest in this type of project that will hopefully lead to a better coordinated and more earnest attempt the second time around.
This was my sentiments at the time as well, when I wrote, “While the experiment shows how much more coordination is needed between the real author of the book and the television writing team to really exploit all the possibilities of taking the story from one medium to the other, the one thing that Oakdale Confidential has demonstrated quite powerfully is that such an attempt at transmedia storytelling is becoming more and more profitable and that viewers are eager to join into a deep transmedia experience. I am hoping that the experiment not only shows the people at ATWT that this was a good idea but also what to do better the next time around.”
I was intrigued by comments from Alina Adams, the book’s actual author. She and I have corresponded on several occasions, but she also kept a blog running for a while after the book’s publication about Oakdale Confidential. She wrote responses to various criticisms from the fan community of her work, explaining that “Oakdale’s characters simply have too much past history for it all to be compressed into a novel. As a result, it was decided that any past events which were not relevant to the plot at hand wouldn’t be included.” While that makes sense, fans were not happy that it was used to change the relationship of characters in their pasts, to gloss over inaccuracies in people’s families (including the complete exclusion of one of the children of a main character in the book), etc. Fans didn’t buy this line of argument, but it was great to see her blog entries as a place these discussions played out. She also explained that “some of the “mistakes” in the book are deliberate,” reflecting the desired world of the author rather than the reality. Again, I hope the fan response to some of these factual inaccuracies provided a blueprint to the creators for similar projects in the future, but Alina’s comments are a great case study for anyone interested in transmedia, and–what’s better–the comments were made publicly available for fans. (Also, see her post about the difficulties of writing about the physical attributes of characters when she is really referring to the actors.)
While I do sympathize with various fan complaints, the book was well-received as an experiment and encouraged. Yet I never saw that much about its success in the mainstream press. There were snippets here and there and a sidebar, but one would think that a show having a book that was an artifact from on-the-air storylines would be major discussion. And it was. Shortly thereafter. About Lost.
Bad Twin was not a replica experiment, as it’s tie-ins to the actual show was more subtle, but it was very similar. And it got tons more publicity. Bad Twin had a better overall Amazon performance, from what I could gather, but the data I found never ranked it on the New York Times list’s top 10 (I did find a reference to it making 14, and it may have made even higher). While I couldn’t find direct comparisons between the two in overall numbers, suffice to say that both were a major success.
Yet, when the New York Times gave its review for Bad Twin, the ignoring of Oakdale Confidential was evident. As I mentioned, the soaps book did get a sidebar. But, despite having appeared higher on the list than Bad Twin ever did, Bad Twin was the one to get a full book review in the Times, a review that began, “Novels by unidentified authors have made the best-seller lists, as has at least one said to have been written by a soap opera character. But this may be the first time that a book by a nonexistent writer who is thought to have died in a plane crash has cracked the charts.”
I’m not a betting man, but I would say that, had Bad Twin came first, if Oakdale Confidential had been mentioned at all, it would have almost been referenced as being derivative of the Lost book.
I’m very supportive of Bad Twin as well, but I wish both books had simply been more consistent stories and that both were most intricately woven into storylines from the shows. But these were experiments. And I’m hoping the success of the re-release of Oakdale Confidential will not just lead to even more ignoring of the book’s success. This time around, the writers have done an even better job of weaving the release into the storylines, as Lucinda–the publisher–has hounded Katie on several fronts about getting her copy out, and the pressure of the book’s release has played an important part in major decisions made by the character. Her notes about her sleeping with her ex-husband are used as pre-writing for the insert of the book in its re-release, as well as a way for her to sort through feelings about her one night stand, and her husband discovers about the affair when he’s trying to print off her pages for Lucinda, who demands to have them immediately since the book needs to go to press and Katie has been dragging the deadline.
The discovery causes Mike to move out and Katie, in her frustration, to write a scathing extra chapter about her ex-husband, which she tries to stop from going to press, but too late. Since that time, we’ve seen characters around the mall where the book is being sold (and a couple of too obvious decisions to purchase it). On the whole, though, the promotion has been much more integrated into the show in a believable and compelling way this time around.
The press for the rerelease has had one major flaw–making some viewers think of it as a sequel rather than the same book with a few new things inserted in. That is somewhat the show’s fault, as I have seen it referred to as a “sequel,” although the storyline on the show and the book’s description clearly indicates it is a reprinting of the original story with a few new additions.
The point is that both are doing well in the long tail, and ATWT has had particular success in making the re-release once again part of storylines, despite being acknowledged as the same book. I’m still hoping that both will be models for the two shows to try something even more successful from a narrative perspective in the future now that the economic model is proven to have potential, and also that other shows will look at these successes when thinking of transmedia extensions in the future.
Alina has some great recent posts about how transmedia projects are implemented as well. One recent post highlights how a subtext from the book she wrote a year ago, about Katie’s underlying interest in her former husband who wasn’t even on the show again at the time that Alina was working on the book, has now been identified as fans as proof from back then that Katie was still in love with Simon and that this affair had been coming all along. This was serendipitous, but it demonstrates how transmedia can be deliberately programmed to provide these subtle connections for viewers.
And, as with character Luke Snyder’s blog earlier this year, these types of projects allow viewers to see what characters on the show are reading and reacting to. (In Luke’s case, with that “coming out” storyline, it interested me to see new fans who came to the show through that story in particular, without necessarily having a background in watching. But, what drove their viewing was a social network built around watching, through an online gay community.)