Tolkien: 40 Years’ Dead But a New Career?

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This month marks the fortieth anniversary of Tolkien’s death, yet despite an intervening digital revolution, the publishing industry is still struggling to keep up with his legacy. We investigate the future of publishing… and why the world is still chasing Tolkien.

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, born in 1892, was often photographed in his study dressed in a tweed jacket, waistcoat and tie, with a pipe clamped firmly to his lips. Behind his head antiquated looking tomes line the old fashioned bookcases. For 34 years, he was an Oxford don. He specialised in Anglo Saxon, a subject which sounds as dusty and dull as it comes, yet through a brilliant mind and in-depth knowledge of language, he brought whole fictional universes to life. For many people Middle Earth is easily as real as London.

Now, in 2013, tablets, smartphones and interactivity offer the zenith of creativity, yet most content simply doesn’t deliver on the potential. Sure, the digital age brings information to life, but it also expects a whole lot more from its creators. This is why the digital age is chasing Tolkien, because he didn’t just write stories, he produced fully interactive content experiences, long before the technology existed to present them. He did maps, languages, songs and poems. He produced whole new alternate worlds geared up for total immersion and nobody else has done a better job since.

Tolkien died 40 years ago this September and yet, incredibly, his back catalogue keeps expanding. In April of this year a 1000 verse alliterative poem was published by his son, and literary executor, and with each year that passes he continues to reach newer, younger audiences. In fact, when the BBC launched ‘The Big Read’ in 2003, an overwhelming three quarters of a million UK voters selected Lord of the Rings as their favourite book. But none of this should come as a surprise because Tolkien produced the type of multi-layered concept that the digital media has been trying to pull off for years. The irony is, in the past the technology was the stumbling block, now the sky is the limit on what is possible, and the challenge lies with the content producers who must (on some level at least) raise their game to Tolkien’s level.

The huge shift in the way we consume – and want to consume – our media has been swift and decisive. Online newspapers went from being primitive receptacles of knowledge to the first mainstream adopters of interactive content. Now videos, 3D imagery and podcasting are considered the norm. The rise of the tablet and subsequent newspaper and magazine apps cemented this. Although if you look back just two years ago, notable publisher of Rolling Stone, Jann Wenner, managed to alienate a hefty chunk of his readers by steadfastly refusing to take the digital revolution seriously.

As consumers we’re clamouring for these new delivery methods… and the market is reacting. Entertainers like Ricky Gervais are launching their own YouTube channels to showcase brand new material; Howard Stern, not only made the switch to satellite radio, but also runs a hugely successful on demand TV service; Kevin Smith started a podcast empire; traditional publishing houses such as Faber and Faber found success with their embryonic digital output… and online TV streaming services like Netflix are funding brand new shows the public want to see – and then releasing all the episodes in one go. The way we absorb our information has changed for the better and we’re loving it.

Last year AUX Magazine, a Canadian title, launched the first fully interactive music magazine app. Its USP is the ability to deliver an immersive digital experience, utilising well researched pieces, interviews, videos and a range of interactive content that’s streets ahead in terms of development. After only a year on the market it is leading the way in interactive app content and winning Digital Magazine Awards as it goes. The publisher, Ashley Carter, thinks that it’s all about balance: “AUX didn’t have a legacy print publication to consider like most magazines making the leap to digital, so we were free to approach content from an experimental perspective and work backwards into the guts of it. I think the reason it works is that we’re careful not to let content suffer for the sake of interactivity or vice versa. We come from print backgrounds, that helps.”

It’s also very telling that it was able to come at this from a completely fresh angle, an experimental perspective. It’s this thinking that was at the core of Tolkien’s work and is why so many people are getting excited about the potential of digital publishing. Today’s authors have the opportunity to build something new, from scratch, completely un-tethered and deliver it in a way that has never been seen before. Digital publisher, Ashley Carter, thinks that:  “Every reading experience will become more interactive since the demand is there and we’re quickly learning what’s possible… but there will always be a place for a “flat” reading experience. If you go on vacation, everyone using a tablet poolside still looks like a jerk. Even the Jetsons probably read paperbacks on the beach. Books will stick around. Maybe not magazines, but books.”

She’s right of course; some things just don’t fully work in the digital market (and not just poolside reading). A couple of months ago, Egmont Press released their new Winnie the Pooh app, which they (but unfortunately hardly anyone else) lauded as “sitting at the forefront of the digital revolution.” Whilst the audio story is well put together, and the pictures by EH Shepherd are stunning, there is nothing new here and nothing to make a child sit up and take notice. It has been, perhaps unfairly described, as a glorified audiobook, a throwback to the 80s, but it does offer a range of biographies and other interesting content.

Another similarly poorly received app was the digital version of John Buchan’s The 39 Steps, however, the publisher, Faber and Faber, has been excelling in other areas of their digital brand, notably with their collaborations with Touch Press, where they’ve developed exciting multi-platform apps for The Waste Land and Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Here they have brought the works to life with filmed readings from famous actors and thrown a wealth of other features in with it. Perhaps an even bigger achievement however, is their treatment of War Horse – the 1982 novel by former Children’s Laureate, Michael Morpurgo. It’s a full on interactive experience involving audio readings from the author, stunning illustrations, music, interviews (with 34 experts), 3D tours, interactive timelines… and a live stage performance featuring original songs from John Tams and Barry Coope.

When you glance at what’s available at the moment, the biggest successes have been from giving the right interactive treatment to pre-existing, high quality, source material. This is of course to be applauded. Turning a new audience onto books like this is brilliant, but what are really exciting are the endless possibilities this technology creates for new types of storytelling and new ways of creating books. If Tolkien was producing Lord of the Rings today, he’d have had a field day and we’d be treated to a smörgåsbord of interactive maps, video back stories, animated abridgements, music videos – perhaps even a tutorial on learning Elvish… all downloadable to a tablet, Kindle or reading device in seconds.

This is exactly the kind of thinking the industry needs and it can’t be long before a new author hooks up with the right publishing house and delivers us an opus; a cohesive whole, with the perfect balance of unique storytelling and interactive content that captures the imagination of a whole new generation.  I just wonder how long we’ll have to wait… somewhere out there, there must be another Tolkien.


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