“The stories in your mind are infinitely better than one that tries to place every pixel," Evan Jones of Together Tales says to Molly Flatt. In her seventh of eight profiles of our new FutureBook 2015 BookTech Award contenders, Flatt gets at one of the canniest distinctions of this offering, something Jones clarified for me last week during our #FutureChat: Together Tales happens outside the actual story. Texts are intact. Parents perform "adventure kit" tasks—the Tooth Fairy would recognise them, wouldn't she?—which connect kids with those stories. Evans, a father of two, simply gets it: "Books are imagination fireworks."—Porter Anderson
Conference update: We expect to close FutureBook 2015 bookings Monday (27th November). Hurry to secure one of our last seats for 4th December at Mermaid London.
“Could we design an alternate reality game (ARG) for a single player?”
That’s the question that led to Together Tales, a Canadian startup that swiftly overshot its Kickstarter target this June. It’s a question made even more compelling when you realise that the player founder Evan Jones had in mind was a child.
“If you're looking for a bizarre inspiration for a children's book,” Jones suggests, “watch Michael Douglas' 1997 film The Game, in which a tycoon pays to be immersed in a story that blurs the lines between reality and fiction. We get little glimpses of that level of immersion in childhood. Isn't it incredible that reindeer can pull a sleigh around the world in a single night and deliver exactly what I wanted under my tree?”
It was while spending a year as a stay-at-home dad that the 37-year-old Toronto native connected the power of a child’s imagination with his career spent producing ARGs. Jones’ company, Stitch Media, makes interactive film and TV stories for companies including Microsoft, Disney and FOX, and Jones himself has won two Emmy Awards.
“Lightning really struck the moment I had my own children, and I saw how many times I was setting the stage for our playtime together,” he says. “With a little guidance, I could create adventures for my own kids that would transcend screen time.”
And so Jones came up with a concept which embraces the trend for personalised publishing popularised by Lost My Name and evolves it into a collaborative, cross-platform experience.
At Together Tales, books are offered as ‘adventure kits’ complete with a range of on- and offline tools that allow parents (or grandparents, or uncles, or teachers) to put their children at the heart of a real-life story. The kits are based around the traditional print book format, but each chapter arrives through the post separately bound. Adults then reveal them one by one according to the story’s timeline, customising such interactive elements as geolocated scavenger hunts, as the plot requires.
“Our adventures are a three-way project,” Jones says:
- “The creative team that writes and illustrates the book and designs the games and activities;
- "The parent who helps bring the story to life; and
- "The child experiencing it all around him or her.
"The child may or may not be aware that anything at all is happening 'behind the curtain'. They’re focused on the adventure. The parents are the ones who personalise a letter online, print it out and tuck it under the child's pillow because they received an automated email explaining that the Magician will be answering the child’s dream questions the next day.”
Using multimedia storytelling to bring families together, rather than isolating us in our private worlds, has undoubted appeal.
But isn’t it a lot to ask of busy parents to drive an elaborate narrative?
“We actually conducted focus groups where parents told us 'I just want to set it and forget it',” Jones admits. “We spent months building an automated version which was designed to minimize parental involvement. It was terrible. So we reframed the question. Instead of asking parents: ‘Would you buy this product if it required 15 minutes to set up?’ we started asking parents: ‘Would you spend 15 minutes creating a wonderful memory for your child?’
“I get to look like a hero when my child realises that there are clues hidden all over the house which form a jigsaw puzzle that will save the day. For that payoff I don't mind tucking a few puzzle pieces around the house. Yes it's effort, but it's worth it.”
Similarly, feedback from early users has been evangelically positive—from those who ‘get it.’
“It's a fairly unique concept,” Jones admits. “Even the slippery term 'interactive book' doesn't quite capture the value of the platform. It doesn't click with everyone, but when we find one of those parents who stays up late painting a cardboard-box spacecraft, we know we’ve found a kindred spirit for our stories.”
The tech used in Together Tales isn’t wildly innovative—in fact, it’s sometimes distinctly old-school. But it’s exactly that uncategorisable merging of on- and offline media and storytelling that secured the startup a place in our BookTech Company of the Year shortlist.
“This isn't a single book concept,” Jones says. “It's a strategy to build a library. Early sales will be reinvested into advances on new stories and additional technical features, and we hope this year shows enough traction to attract an author with a strong fan base, or an entertainment brand that's loved within the target demographic. A partnership like that would take us to the next level and we're ready for it.”
A subscription service could be on the cards, too. “One trend we're watching very closely is the subscription boxes that ship regularly to your home. They're emerging for so many different aspects like fashion and snacks but we think books are a wonderful choice for this approach. There are companies like Little Passports already doing this for kids and equally awesome folks like the Mysterious Package Company doing adventures for grownups.”
And for all those who still believe in the magic of a linear, author-led narrative, Jones is clear that he sees Together Tales as a gateway drug to—not a competitor of—traditional publishing.
“Books are imagination fireworks,” he says. “The stories in your mind are infinitely better than one that tries to place every pixel. I've since had a second child and they're both turning out to be great readers.”
The BookTech Showcase (#BookTech) is a new element of the FutureBook Conference. Hosted by tech and culture journalist Molly Flatt, the session invites eight book tech companies to take part in a live pitch-off for a panel of industry and tech experts. A real-time vote will then determine the winners of the bronze, silver and gold FutureBook Awards. The overall winner will be named The FutureBook BookTech Company of the Year 2015.
The judges of the showcase, who will interrogate attendees from the selected book tech companies, are Hannah Telfer, Group Director of Consumer and Digital Development at Penguin Random House UK; Dan Kieran, CEO and Co-Founder of Unbound; and Eileen Burbidge, Partner at Passion Capital and one of the UK’s most influential tech venture capitalists.
In Molly Flatt's series on the contenders (in order of publication):
- BookTech Showcase: Where book and tech come together
- BookTech Showcase: oolipo
- BookTech Showcase: Shulph
- BookTech Showcase: Reedsy
- BookTech Showcase: The Owl Field
- BookTech Showcase: ooovre
- BookTech Showcase: Gojimo
- BookTech Showcase: Together Tales
To book tickets, please visit the FutureBook Conference site.
Main image: Together Tales