In 2006, pre Kindle, I was stuck in the rain in Spain. With literally nothing else to read I picked up a book that had been languishing in the rented apartment from its 1970s publishing date. It described in detail the life of the future. Anyone, it explained, who filtered information could look forward to a job for all of their two hundred years. Because, in the future, the book said, no single company could afford to take the whole cost of creating brand new content, and besides, there would be far too much old material to compete with anyway. Publishing success, it was sure, would lie with those who could re-engage a new audience in a contemporary way with old classic material.
This seems to be exactly what Zoe Watkins and Corrine Turner of FourteenFiftyFour Ltd had in mind when they created Booksurfers. This series of books devised by the intellectual property development company and written by children’s writer David Gatward, is a range of digitally-only released action adventure stories for the 9 – 12 year olds. However these original and seemingly stand alone pieces of fiction are cleverly mapped on top of an out of copyright classic and hyperlinked together in to one cohesive story.
The first two titles out of the Booksurfers stable are based around Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island and L Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz, both of which were released to the global English language rights world on the 14th June.
The heroes and heroines of the books are the Booksurfers themselves. They are a typical action foursome, their parents have been kidnapped by Dr Crookshanks- the-baddy, and they are pawns in his wicked game of surfing the classics and collecting the precious things he desires. Only when Crookshanks is as satisfied as a banker who’s got his investment cash out of Greece thanks to an IMF bailout, will he allow them to have their parents back. So far so good, only the linear narrative is hyper-linked to the original at points where stories cross. In Treasure Island, the bookish four find themselves outside Billy Bones’ bar, filled with trepidation over the task of taking a talisman from his dead body. However, before the new scene unfolds, it’s possible to jump in to the original text and experience the scene as it existed for a hundred years before the Booksurfers were created. This works to increase the tension around the scene and to give an unexpected additional dimension to the scene you’re about to read.
The author David Gatward explained the plotting for this project was a challenging experience. For the writer, not only does this project mean writing in the knowledge that every word of your new work will be placed up close and personal with the classic, but also the writing process is similar to TV or Film where a close working relationship is essential between writer and editorial team. The original text already exists, and cannot be changed. Whereas a film director can alter the number of rooms inside Dorothy’s house in Kansas to suit his location or artistic vision, with this project the text is immovable and David Gatward’s Booksurfers text must reflect this every time the two texts overlap. This requires a high level of editorial collaboration, something not normally required from the writer of children’s action/adventure books.
Both the creator and the writer realised from the outset that, in order to ensure readers engage with either book, the story and the characters have to be strong and engaging enough on their own. They also wanted to persuade the average 9-12 year old to move away from the DS3D and begin reading. Part of this success lay in the choice of the original stories. They came up with the initial four titles fairly easily – A Tale of Robin Hood and A Christmas Carol are to follow later in the year – with four new titles planned for next year.
As a reading experience the hyperlinks work well, and for the Kindle-lover it was as if the Kindle itself has hyperlinked itself from 2D to 3D. The existence of the links within the Booksurfer stories seemed like a different level of a game you are playing and one that encourages you to go deeper. The promise of treats to come within the text makes the reader feel a deeper affection for the reading experience, as if much more love has gone it to creating the book. It also allows the reader to experience a classic without having to struggle through the first few chapters, making for an easier engagement with the original text. Similarly, no longer having to read the book in a linear fashion lessens the fear of ‘the classic’, the self-doubt that accompanies opening the cover of a big book with a big reputation and forcing a fight through the first few pages. In fact Booksurfers challenges the idea that a book has to be read from the beginning at all and allows you to engage with the story in a way that suits the reader.
The response since the publication through Amazon on June 14th has been hard to quantify. Both parties are happy in terms of reviews and pleased with sales. Also Amazon as a publisher allows for the titles to be published in many territories simultaneously. However, with any digital publishing venture the genius idea and publication is only half of the battle. Marketing their titles to audience is increasingly challenging for even the most experienced of publishing houses. Sales and marketing without a book, is the real challenge for the digital publishing market and it could be the same for the Booksurfers.
However, Zoe set out to create a project at FifteenFiftyFour Ltd which was re-engaged new readers with old classics and with Booksurfers, and David has delivered a very simple idea for the right platform and still have the possibility of growing the series in to an international children’s publishing brand.