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Papercasting: literary trailers for the iPhone generation

Digital producer Alexander Mayor explains how ‘papercasting’ aims to create new hybrid media trailers for books, helping them to compete in the digital marketplace.

In the decade or so since the iPod, and the six years since the Kindle first appeared, the word breathless technologists have been uttering most enthusiastically at the beginning of articles about the future is “disintermediation”. This web-ordained replacement of all physical media with their new digital equivalents is always accompanied by a certain gleeful hand-warming at the ‘creative’ economic destruction that this has wrought or will bring.

And sure, the central feature of disintermediation has been a certain flattening of the intuitive physical separation between books, compact discs, DVD movies, and magazines. In the pre-digital years, the physical limitations of access and distribution, i.e. walking into HMV or Waterstones, implied a certain commitment to finding something new to read or listen to. Once across the shop’s threshold it was just a case of whether or not you’d find something to your taste from within the limitations of the stock in front of you.

But for a new generation of readers, music fans and film lovers, the initial experience of these cultural works is increasingly not a retail space or publishing house but a piece of personal technology – the shop is in your pocket or inside your laptop. Our time is increasingly spent in the company of devices, not books and records. Thus the competition for the reader’s attention is intensified, the opportunity cost of one form of media choice weighs heavily on all the other present options.

The battle in your pocket

The book-as-device has been predictable since the mid-noughties, when e-ink readers became a reality. But this isn’t about the arid discussion of whether or not one prefers to read a paperback or on a Kindle screen. What the latest generation of portable devices have done is to both unify the entertainment world into users’ pockets and to pitch what we used to think of as separate activities into a Battle Royale for our attention.

But this mélee in your pocket isn’t all bad news, if responded to with open arms and imagination. The modern booklover might fill their commute by listening to an Economist podcast on their iPhone’s Soundcloud app, switch to the Guardian’s free mobile site, read a review of the new Hilary Mantel novel and browse Ebay for a history book they’ve heard about on R4‘s Start the Week. (If you can forgive the implicit Islingtonia of this example.)

What this means is that readers are able to hop about, letting their enthusiasms discover new ideas from broader shores. Ten years ago I wouldn’t have had any idea what the New York Times literature desk thought of the new Malcolm Gladwell, unless I’d been forced buy the International Herald Tribune at Barcelona Airport because they were all out of UK papers. Now I can be engaged with and appealed to in many new ways.

The threat faced by books is different to that of music. The danger is not that you snack all day at the free buffet but that you don’t engage at all. So the idea at the heart of papercasting is simple: bring to life the premise of books in as imaginative and entertaining way possible and you establish the value of the book and close the sale. Create something for writers and readers to share. Recreate a little of the magic of an in-store event but for a potentially far bigger audience. Make the trailer available from the back of the book jacket. Make it come alive in the shop by  harnessing the DIY-media advantages of the digital era – the fact that with the right skills we can now create our own compelling, high-quality media at low-cost and high speed.

Papercasting – literary trailers for the smartphone generation

So at this point, publishers need to step up and say – we too can grasp and hold your attention. At no point is this to play down the centrality of reading as the ultimate goal. But finding ways to bring the author and book’s value to public understanding must now mean identifying and accepting how readers actually spend their time. And that, in turn, means bringing them delightful reasons to buy books and understanding how they share their enthusiasms.

Here’s the papercast we created for Travis Elborough’s new book “London Bridge in America: the tall story of a transatlantic crossing” (Jonathan Cape, 2013). It’s an insightful and witty cultural history and was the perfect book for us to demonstrate the potential of papercasting. Working directly with the author we added a little drama, some location recording, period music – and hopefully created the perfect introduction to this fabulous book:


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