Sunday, August 24, 2008

Authors, part one

Sometimes, you know where you’re going. Projects at work usually have a clear goal, a definable scope of work, with knowable resources and deadlines. However, internet businesses don’t usually follow that straight path – they start with an idea, then that idea morphs into something new, and each iteration of that idea changes the picture more than slightly. Remember those old Disney time-lapse movies of a plant sprouting, growing, flowering, and then fruiting? That’s the straight path. But a time-lapse movie of an internet business would appear much more chaotic and bizarre – the seed sprouts, but then grows arms and a face, then mellows to the flower; but then the flower gets some teeth and starts snapping small creatures out of the air, finally maturing into an aggressive flower that eats only pollution – but does it with a wicked smile.

Originally, I thought that the main players on the website would just be other people like me, people who read books, like movies, and wanted to post a fantasy cast. I never really got beyond that until my sleep-breaking epiphany (see my post for August 5th). That was the first morph: the idea that authors would be even more interested in posting a fantasy cast than the regular readers. It was perfectly obvious, though, once you saw it – they were the original Storycasters, creating the story and peopling it with characters. Even if they didn’t envision a particular actor in the role, they saw somebody doing those things, and they had a much clearer picture of the situations than any of the readers ever would. At that point I realized that I would have to contact the authors and try to get them to share their own “authorcast” with the rest of us. I just had no idea how I would do that.

I spent several months in January and February of this year Googling combinations of “book” and “cast” and “movie”. That’s how I ran across a really cool blog that was already asking authors those key questions. It’s written by L.A. screenwriter Marshal Zeringue (“just like the pie”, says Marshal), and his blog is called My Book The Movie; it’s listed in the navbar. Marshal interviews authors and asks them specifically who they’d like to have directing and starring in the movie adaptations of their books. And that’s how I got “introduced” to Catherine Ryan Hyde, Cheryl Kaye Tardif, Kelly Komm, Ben Tanzer, Cory Redekop, and the rest of the authors who came on the site early. Marshal’s blog showed me the authors who were already willing to talk about casting, and when I started looking around, I found that they were not only easy to contact, but they were very interested in the Storycasting concept.

I wrote to Catherine at the end of February, explained the site concept, indicated that the site wouldn’t go “live” for another month or two, and asked if she’d consider coming on the site to “cast” her own characters. In just a few days came her definite reply: “Yes, I absolutely will. I'll leave this email in my inbox so I won't forget.” Also ready was Canadian author Cheryl Kaye Tardif, who thanked me for the invitation and told me that she knew “many authors who would be happy to participate”. When the site finally got up on May 1st, that very day Catherine and Cheryl Kaye claimed their Author Account and started casting their characters. These same authors, and the two dozen who have since joined them on the site, are the major source of our Google listings. My next post will expand on our relationship with the authors, how they promote our site, and how their fans have reacted to the casting opportunity.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Wikipedia, fantasy casting, and branding

I’m researching and writing a Wikipedia article about fantasy casting as a generic activity. I started out by using a Google search for terms like “fantasy cast”, “fantasy casting”, “dream cast”, etc. Some people also use the term “dream teaming”, which seems to have equal references to sports and Hollywood. Many followed links later, it became clear that, although nobody was ever actually defining the term, everyone seemed to know what it was about: selecting actors for an imaginary movie. I then went on to use the academic search capabilities at my alma mater (I still have access), where a slightly different picture emerged. In American print media, the “imaginary movie cast” idea was the most common usage model. By contrast, in UK newspapers and magazines, “fantasy cast” is more likely to be used the way we use “dream team” here: a best-possible set of players for a real performance. UK writers use that term whether the activity is sports, movies, television, or even a ballet company.

What surprised me was the fact that there was no Wikipedia article on fantasy casting. When you go there and type in “casting’, you immediately are presented with references to falconry, fishing, metallurgy, and “performing arts”. The “performing arts” page has additional stubs for typecasting and stunt casting, but nothing for the imaginary kind of fun activity. So, I’m preparing the text for just such an article, holding to the guidelines for strict neutrality. I’ll be allowed to cover the topic itself, but any mention of the website has to be left to the final section, “Sources and external links”. That’s fine with me; I’m even going to mention our (older, smaller and plainer) competitor as a valid example of the activity.

The “branding” aspect of the site presents its own problems. You may ask, “Don’t you want Storycasting to become a household name?” The answer is, “Not really - that dilutes the value of our trademark”. Think about the names Bandaid and Kleenex, and then read the Wikipedia entry for “genericide”, and you’ll see what I mean. Publicity and recognition is nice, but we have to maintain our exclusive rights to our trademark, by gently reminding people not to use “Storycasting” to refer to generic fantasy casting. However, we can’t complain if someone wants to talk about a “storycast”, because that’s already in use in the industry, and we don’t own that term – but I’m sure there will be some cross-over associations in the minds of all the users. I recently saw a post on an author fan site, asking if anyone had tried “Storycasting” the author’s works. I think that’s a plug for our site and not a generic use, but it’s on the edge of the kind of use we’ll need to watch out for.

The particular activity we promote on the website, which we call Storycasting, is even more narrowly focused: creating and posting an imaginary movie cast, using a book or some other story as the base material, and involving images of the books and actors. This is why I’m perfectly happy to talk about “fantasy cast” and “fantasy casting” – those are already generic terms that are more broad than the unique trademarked activity on our site. Since we own it, we can define it.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

This is a new kind of HOBBY

As part of investigating the viability of what we were about to create, I was curious about the social and leisure aspects of web-based activities. During my lunch hour at work one day, I started to look over the Google postings for leisure activities. Reading, of course, is clearly one of them, but people also include “watching movies” in the list, and even count “surfing the web” as one of those “pleasant time-wasters”. But I quickly started to see a particular term show up repeatedly: the word “hobby”. Now, to me, hobby had a sort of, I don’t know, smallish kind of feel, as though one’s hobby is not really anything important. I enjoy woodworking, and I’ve made some nice things, particularly for my children, but I’m not terribly intense about it. But after reading the online materials, especially Wikipedia, it turns out that hobbies are really pretty important in the larger scheme of things. Hobbies are non-income activities people enjoy in their leisure time. These activities give them great personal pleasure. They let people learn new things and share them with others. They provide personal fulfillment. They are creative, social, and educational. They are fun, relaxing, and yet exciting. Hobbies fit that empty space that we all have that is “not-work”. And with these thoughts percolating in my head, I went to sleep that night.

I was awakened between 2am and 3am with one of those fits of creativity that sometimes move our thoughts out of fevered sleep and into feverish action. I went into my study and grabbed a piece of yellow paper and began to write and sketch. And for 45 minutes, idea after idea went down on paper, crystallizing the general musings I’d been having about what the site was supposed to do. I realized that I was on the threshold of a completely new thing – a new kind of web-based hobby. It was something that was already part of some people’s leisure time, but was as yet barely formed and only done casually, not in any particular place and certainly not by any identifiable group of people. The emerging hobby of storycasting (used here as a generic term), was about to tap into a powerful personal and social drive that is unknowingly shared by millions of people. Not everyone will “get” this hobby, any more than everyone “gets” model railroading, birding, or fly-tying – but the need and drive is very real for those who enter, and they will spend hours of time (and probably a few dollars) participating with all the others who “get” storycasting. And, like the other activities, this has the potential to drive a whole new industry, with it’s own players and lexicon. This is the first hobby that is so closely linked to both books and movies. In fact, this hobby is going to drive readers to rent more movies, and drive movie people to read more books. The reason is simple: the more actors you see and the more books you read, the more fun the hobby becomes. And it is going to have global appeal, because it works for every culture that has stories and a movie industry. So, I’m perfectly happy to be the creator of something as seemingly small as a “hobby” – something that gets included in those pleasant time-wasting not-work activities that bring pleasure and thought to our reading and moviegoing.