Digital Distribution: The Changing Face of Storytelling
When we first started to tell stories, I often imagine a number of proto-humans, standing tall to see over the high grass and telling our family unit, in guttural articulation, what we saw in the Savannah beyond. It’s when we started to describe our real and imagined struggles to one another. Over time, these depictions started to become transcribed on cave walls in red ochre. Later still, on rock faces we would lay our hands to show how strong our tribe was. The best and strongest stories would stand the test of time.
As pre-history bled into history, we began to etch clear messages on stone tablets, on papyrus scrolls. We transcribed oral stories whose meaning had long since been lost to time into words as best we could. Sometimes we could retain the original meaning of the stories, and sometimes they evolve into something else entirely.
But again, the mediums changed. Our stories continued to evolve into new forms. From cave paintings to canvas. From canvas to paper. From paper to digital screens and tablets.
In 2007, Amazon released their first model Kindle to a world that was just beginning to toy with the idea that ebooks were more convenient than paper books, much to the consternation of those who treasure their collection of dead tree books.
In 2010, video-on-demand streaming service Netflix began international operations, proving that a non-physical home video market was not just a possibility, but a desirable reality for many, despite Netflix’s still-profitable DVD Rental service.
Music streaming services all but plateaued the sales of CD’s, but vinyl sales have been rising steadily since 2006.
Two analysts for Piper Jaffray, an investment banking and asset management firm, recently released a report suggesting that 100% of revenue from video games would be entirely digital by 2022. Taking a brief look at my Steam account, that’s not a huge stretch of the imagination.
But will it completely destroy the brick-and-mortar video game world? Not entirely, and not right away.
The Kindle market, while certainly lucrative for independent authors, is little when compared to the sales of dead tree books for the big publishers. While more units of digital books are sold, there is more income generated from paper books than not, and this is a trend that continues today.
But video games moving into an entirely digital realm makes a certain amount of sense. After all, it’s the only medium that has always been digital in nature.
Valve’s Steam service has been selling games digitally since 2004. In 2017, they controlled $4.3 billion dollars of the market. From Indie to big-box games, the PC market is almost entirely ruled by Steam and other digital download services.
So we see a trend toward the complete digitalization of storytelling. What does that mean for the storyteller?
Some say freedom. After all, the indie markets have never been so vibrant. With the new ease of self-publishing, even established traditional authors have seized upon a share of the market. But that freedom comes at a cost. The good news is, you don’t have an editor telling you what to keep and what to remove. The bad news is that you’ll have to pay one out of your own pocket to do what you didn’t want them to do in the first place.
The same sort of digital distribution occurs all across the realms of storytelling. Bandcamp allows musicians to sell their tracks. YouTube pays out creators and filmmakers based on ad revenue. The one-man indie game team can release a smash hit on Steam and rake in the dollars, and gone is the overhead involved in printing on CD, DVD or other physical media, the cost of shipping, and wages of all those in between.
For the indie storyteller, it’s a bit of a no-brainer.
But it’s a rare indie gem that breaks beyond the indie scene to make an impact. In the world of books, an unlikely pairing of Twilight fan fiction and bondage led to a hit quite unlike any other. In the era of digital distribution it’s difficult to stand out above the rest, and in all fairness, it should be.
Traditional markets tend to publish the trusted names. We see the same names repeated ad nauseum on best-seller charts all over the world. Indie markets publish anyone with the ability to string together a sentence, and about half the people that can’t.
We’ve been given a freedom that storytellers in the last generation never had. The ability to put our work out into the world without need for a gatekeeper. We are no longer limited to being signed by a publisher, a studio, or an agent. We can manifest our work into the world however we choose. This is what the changing face of storytelling has given us– the ability to succeed or perish on our own merits, and not the whim of an overworked publisher working his way through an endless slush pile.
The changing face of storytelling is at once limited and freeing, but it’s a change I feel must be embraced.