Exaggerations and Perversions (Valla Vakili, Small Demons)

Valla is the CEO and co-founder of Small Demons. Prior to Small Demons he held several positions at Yahoo!, most recently VP Product with the Entertainment Group. Valla is a graduate of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and on leave from doctoral studies at St. Antony’s College, Oxford. Small Demons connects all the details of books, identifying and cataloging all the people, places, and things in book to offer readers an unparalleled ability to go deeper into the stories they know and love.

Publishing. As I’ve come to know this space over the last couple of years, I’ve found two themes that dominate the discussion around change and “the future.” They are so dominant, they’re somewhat tyrannical. Since there are two of them, I like to think of them as the Twin Tyrants of Change.

They are, first, format, and second, reading. With format, it’s a variation of “print to digital,” “professionally published versus self-published,” “the end of the book and the death of publishing.” Sometimes it becomes “books as apps,” “enhanced books,” “chunked books,” or “never-ending and always updating books.”

Then there’s reading, with questions like, “What does reading look like in a digital world?” “Is it enough to ‘just read’ or does reading itself need to be more interactive?” “Do we have enough readers?” “Why don’t we have enough readers?” And of course, “Where do we get more readers?”

There are many dollars being invested and many technologies being built around format and reading, so much so that this seems like the natural way forward. And the conversation, the prevailing wisdom, only helps to cement this notion that the future lies in the change in format from print to digital and the different reading experience that format change brings.

Every time I hear this prevailing wisdom, I’m reminded of two things. The first is Ted Levitt’s classic essay, Marketing Myopia, in which he argues that an overemphasis on a current product distracts us from the needs of future customers. One of the things that makes classics classic is that their message retains its relevancy over time. It’s hard not to think of format and reading as blinders when you’re wearing Ted Levitt glasses.

The second thing that comes to mind is William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience. I read this book as a freshman at Georgetown, and it has permanently affected how I look at scoping phenomena and identifying opportunity. Although he was born and lived his life six decades before Levitt, James provides a simple approach for avoiding marketing myopia and creating new value. It is the approach we used in developing Small Demons.

So, William James: he was interested in understanding the religious life. And he chose to study it by looking at extreme, or what he called pathological, individual experiences, instead of those you might find at organized institutions. Describing his method in 1902, James wrote, “It always leads to a better understanding of a thing’s significance to consider its exaggerations and perversions, its equivalents and substitutes and nearest relatives elsewhere.”

This led me to ask what happens when we look at publishing through the lens of exaggerations and perversions? Can we find a way out of the Marketing Myopia induced by our focus on the Twin Tyrants of Change: format and reading?

Absolutely. We just have to shift our gaze.

Instead of formats and reading, let’s narrow our focus, as James did. In this chapter, I’m going to focus on one type of book—the story—and break it down to some of its basic elements—like characters, settings, and spells. Then I will look at what happens when we focus on individual experiences with characters, settings, and spells in an exaggerated way.

Meaning we’ll forget about format; we’ll forget about reading; and we’ll ask, “Is there something big to be learned from characters, from settings, from spells? What can we gain by understanding the people who obsess about these?”

Let me show you three examples, and then I’ll explain how these exact examples led to Small Demons.

First, characters. I’ve always loved stories, in large part because I loved the characters. Robin Hood, Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch, Al Pacino in the Godfather, Max Frisch’s Stiller, Batman, Rocky… It’s a long list. So sure, we know characters attract. But let’s look at how some of the rest of the world, outside of format and reading in publishing, looks at character.

Cosplay[1]—a big phenomena in Asia, but in no way limited to Asia—involves dressing up as characters out of games, down to the last detail. This gives a real-world presence and life to fictional beings. It blurs the boundaries between the lived and imagined.

Acting. Let’s consider Christian Bale in The Machinist. He lost 63 pounds, or 36 percent of his body weight, to play this role. To get into character, he transformed every aspect of his real body[2] to conform with the needs of a fictional body. This is just one example, of course, as the list of actors who undergo extraordinary measures to bring characters to life is well known.

In cosplay and in acting, the incredibly accurate portrayal of characters is valued so much that its practitioners routinely compete for prizes. There are multiple competitive festivals for cosplay, while the Oscars and similar awards are given annually to actors.

Back in the world of books, stories are full of characters. Our contact with them is usually limited to the time when we’re reading. You read Robin Hood, and you see the lead character in your mind. You read Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love, and you’re in the middle of the weirdest family dynamic you’ve ever seen. Then the time comes when you stop reading and move on to something else.

Except there are loads of people who do stop reading and don’t move on to something else. They routinely, even always, in an exaggerated fashion, get into character. So maybe there’s something about characters, then, that is worth exploring.

Next, let’s consider settings, or what I’ll call today “worlds.”

I’ve been reading comic books for as long as I can remember. As a kid, some of my closest friends were found on the pages of DC Comics. I know every detail about these characters and their worlds, and I’m not alone.

You see, comic book fans, we are a pretty big niche. And we’re perversely drawn, in an exaggerated way, to uphold the “rules” of comic book worlds. In comic speak this is known as continuity, but it basically means, these characters, they live in a world that is real and has its rules. Batman has a history. Spider Man has a history. Their history is real, and if a later writer reinterprets or changes aspects of it, everyone is up in arms.

In fact, the obsessiveness with continuity is so strong, so exaggerated, that people who read DC and Marvel Comics refer to the settings for these stories as distinct Universes. The DC Universe, The Marvel Universe. These aren’t abstract ideas. They are fully fleshed out and chronicled by fans and publishers. For decades, Marvel and DC have published various versions of a “Handbook” or “Who’s Who” to their universes. In these guides, you’ll find the height, weight, hair and eye color, powers, marital status, family status, business relationships, group affiliations, place of residence, and history of every major and minor character in the DC and Marvel Universes.

The setting for DC and Marvel characters, where Batman and Spider Man swing across rooftops and the city skies, is not just imagined. It’s chronicled with an obsession matching real-world mapping.

Now back to books. So many books take place in shared universes—some purposely, some accidentally. Some books are so detailed in their settings they have their own self-contained worlds, whether fully real or fully imagined. We see these places in our mind as we read, and typically we leave them behind once we put the book down. We put them away when the reading stops.

Like characters, maybe there’s something about setting that’s worth a closer look. Comic book fans and their exaggerations and perversions seem to think so.

OK, one last example, and then I’ll tie this all together. Let’s talk about spells.

A great story casts a spell. We hear “Once Upon a Time,” and we’re conditioned to receive—it’s storytime. We hope the story is so good it takes us somewhere, captures us, becomes something we can lose ourselves in.

If you have a favorite story, you’ve probably experienced this. But if you’ve experienced it, then it makes it a common experience.

But here, we’re interested in exaggerations. Perversions.

So, here’s someone who looks at this differently: Grant Morrison, one of today’s most successful comic-book writers. One of Morrison’s most well-known series is the cult classic, The Invisibles. (It’s mind-blowing, by the way, if you haven’t read it.) In an interview[3] I read years ago and have never stopped thinking about, Morrison talked about writing the The Invisibles:

“Right at the beginning—when I started writing The Invisibles—I sat down and tried to cast it as a spell. I even did a bungee jump to try and empower the spell. Now it has taken on a life of its own. Things I have put into the comic have actually happened—to the point where I can put things into the comic and MAKE them happen.”

OK, so now we have someone who takes spells and the magic of storytelling a lot more seriously. You and I, we get lost in the world of a story. Someone like Grant Morrison thinks his stories shape the world.

And you know, he’s not the only writer who feels this way. I’ve read variations of this in many other author interviews, too.

So what does this tell us? That he’s crazy, perhaps? Or that there’s something about the power of a fantastic story that resists compartmentalization? That seeps through from one world to the other? That the world about us may be more fictional than we realize, and that the fictional world more real?

What if you took that seriously? What if you took this all seriously:

  • that characters live beyond the page,
  • that settings are worlds worth exploring,
  • that spells can break through from one medium to another.

Welcome to the Storyverse.

That’s what we did, and are doing, at Small Demons. We treat the stories—specifically the people, places, and things inside them—as a connected world of their own. We take seriously the idea that people want to get closer to characters, that they want to travel through the streets, cities, and regions of a novel or a work of history. We believe that a story can cast a spell beyond the page and into your everyday life and broader cultural experiences.

Practically, this starts with data gathering. You can’t get at stories as their own world until you start mapping what that world looks like. For us this means indexing stories—fiction and nonfiction narrative—for references to the people, places, and things within them. This leads us to generate an index per book of all these interesting topics, each worthy of further exploration.

The second step is connecting: relating the details of one story to all the other stories that share those same details. This allows us to say, first, in High Fidelity there’s a lot of music by Bob Dylan, and then, if you follow the trail of Dylan’s music, you’ll find all these other books that share it.

As we start to do this for many books, first tens, then hundreds, then thousands, what emerges is a shared space of storytelling. The details of books gathered up so the story can continue on into the future, in whatever fashion the reader sees fit. Maybe this means reading High Fidelity, then listening to all the music in it. Maybe it means visiting the Spook Country setting, Mr. Sippee’s in Los Angeles, for broasted potatoes—really, it could be anything.

At the heart of it all is the conviction that the “future” of the book isn’t about its format or how you read it. The future of the book is about extending each individual reader’s connection with the story. We no longer need to say that the experience of a book needs to stop on the page, or in the mind.

When looking to do something new in publishing, to create new products for new markets, it helps to begin by looking elsewhere. Step away from conventional wisdom and journey to wherever there’s intense, crazy, fervent passion—the core of something new. The beauty of much of this industry is that it is created by and consumed by people who share this crazy passion, these exaggerations and perversions. Why not listen to them?

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