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Fourth Story: Alternative Reality Soap Operas for Teen Readers

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(Fourth Story Media CEO Lisa Holton looks on as creative development and marketing manager Ariel Aberg-Riger browses the Amanda Project website.)

“I was thinking more and more about how we publish books and how we reach our audiences,” Lisa Holton told us as we sat at the work table Fourth Story Media shares with Cookstr in their South Street offices, “and about how young people incorporate technology into their lives. How do we develop traditional book publishing but marry it to various online and digital media in a way that makes sense to readers?” Last summer, after leaving her position as Scholastic‘s president of trade publishing, Holton launched Fourth Story as an incubator for the multi-platform stories she had in mind for young readers.

The first venture—The Amanda Project—is now in play, as HarperTeen has published the first in a projected eight-volume series. The initial story was developed by Melissa Kantor, whom Holton had first published back at Hyperion, with individual volumes assigned to different authors. At a website (developed in collaboration with Happy Cog Studios), readers who’ve gotten sucked into the story of three high school classmates, who weren’t friends to start with, banding together to figure out what happened to the one girl they had in common, can create online personae for themselves and add new perspectives to the weekly mini-puzzles supplementing the narrative in the print volumes. (“They’ve immersed themselves way more deeply than we thought they would,” Aberg-Riger confessed; at one point, putting the clues in one puzzle together, the teen players began to organize a trip to Paris—sending the Fourth Story office into a frenzy before they realized the girls were just plotting out their characters’ travel plans.) The first four books will tell one story arc which, combined with the revelations gradually unfolding online, will set up a second story arc for the back half.

The effect, we commented to Holton, was like a participatory soap opera, or a massive Dungeons & Dragons campaign with one dungeonmaster and hundreds of players; she brought up the classic text-based puzzle games Infocom created for home computer owners in the 1980s, which set us both on a nostalgia kick for their adaptation of The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy, one of the truly great interactive fictions. (Interestingly, that was the second time this month we’d found ourselves in that conversation!)

“A lot of adults had a really hard time grasping this,” Holton says of the way the books and the website link together into one overarching immersive narrative, “but I would explain it to a 13-year-old girl and ” (she snaps! her fingers) “she’d get it in 30 seconds. In fact, beta users used to tell us it took them a long time to figure the website out, and it would turn out ‘a long time’ was five minutes.” Inspired by the initial success of The Amanda Project, Fourth Story is already preparing another series, a science-fiction-themed narrative aimed at young male readers. “In some ways, this is radically different than what I’d been doing for the last 20 years,” Holton reflects, “but the basics are still the same… What’s the story? And how do you think readers will be interested by it?”

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