What is The Mongoliad?

September 2010 saw the official release of The Mongoliad, a new project from authors Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear, and friends. The writers formed a corporation and began looking at new and different ways to create a unique experience for their readers.

I was able to sit down the other day with Chief Creative Officer Mark Teppo and ask him some questions about the project.

John Klima: What is The Mongoliad?

Mark Teppo: The Mongoliad is a serialized adventure novel set in 1241, and it concerns the imminent invasion of Europe by the Mongol Horde. The commonly accepted history is that the Mongol army showed up, decimated a pair of European armies that managed to get into the field, and was then poised to sweep through the rest of Europe. Instead, they were called home by the death of Ögedei Khan and never came back.

Our story starts with the premise that the recall of the Mongol army seems terribly convenient for Europe, and from there we’ve started to fiddle a bit with the corners of history that aren’t well documented.

Subutai Corporation is the parent company that is releasing The Mongoliad, and while 100% of Subutai is working on The Mongoliad, that may not always be the case with future projects. Part of the premise of our operating plan is that agile cabals with highly specialized skill sets can create fully realized products in different mediums.

Now, just to make things a bit more convoluted, PULP is the distribution wrapper wherein Subutai is delivering The Mongoliad.

Right now, the only visible product is the website, but fairly soon, there will be mobile apps available and the mechanism for distribution of content will become more readily apparent.

PULP is the social media/interactivity/distribution channel aspect of The Mongoliad, versus strictly the serial story. Subutai has hired a team to produce The Mongoliad which it is delivering directly to its audience via PULP.

JK: So who’s involved in the project?

MT: We’ve got several New York Times bestselling authors, a comic book guy, a couple of mid-list writers, and some new blood. This a complete list of who is working on the project.

JK: How did the project come about?

MT: The short version: after several months of hitting each other with sticks and swords, Neal [Stephenson] mentioned—in passing—that he had an opening scene for a movie floating around his head. Over a course of several months, we put together a treatment. That went off to Hollywood and made the rounds. While we were waiting for something to happen there, we realized there were more stories to tell and the best way for us to build an audience was to do something that people could be a part of.

We are all well aware of the awkwardness of the audience/author relationship works in the traditional sense: by the time the audience gets their hands on the book, the author is well past wanting to talk about it ever again. By creating something that has a living, changing presence that the readers can actively participate in, we offer them something fresh and exciting. There’s an active vitality that feeds everyone.

The rest is, eh, you know, boring technical speak for building such a thing in an internet-ready age.

If want to read a more in-depth version of how the project started, you’ll find it here.

JK: What is your role in the project?

MT: I’m one of the writers and I’m also in charge of continuity across the project. We’ve got the story broken down into four major arcs and the writing team is paired up across those, and that gets us our first draft on each chapter. From there, they go through editorial commentary and rewrites among a number of the other writers, and then I go a final gloss to sync it up with the details we’ve previously established about the characters and events.

It is very much a collaborative process; I get to be the guy who has to keep track of all the minutia.

JK: How is this different from John Scalzi’s Metatropolis or Shadow Unit?

MT: Metatropolis seems to be a shared-world premise, but I don’t know if the authors actually intertwine their stories. Shadow Unit is a much closer match, I think, and it’s been awhile since I’ve read any of the episodes, but I believe they’re working on a primary author with continuity matching model (though some episodes are listed as being done by more than one author). They are well into their third season and I’m sure they’ve optimized the collaborative process quite a bit. We’re still finding our way, and in six months or so, I’m sure we’ll have the process a bit more streamlined. Right now though, it’s still a glorious mess of ideas pinging off each other.

JK: What sort of platforms is this available on?

MT: The iOS version is working its way through the Apple review process as we speak; Kindle and Android versions are in the works.

JK: How are you going to use these new technologies?

MT:  They offer a more streamlined reading experience, one that pushes new content (both text and other media) directly to the device. The web can diffuse content pretty quickly, and The Mongoliad website certainly has many different ways to go a-wandering in the content options.

What we want to accomplish with the mobile apps is to offer an entertainment experience to the reader that is focused on delivering them content.

What you want to do (and can do) when you’re sitting at your computer is different than what you want to do from your mobile device. Anyone who has spent any time trying to get information from website via a tiny handheld screen knows the web is not mobile friendly.

But the point is that this device is the one you have with you at all times. And when you have a few minutes or an hour, you want it to give you interesting things to do. The way PULP works is that you can pull up the app dashboard and quickly get into the content.

Plus you’ll be able to interact with that content right from your device.

JK: Are there any plans to bring some sort of version of The Mongoliad to print, or is that completely against the concept of the project to begin with?

MT: As much as we like to think everyone is on the internet or has a mobile reading device, that’s simply not the case. When Season 1 is finished, there’s absolutely no reason not to create a print version of it. It’ll be ready for print, and if the market wants it, we’ll certainly provide that version.

As much as I’m becoming a consumer of electronic books, there’s still something about a physical book that I can’t quite let go of, and there’s no reason I need to really. With the Espresso machines [ed note. blogged about on Tor.com in October 2008], a printed book is there if I want one. That seems like a win for everyone.

JK: What makes this different from your typical digital novel/eBook?

MT: A book is a collection of pages that are filled with text. That is all a book is. When you create an electronic version of that object, that’s simply a digital representation of text.

A movie has no text, but is a collection of sound and moving picture that can also tell a story. Movies are easier to digest than a book. Granted, a great deal of the depth of a book is lost when you turn it into a movie. Light and sound is more expensive than text. However, the modern consumer has shown a tendency to more readily pay money for light and sound. But what they’re also paying for is a shorter experience that tells the same (though abbreviated) story, as well as an experience that doesn’t make them work so hard.

What the book people have been trying to figure out is how to get some of that movie money and that movie audience, and they think they can do it by making books more like movies. It seems like it should be easier to do now that books can be in the same media type (digital) that movies are. But it’s apples and oranges. Books aren’t movies, nor the other way around.

The Mongoliad is a book, in that traditional sense that it is a collection of words that tell a story, but the ancillary experience of The Mongoliad extends into other mediums.

The key thing here is that all of that extended content is only there IF you want to experience it. If you just want to read the story, you can. If you want to delve into the art or the music or the graphic novel or the movie clips, that content may be there as well. And it may tell a different story that the simple text may be, a story that is more suited to that other medium. It’s part of the world.

Perhaps it is best to think of the text of The Mongoliad as a gateway into the larger world that is being created.

JK: You said that PULP was the social media aspect of Mongoliad/Subutai, can you expand on that?

MT: PULP—which is an acronym for Personal Ubiquitous Literature Platform—is a means by which reading isn’t entirely an isolated experience. There are hooks by which you can interact with the text and with other readers. There’s a reddit style voting mechanism. You can comment on a piece of content. It’s interactive in that conversations and reactions to any piece of content are solely up to the readers.

JK: What is Subutai trying to accomplish with this project?

MT: Well, there’s our cunning secret mission, which wouldn’t be that secret if I spilled it here; but there’s also the honest mission which is to explore new ways to get readers excited about reading. As I mentioned earlier, people aren’t reading less, they’re simply spending less time with physical books. If we can demonstrate a viable model for reading in an electronic age, then maybe the perception of that model will change.

For me, personally, I’d love to see people getting excited about reading again, and because I suck at drawing or painting or making music, I’m thrilled that this might be a way for me to collaborate with those types of artists. Other creative mediums inspire me, and I think we can all feed off each other nicely.

JK: What’s next for Subutai?

MT: Most recently, we’ve posted a job opening for a game programmer, and recently a picture ran on The Mongoliad forums that revealed our illustrious Chairman and our favorite Finland-based sword master doing some work while wearing funny suits.  I leave it to the readers to figure out what those two things have to do with each other.

In the last six months, our focus has been preparing The Mongoliad and building an infrastructure that will support it. From here, we’re going to fine-tune it and make it more robust. Once that’s accomplished, then we’ll investigate whether it makes sense to open PULP up to other content creators so that they can make their own creator-audience pipelines.

Season 1 of The Mongoliad will run about a year, I think. Then, if people seem to have liked it, we’ll do Season 2. There are some other stories—in other eras—of Foreworld that we’re exploring, and we’ll just have to see how those pan out.

Incremental steps towards world domination, you know?

JK: Sounds like a good plan. Thanks for your time.

MT: It was my pleasure.

John Klima is the editor of the Hugo Award-winning Electric Velocipede.


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