Extra!: Bonus Content and the Expanded Universe

As a reader, when I fall in love with a fictional world, I glom onto anything that will prolong the experience of living in it—and if tumblr has taught me anything, it’s that I’m not alone in that desire. We see it in the success of something as elaborate as J.K. Rowling’s Pottermore, but also in the more organic and user-driven growth of fan fiction, and the active communities that have grown up around books and television shows on social media platforms like Tumblr, Twitter, and Wikia.

Not surprisingly, the rise of digital distribution and the “expanded universe” online has led to a greater call for bonus content from authors. For readers, this content presents new ways to engage with the world and can bridge the sometimes long gap between installments of a series. For publishers, it’s a way of building anticipation for new releases, increasing reader investment in a series, and garnering buzz in a crowded market. And for authors, it’s a chance to delve more deeply into their worlds and explore places beyond the borders of their literal and metaphorical maps. But these opportunities can present complications for readers and storytellers as well.

It’s nothing new for authors to create short stories in the worlds of their books, but in the past, readers had to seek them out in anthologies. That’s still happening, but these days, those stories and additional kinds of content related to a series are frequently produced digitally, offered for free or for a low cost on ebook platforms, and then often repacked later as part of special edition paperbacks or hardcovers.

These are a few of the types of bonus content I’m seeing:

  • Deleted scenes
  • Annotated scenes
  • Alternate POV scenes or novellas
  • Prequel novellas or short stories
  • Companion novellas or short stories

To be honest, “bonus” content seems like a bit of a misnomer for all but the first two on that list. Deleted scenes and annotation, much like the deleted scenes or director’s commentary on a DVD, exist outside of canon. They don’t actually impact the narrative of a series in a fundamental way. Other kinds of bonus content can have a more significant impact on the thrust of a story.

Shifting focus: Each book of the Grisha trilogy is framed by a prologue and epilogue written in third person, but the bulk of the books are written in first person, from Alina’s POV. This means that a lot of characters don’t get as much time on the page as I might like. Many series written in the first person or third person assigned are now offering alternate POV scenes that place readers in the same timeline as the series, but that give us a glimpse at the motives and emotions of secondary characters or love interests.

Widening the Lens: When it comes to prequels and companion stories, authors can leave the timeline of the series to offer valuable personal or historical background, or simply deepen the readers’ experience of the world. But this is also where we start getting into some of the complications of bonus content.

The reader’s experience: If the author creates the content, it’s canon. However, the limited availability of that content may muddy the issue. I wrote a letter from Mal’s POV for the paperback edition of Shadow and Bone. At this point, it’s not available online or in any other edition. Is it necessary to the experience of reading the trilogy? Not at all. Might it alter your experience of reading the trilogy or at least your perspective on a character? It might. And yet, a lot of readers probably don’t know that content exists. A more extreme version of this would be the prequel novellas written for Throne of Glass by fellow PubCrawl contributor Sarah J. Maas. They’re all available online but are not yet on shelves, so if you buy and read physical books, you may miss out on some of the heroine’s most formative experiences and relationships. Again, the content is not strictly necessary to the series, but it’s certainly canon and it’s probably something that would influence your reading of Throne of Glass.

Challenges for authors: First, there’s the simple matter of the time that bonus content requires to create. Deleted or annotated scenes are less of a commitment, but if an author is generating new content, that’s less time given to the main books of a series or to new projects. There’s also what I’ll call the Time Lord Connundrum. Because of the way publishing and promotion work, authors are usually juggling mutliple projects at any given point. Earlier this year, I was drafting the third book, working on final edits for the second book, and writing an alternate POV set in the timeline of the first book. To write that alternate scene, I had to forget the journey my character had been on, scrap any lessons, wounds, or emotional growth (basically all of the stuff I was just living and breathing while drafting book 3), and go back to the start. The challenge lay not just in keeping the plot points straight or being careful about the release of information, but also in being faithful to the character’s development.

As this type of promotion becomes the norm, it’s possible we’ll see new types of bonus content and alternate ways of presenting it. How do you feel about this kind of content and its impact on narrative? What would you like to see more or less of from authors and publishers?

     

12 Responses to Extra!: Bonus Content and the Expanded Universe

  1. Stela Brinzeanu Jun 25 2013 at 4:45 am #

    Awesome article. Thank you Leigh!
    As a reader I many times thought it’d be cool to have extra material embedded in an ebook, say for example to have a ‘click here’ option for a video, a hand-written letter, a SMS, deleted scenes from previous drafts, etc – anything that would enhance the reading experience.. It’s then up to the readers to choose what info they’d like to access..
    As an author however, I understand the extra work and the logistics behind it, might not be as straight forward. Yet, with the digital publishing heading towards a more rounded way of engaging the audience – it’s definitely going to be embraced by more and more authors.. Fun times!

  2. jeffo Jun 25 2013 at 7:26 am #

    Maybe it’s because I don’t write (as of now) series, but I kind of feel like, once I’m done writing something, I’m done with it. I can love the characters and the story, but I have found little desire to go back and revisit those people for something new. And deleted scenes are deleted for a reason. If it’s just a matter of cutting to conform to a word count, maybe I can see releasing them in some way, shape or form, but not if they’re cut because they don’t work.

  3. ellie M Jun 25 2013 at 8:54 am #

    I love extra content. I eat that up and lick the plate. When Shadow and Bone came out in paper back, you bet I was at B&N for that letter. Even if extra content is a map, I love it. It’s like getting a birthday cake with a toy on top of it. You get cake AND a toy! If George RR Martin came out with an extra POV from Robb or someone we don’t get to seem I’d be all up over that too.
    I know it’s harder on the author, but it’s really appreciated!

  4. Pamela DuMond Jun 25 2013 at 5:01 pm #

    Nice post, Leigh.

    All good things to consider. And also more things that take time away from all the other stuff in book writing land. There’s so much to do!

    Best,

  5. Alexa Y. Jun 26 2013 at 1:55 am #

    I always think that bonus content for books is interesting! When I’m a big fan of a series, I like finding all these “extras”. They give me an extra opportunity to see another POV, or perhaps a bit of character history. Even though they’re not all great, the ones I’ve experienced usually just enhanced my love and respect for the series.

  6. Joni Jun 26 2013 at 9:44 am #

    I never thought about how the author would have to back track in the story to create and/or edit a bonus piece that took place previously to where they were currently writing. Sounds difficult… But I do enjoy the bonus content. Sometimes it’s frustrating when it’s released only through an e-version (since I don’t have and e-reader) but I’ve been trying to stick to paperback purchases lately and the extras in the back (bonus scenes, interviews, etc.) have been a joy. I like getting a deeper look in the worlds I love. ^.^

  7. Lucy Jun 26 2013 at 11:21 am #

    Definitely more! I love bonus content. It’s so exciting to get new material from the worlds I’ve fallen in love with. 🙂

  8. Kassiah Jun 26 2013 at 4:14 pm #

    I love the bonus content, but not if I need to read it to understand what’s going on or believe the actions of the characters in the “regular” books. I feel like there’s kind of a movement now for authors to write novellas or alternate-POVs in order to clear up misconceptions readers have. While I will almost always want more, I would much rather have all of the bonus content after the final book in a series has been released.

  9. dingo dynostix Oct 13 2014 at 7:04 pm #

    My partner and I stumbled over here by a different website and thought I might check things out.
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