THE SHERLOCK STARTUP
How Super Cool Books took its Sherlock Hong mysteries from idea to transmedia
by Don Bosco
Warm greetings to my fellow media creators in Singapore and around the world. I appreciate this chance to introduce myself and talk about one of the long-running storytelling experiments that I’ve been working on.
It’s November 2015. The new edition of Super Cool Books’ Sherlock Hong book series, a mystery slash adventure story franchise for kids, is available on the major ebook platforms, thanks to international publishing partner Marshall Cavendish. The paperbacks will ship worldwide in February 2016. Bonus story elements are being discreetly seeded across social media, and will be activated when the next batch of books are released in late 2016. Also, we’re prototyping games and live story experiences. Here’s the journey in full so you can understand how Super Cool Books got from a one-line story idea to work-all-night transmedia startup.
If any of this resonates with you, if you’d like to find out more, if you have an idea for a collaboration, or if you’d like to tell us about your own project, please always feel free to get in touch via the StoryCode Singapore Meetup page.
HELP A FRIEND
It all started around 2005, when a comic artist friend wanted to put together an anthology of local works. I came up with the idea of a young Chinese detective in a steampunk British colony investigating weird crimes. I thought it could make a nice manga-style series for teens. Fun storytelling driven by alternate history hooks, and a lot of suspense. The anthology didn’t happen, but the character stayed active inside my head.
FIND AN AUDIENCE
In February 2012, I was at a local creative writing school talking about my new publishing studio, Super Cool Books. I happened to mention the Sherlock Hong idea and everyone seemed to really get the premise. This time I thought it would make a good alternate reality game platform for middle grade kids, like the 39 Clues franchise from Scholastic. This version of Sherlock Hong would mix entertainment with puzzle-solving and historical exploration. He would be a member of a Victorian society known as The International Order of Young Seekers, and we could later open this up for readers to join too. I wrote half a story and seeded this online, particularly with local student communities. It was less about selling a product, and more about testing the appeal of this storyworld set in Singapore, 1891. Based on the response, I completed the story and offered options for ebooks and print-on-demand paperbacks. This was Sherlock Hong’s first public appearance, The Case of The Immortal Nightingale. We started experimenting with online marketing campaigns. Some of them looked like simple alternate reality games. It was chaotic and fun.
TOUCH AND FEEL
The more people liked the story, the more they wanted some sort of physical engagement. I had many requests to do readings, produce skits and most of all, print physical copies that people could buy at their favourite bookstore as a gift. So I wrote Book 2, The Peranakan Princess. I did the layout on my laptop. Someone recommended a printing service. We did a small print run and secured a proper distributor, which was Select Books. As a first-time self-publisher, I did almost everything wrong. But the books got noticed, and I was invited to talk about them at the Singapore Writers Festival 2013. More importantly, people were coming up to me and telling me what they expected to see in the subsequent books. I was thrilled. The storyworld was rich and compelling enough to support further investment. But I had no idea what to do next.
By this time, people recognised me as a kind of storytelling tinkerer. I got introduced to the local maker community, and we explored innovative ways to expand the story experience. We prototyped simple augmented reality experiences, designed story games and ran guerrilla story writing workshops, hoping to encourage fan fiction. We also released our own iPad ebookstore app and experimented with multiple alternative ebook covers, to test the response in different territories. All these crazy experiments helped to introduce the Sherlock Hong stories to new audiences: education activists, parenting advocates, game developers, digital content startups, people I never imagined would take an interest.
An opportunity came up to develop this as an animated feature. Sherlock Hong would be re-imagined as a steampunk hero in a dystopian China city. We workshopped new storylines for a full movie, complete with mysterious subplots, and created enough artwork for a pitch. I also met another producer who thought it could be a cool TV series for kids in Malaysia. So I wrote a spec script for this, Sherlock Hong and The Great Scroll. All these ideas were then turned into the third Sherlock Hong novel. The Scroll of Greatness. Nothing wasted. It was a great opportunity, working with other creative storytellers to picture the Sherlock Hong story across different screen formats. I learnt to develop proper visual assets too.
In late 2014, I started work with Marshall Cavendish on Lion City Adventures, a new story franchise for kids. It’s about a powerful organisation of young explorers who’ve been active in Singapore for over a century. The concept really came to life when I proposed a crossover: why not have Sherlock Hong and his friends be the ones who founded the Lion City Adventuring Club? This instantly added a sparkle to the project. It gave depth to the characterisation, significance to the settings, and made the conflicts and challenges emotionally engaging. Fanatic readers could burrow down the rabbit holes and dig for story connections, whether real or implied or imagined. Among other things, Lion City Adventures ended up being nominated for the Popular Readers’ Choice Awards 2015, which really helped to introduce Sherlock Hong to more readers.
In July 2015, we began to explore the possibility of relaunching the Sherlock Hong series with Marshall Cavendish. They would acquire all rights immediately and distribute the books around the world. I wrote a new book for this, The Legend of Lady Yue, and I also outlined the future growth of the story franchise. This new book was inspired by escape games, or locked room mystery games, and it established a new format for the story brand, where we could work in puzzles and real-life challenges for readers. We’ve also been looking at locations in the River Valley neighbourhood, where Sherlock Hong was supposed to have lived, that would be great for an escape game location. The story property is a vital platform for developing a coherent narrative experience, but it’s actually the constant process of connecting with your audience in fresh and rewarding ways that builds the emotional capital of your transmedia brand. Dream it, share it, experience it, love it, repeat.
Don Bosco is an enthusiastic member of the StoryCode Singapore community, and recently a co-organiser. His 100 WRITERS project aims to help 100 or more writers publish their stories using storyhacking methods and DIY publishing tools. Download the two free PDF guides: THE OFFICIAL 100 WRITERS STORY WORKBOOK and KEEP CALM AND UPLOAD E-BOOKS.
If you’re in Singapore and you have an interesting cross-platform story project to share, do get in touch via our Meetup page.