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:
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?