These days, people do a lot more TV-watching than book-reading. There are quite a few differences between the two media, after all. Even leaving aside that one of them is more visual and the other relies on the cinema of the imagination, TV shows tend to be serialized and produced by teams of writers, whereas most fiction these days is published in full-length form.
How to attract readers’ attention back from television to the printed word? What if you tried to make the printed word more like TV? That’s the idea put forward by “Serial Box,” a start-up that Publishers Weekly reports plans to publish serial-form e-book and audiobook series, in the form of team-written “seasons” consisting of weekly “episodes.”
One of the start-up’s co-founders, Julian Yap, notes that he realized he wasn’t reading novels anymore because he just didn’t have that kind of time. But serialized media like TV and comics come in bite-sized chunks that don’t require spending as much time all at once. So the idea is to make something shorter and easier to read over time.
Serial Box content is also produced like a TV series. The company signs up a lead writer who writes a “show bible” and works with Serial Box to put together a team of writers that “hash out the series,” Yap said. Serial Box pays advances, as well as royalties based on the size of the readership the series attracts. The company approaches agents for proposals and also accepts pitches directly from writers. “Artists can pitch directly to us; if we like it we’ll put together the rest of the writer team,” Yap said. “We talk to TV writers for ideas, but we bring in novelists to do the writing.”
Serial Box’s first serial is BookBurners, about a Vatican-backed team of paranormal investigators who hunt down dangerous magical artifacts. Two episodes are available so far, and it is planned to have sixteen. The series was created by Max Gladstone, and its authors are Gladstone, Margaret Dunlap, Mur Lafferty, and Brian Francis Slattery. Another serial, Tremontaine, is planned soon; this will be a sequel to Ellen Kushner’s Riverside series, with Kushner as the lead writer.
Each Serial Box episode will cost $1.99 whether in text or audio, but subscribing will bring the cost down to $1.59 each. Most stories are planned to have 13 to 16 episodes, though the first episode of each series will be free. That is a bit more than you’d pay for even a new-release e-book, which usually tops out at around $15 or so. But still, even 15 episodes at $1.59 each wouldn’t be that much more. (And given how much more audiobooks usually cost, it would probably be less than a new-release audiobook.) And unlike full-length e-books, you could opt to cancel partway through if you found you didn’t like it.
I certainly don’t have anything against serial fiction publication. After all, it does have a long and distinguished history. The idea of consciously trying to make your serial series “more like television” does strike me as kind of funny, though, like they’re trying to invoke cargo cult sympathetic magic. It’s especially amusing given that it’s happening right at a time when companies like Netflix are discovering that, when given the chance, people will happily binge-watch “serial” TV shows all at once.
But I don’t imagine that producing the series like a textual TV show will necessarily hurt anything, either. There’s also a long and distinguished history of writing syndicates like Stratemeyer using teams of writers to populate long-running series. Indeed, back in the days of pulp magazines, when serialized pulp fiction like The Shadow actually was the closest equivalent to modern-day television, it was common practice. This one’s just being a little more open about it than most. But I don’t expect people will come flocking to it because they want a reading experience that’s “just like TV.” They’ll come, and keep coming back, if it can offer a compelling story.
It’s not the first example of serialized, multi-writer fiction to pop up in recent years, either. Neal Stephenson’s Mongoliad and Elizabeth Bear’s Shadow Unit are just two examples. But it also harks back to the settings I covered in my “Paleo E-books” series—Internet writing circles where people who shared similar interests got together to write about them, a practice that’s still going on (albeit with different circles and Internet forums) today.
Of course, there’s nothing stopping self-publishing writers who want to work in the serialized form for profit from going for it by themselves. Just be sure to write it in segments long enough to merit a $2.99 price so you can get your 70% from Amazon.