Is Serialised fiction Still a Relevant Mode of Publishing? by Maisie Prudames
How digital publishing projects are helping us to take a step back from instant gratification
Serialisation used to be the norm for publishing fiction: all of Dickens’ novels were originally published in instalments in periodicals, and in his own literary magazine he published many other well-loved classics. In an age of immediate accessibility and instant gratification with Netflix releasing series in full, eBooks available at the click of a button and a wealth of knowledge available at our fingertips via the internet, releasing stories in snippets seems to be a thing of the past. With the exception of the highly-anticipated sequels of popular series, novels have dulled the excitement of waiting for the next installment of a book: but in recent years, serial fiction has made a comeback online.
Self-published stories are commonplace on the internet, posted to personal blogs or online community spaces like Wattpad. Sites like FanFiction.net and Archive of Our Own provide a space for fanfiction publication, allowing members of online communities to celebrate a particular fictitious universe by creating their own storylines with their favourite characters. A search for a popular fanbase such as Marvel or Harry Potter on these sites accumulates hundreds of thousands of stories self-published chapter-by-chapter. This is an important mode of encouraging novice writers and has kickstarted the careers of now well-known authors: E.L. James’ controversial Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy started out as Twilight fanfiction. Similarly, Andy Weir’s critically-acclaimed debut novel The Martian was initially posted in chapters on his blog before he self-published via Amazon in 2011, leading to his work being picked up—first by a small Canadian company for an audiobook-only contract, but rights changed into the hands of Crown Publishing (an imprint of Random House) in 2014 for print editions. Creating online in a safe, encouraging community can be seen as a stepping stone to large-scale book contracts.
It isn’t reserved for amateur writers, either: Margaret Atwood is among those advocating for the online, serialised structure and has published several stories this way, including The Happy Zombie Sunrise Home in collaboration with Naomi Alderman. Atwood also published with Byliner (more recently ‘Pronoun’), a now-extinct publishing platform. The closure of this online imprint in 2016 suggests that serialised fiction may not hold up in a professional context, but there are companies like Serial Box hoping to disprove this.
Founded in 2015, Serial Box is an online publishing organisation creating original, episodic fiction to bring reading back into the fast-paced, ‘time-poor’ culture of the 21st century. It’s a formula proven to work by streaming services worldwide: 60% of adults in the U.S. either subscribe to or have access to a paid Netflix account, giving them all the audience they needs to offer existing content whilst producing their own. Serial Box draws on these impressive figures to market their own service, defining themselves as ‘HBO for readers’ and releasing their own work alongside previously-published pieces optimised for their service. It’s the literary magazine for the millennial era, using a writer’s room-esque method to create series released in weekly chapters, which is a welcome return to the roots of fiction publishing by cleverly utilising the familiar structures of long-running sitcoms. This provides an accessibility to fiction that has been lost for some: the intimidating presence of an entire novel is banished, requiring roughly an hour a week to keep up with the story, and can be read or listened to in audiobook format whilst on-the-go.
Serial fiction comes with risks. If the author does take the near-constant feedback available into account the audience are likely to be kept satisfied week-to-week, but it is much easier to lose the thread of a story so that it no longer makes sense holistically. Victorian periodical novels like The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins are renowned for making little sense when read in their entirety and looking back at lengthy television series raises the occasional plot-hole. However, these audience comments can also be incredibly valuable: scientific inaccuracies in The Martian were cleared up by Weir’s blog readers before it ever went to print. Serial Box have also noticed the benefits of an active online audience, ensuring to explore the stories that are ‘critically beloved’ by readers and boosting the roles of characters that are popular.
Building an audience based entirely on original work requires a lot of trust in the content and the readers: Netflix exemplifies this, having streamed primarily pre-existing content before branching into their own productions. Serial Box does the same, offering The Woman in White for free as a reminder of the origins of the form, and most fanfiction is rooted in the canon of a pre-existing world that readers are already familiar with. However, consumers of literature are taking risks with their reading material all the time, picking up books by new authors based on recommendations, prize nominations or even an appealing front cover. Garnering interest isn’t the hard part: there are more hurdles to clear in terms of written fiction, particularly in a digital context. Around 58% of Americans read only print books or prefer print over an eBook alternative, and it is difficult to get some readers to forgo their biases towards digital reading. But these readers are arguably not the target demographic for services like Serial Box, which is aiming to make reading accessible to those who find it difficult to find the time. The company were able to raise millions in seed funding and currently average 9k app downloads a month, suggesting that the serial format has a budding audience in the twenty-first century. They have already had several successful seasons and have recently secured a deal with Marvel to release original stories featuring some well-known superheroes, which is likely to boost them even further.
With our attention spans slowly degrading and the instant gratification of video streaming available at any time of day or night, for many the experience of reading a novel over watching the film adaptation has been lost. Whilst it can still be binge-consumed if catching up to the current point in the season, the serialised form re-introduces the cliff-hanger, the waiting period between conflict and resolution that keeps an audience interested in weekly television shows. It is the place of serialised fiction to reignite the anticipation of waiting for the next instalment in a literary series and bring reading back into busy millennial culture, whether through enthusiastic fanfiction, novice writers hoping for feedback or purpose-written plotlines.
by Maisie Prudames
 Research will be U.S. focused as many of the relevant businesses and sources are U.S. based.
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