Can Serialized Fiction Convert Binge Watchers Into Binge Readers?

From National Public Radio:

As TV dramas get better and better, book publishers are hoping to convert binge TV watchers into binge readers.

Serialized books have a long history in publishing — Charles Dickens famously released many his novels in serial form. Sean McDonald, a publisher and editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, says, “We love to think about hearkening back to the way Dickens was published and people waiting anxiously at the dock for the new installments to arrive.”

FSG is known for its serious, award winning novels, not so much for serialized fiction, but McDonald says that not long ago, they tried an experiment. They published three books, the Southern Reach Trilogy, on a much faster timetable than usual. All three were released in less than a year — a year that coincided with another cultural phenomenon.

Television, McDonald says, was “getting taken much more seriously as an art form.” There was a renewed focus on episodic storytelling and “it felt like this was a way for us to engage with that and not to have books be left out,” he explains.

. . . .

“I don’t think that people really consume books in the same way that they consume TV shows,” says Jane Friedman, who teaches digital media and publishing at the University of Virginia. Friedman agrees that people’s reading habits are changing, but she doesn’t think binge reading is anything like binge watching.

“We always have a mobile device with us and so we are reading in short bursts of five to ten minutes …” she says, “but that’s a very different dynamic than say, the binge watching a TV series. In fact, reading in five to ten minute bursts is distinctly not binge reading.”

Link to the rest at NPR

Binge reading is pretty much what PG and Mrs. PG have always done when they discover an author they like and haven’t read before.

Initially, binge reading involved the library or a physical bookstore, but, as with many things bookish, Amazon has made the process wonderfully easy, particularly when PG finishes a great book at 10:00 PM and isn’t the least bit sleepy.

And long before Farrar, Straus and Giroux figured out its “much faster timetable,” lots of indie authors published multiple books each year.

36 thoughts on “Can Serialized Fiction Convert Binge Watchers Into Binge Readers?”

  1. Huh. In the land of my people, we call this “not buying the first book in a series until the whole thing is published” because, get this, sometimes they *don’t* or it takes so long the poor author dies before completing it (and they hire the editor’s cousin’s nephew to finish the series).

    I swear, they have no idea how their customers do *anything*, do they?

    • >I swear, they have no idea how their customers do *anything*, do they?

      No, they don’t. And every article that comes out just reinforces that.

      Serials. I don’t think that word means what they think it does. What they seem to be calling a serial is a series that is published in quick succession — as many indies do it — not episodic writing. Readers for the most part don’t seem to want serials.

  2. The thing is that chopping a book up into individual one at a time chapters is the opposite of enabling binging.

    The whole notion of “binging” on a TV show only came about when Netflix made entire seasons of the show available at once. That’s, like, making an entire book available at once, instead of one chapter at a time.

    “Binging” a serialized book you only get one chapter at a time makes no sense. It means you’d have to wait until the serialization was complete before reading.

    • That’s why I never bought into the fiction magazines, like Ellergy Queen’s or Analog. Waiting a month between installments of a story never seemed reasonable to me.

    • The other hilarious thing here is that the “people waiting anxiously at the dock for the new installments to arrive” were the American publishers who were racing to the presses to be the first to pirate Dickens’ work.

  3. I fail to see how a serial book leads to binge reading. Quite the opposite. It forces an artificial delay between parts.

    And it’s a deal-killer for me. I do binge read. When I find an author I like I read everything I can get my hands on. A serial book, though, pisses me off. It’s just an artificial inflation of the book’s price. I not only won’t finish the serial book, bit I also won’t read anything else by the author.

    • Me too. I binge watch good shows and I binge read new authors.

      In the past, I relied on bookstores and libraries, where I might not find all of the books and was forced to read out of order. Thank goodness for Ebooks and Amazon resellers so that I can get the entire series AND read in order. What a concept.

  4. Eh, Amazon already tried this (Kindle Serials), back in 2013(!). They even offered a free Dickens option to be delivered incrementally. Sank like a lead balloon far as I can tell.

  5. Binge-reading is pretty much the only reading I do.
    I just found a series I loved, and I read three novels in 36 hours. I probably wouldn’t have picked up the first one if the whole series hadn’t been out, because I know this is how I read. It’ll probably be a while before I carve out more reading time, but when I do, I’ll probably eat my way through 300-400k words.

    TiVo started to change the way we watch TV, and Netflix nailed that coffin shut. I want to watch on MY timetable. And I want that for my reading, too.

  6. Actually, there are quite a few serials out there which are quite good, but I haven’t read any put out by a traditional publisher. (Here is where I point you at for examples.) The established ones, my honey and I do end up binge reading until we’re caught up, but I think the slowest one we read updates once a week. Much like web comics a decade ago, the model that works seems to be put out your work for free, on schedule, and then convert your fans into paying customers through other works or through the genius that is Patreon. (Full disclosure: I’m trying my own hand at this. Too early to tell how it’s going.)

    • I struggled with this as well, just before Christmas. I’d written 5 novella length episodes of a monster sci-fi story and couldn’t turn it into ordinary length books, so I published one novella per week [give or take a day or two] for five weeks. Each episode was free [KDP] but I didn’t get the volume of downloads I was expecting.
      Lots of possible reasons – election, post-election distraction, pre-Christmas distraction, simple lack of interest – but I think I got the concept wrong. A serial should be in bite-sized chunks, not 40k novella sized chunks, and one week between such huge chunks did not give readers enough time to actually read one episode and decide they wanted to try the next one.
      I still like this serialised way of telling a story, but next time I’ll just publish the whole thing in one hit and let people read as and when they want.

      • A C Flory, I feel your pain. Novella length — 30,000 to 40,000 words — comes easily to me. But novellas don’t sell well. What to do?

        Joe Haldeman showed me the way with All My Sins Remembered. Take three novellas and weave them together with a prologue, interludes, and an epilogue. Voila! You have a novel.

        Works for me. Maybe it will work for you.

        • Keith Laumer wrote novellas called “The Day Before Forever” and “Thunderhead.” Presumably they were both printed in the magazines, but when they came out in book form they were always together under one cover to make a normal-sized book.

          Think of it as marketing your own kind of Ace Double…

          • It was a common practice before publishers became obsessed with word counts to combine related or even unrelated stories into a single volume. Several of Heinlein’s best books and Asimov’s “Foundation Trilogy” amobg many are actually anthologies. ORPHANS OF THE SKY is actually two separate stories. WALDO and MAGIC, INC have nothing in common outside of both being great stories compiled in the same volume for the first book rekease.

            It was all dictated by the economics of pulp, something not terribly relevant in a digital world. In digital a story is a story; packaging is more flexible. You can release stories alone, in anthologies, omnibusses, or bundles, all at the same time. Nobody will naysay you.

  7. I may live in that land, Sabrina. I may be the only Harry Potter reader who waited until “Deathly Hallows” came out, to start reading “Philosopher’s Stone.” I wanted to binge. I binged. No apologies, no regrets. A very happy time.

  8. This is yet one more example of the search for the next big thing. If you want this sort of thing you can read stories as they are written on sites like Wattpad, where you can also contribute feedback to the author as part of a wider community. For most who juat want to read it is very difficult to see why they would want to subject themselves to this. We all grew up watching TV serials and experienced the immense frustration of cliffhangers both week by week and at the end of each year. Sometimes the series would never come back. And this is by no means confined to the past. I for one would much rather binge watch Game of Thrones rather than wait a week between episodes and then a year for its resumption. I also quite enjoyed the Whispers, which was cancelled after a single season, and Proof which suffered the same fate. In the era of the Indie and Self Publishing there is just so much choice that my interest in committing to stories doled out a chapter or so at a time with no guarantee of completion is absolutely zero.

    • The lack of guaranteed endpoint is the real annoyance.

      The sense of expectation can be fun, especially with genre stories that invite speculation in between episodes. But there are dangers even with series that are guaranteed to run to completion. Sometimes the ending disappoints, sometimes the series drags on past its natural length, and sometimes the narrative loses its power and the waits become unbearable and the audience moves on.

      Like so many writing/marketing tools, care and thought is required.

      As a reader I’m fonder of the “Framework” style series where each volume is more or less a standalone while contributing to a larger narrative. Series like DARKOVER, XANTH, THE KENT FAMILY CHRONICLES, etc. Which isn’t to say I don’t enjoy the serialized mega-novels like CHRONICLES OF AMBER or LORD OF THE RINGS, but those I wait for the final volume before starting.

      • Ethshar. I wouldn’t say I’m binging on them, but having found and enjoyed some, the barrier to purchasing successive books is zero.

        My experiences inadvertently underline why publishers are trying this sort of thing. I’m buying off the backlist, a backlist that isn’t available at bookstores. BP wants those books to fade away so they can bring out “new” content that has “buzz”. Here they’re hoping that they can put readers in the position of waiting, breathlessly for the next installment of some “must read” content. The problem, as everyone here knows, is that now that nothing goes out of print, that ocean of content is getting bigger and bigger, and readers are no a longer captive group.

    • “I for one would much rather binge watch Game of Thrones rather than wait a week between episodes and then a year for its resumption.”

      And yet millions of fans of the show renew their HBO subscriptions in the spring just to do exactly that, watch week by week.

      • And talk about it all week long.
        The super hero shows are the same and so was Galactica.
        There’s a community aspect to it.

  9. If you’re going to pull off serialized fiction where you are charging per novelette/novella, each installment will need to tell a complete story as part of a larger story. It will have to have some sort of plot arc or character themes/resolutions to leave the reader feeling satisfied, while simultaneously answering questions about the larger plot, and creating new questions. No small feat.

    This is functionally the same as the series fiction we’ve had in fantasy/sci-fi for 65 years. The difference is scope, price and release schedule.

    LOST did this quite well… the problem was the overarching plot, not the individual episodes. It never went anywhere. Too many questions asked, not enough questions satisfactorily answered.

    Each individual episode I found to be quite satisfying, because of the character flashback stories. There was generally plot resolution in those as well as thematic ties to the ongoing plots and character interactions on the Island.

    • Twin Peaks.
      I recorded all the episodes but I held off watching because I doubted it would be a satisfying story. Sure enough, the outrage when it ended without answers told me to skip it.

      Lost I saw the first episode, saw how coy they were about answers, and moved on.

      Sometimes it pays off not to get too involved early. Other times it is best to go with the flow. It’s a gut feeling with me.

      • But my point was, I actually ENJOYED the individual episodes for five years. I didn’t care for the way it (didn’t) wrap up, but each individual episode was quite satisfying, while leaving me wanting more.There was a through line, or more than one, in each episode that resolved.

        • I felt the same way about The X-Files. I didn’t really care that much about the giant arc; all of the most memorable moments for me came from individual monster-of-the-week episodes such as “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose.”

          • I rarely watched X-files.
            But I did drop in for the occasional freak of the week episodes. Really loved the inbreds…

        • I generally like series with extended arcs and complex mythologies. But I also need to have confidence they know where they’re going and not making it up as they go along.

          I had issues with the writing on Babylon 5 but I stuck with it because of the world-building and the narrative arc.

          Right now I started following TIMELESS despite a general lack of confidence. Lately they’re proving me right…

          • To me this is the argument in favor of Netflix/Prime/Hulu. I don’t have to worry about missing a good series because I can be sure that if the narrative arc really is rewarding then I can catch it on one of those services. And if it’s not, I haven’t wasted any time.

            • Yup.
              I’ve got both and use them to catch up on older series as well as replace cable. No need for “appointment TV”.

              Plus, most of the best new shows are coming to streaming instead of broadcast. Tech disruption isn’t just for books.

        • I felt the same way about Lost. There was a blog called “Film Fodder” that did awesome recaps of each episode, which was how I really got into the show. So many mysteries! So many details! So much woven in! But sadly, not resolved very well. Sigh.

  10. I do like the magazines like Analog or Ellery queen’s mystery magazine, but outside that I HATE serialized stories. I want the story from beginning to end at one time, complete. I tried this last year, through Kindle, by an author I really like, and the pace of waiting for each chunk soured me on the process.

    Where it MIGHT work is works composed of many parts, like the braided meganovels that have different authors writing short fiction in a single world. Because those would be complete stories.

    I do like collections like Heinlein or Haldeman did.

    As for rapidly-released series of novels, I will read them as they come out then reread them in a binge later.

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