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Wednesday, April 11, 2018

A Second Chance for Serialized Fiction


In an age where the dynamics of producing (and monetizing) art are in constant upheaval, serialized fiction might hold more than just a reader's attention.  ♦ 
The Old Curiosity Shop, The Hound of the Baskervilles, and Jane the Virgin may be vastly different pieces of media, but they all share one trait: serialization. These works were first published in periodic installments, with gaps ranging from weeks to months in between each release. Yet while television serialization continues to thrive (The Walking Dead) and video game serialization is picking up steam (Life is Strange), novel and novella serialization has been pushed to the fringes of the publishing industry. Over the past century, standard publication practice has been for books to be released and read all at once. Serialization grew financially unviable and fell out of the mainstream publishing eye—although recent changes suggest serialized fiction could be experiencing a resurgence.
   While both a good book and an interesting Netflix binge are satisfying in their own way, fan interaction is typically stronger in serialized works than “whole” works. The waiting periods between installments of Charles Dickens’ stories and episodes of Lost created fandoms and communities that bonded over anticipation of these works. As the story goes, American readers of The Old Curiosity Shop would cluster by the New York Harbor, waiting for ships with the latest chapters of Dickens’ story to arrive. When the protagonist of the story, Little Nell, died, a sailor allegedly shouted the spoiler from the deck of the ship—causing bystanders anxiously waiting for the next chapter to faint in shock. A century later, websites devoted to solving the mysteries of Lost sprang up across the internet, brimming with new questions and theories with every episode aired. This set the trend for the online fan communities of many weekly shows today, with particular similarities to the fandoms of Westworld and Game of Thrones.
   Meanwhile, works published in full lack this constant pull on the audience’s attention and imagination. A show like Stranger Things briefly captures the public consciousness, but the lack of regular new content sends it to the bottom of the revolving news cycle. Many television producers have experimented with release schedules, trying to find a balance between the “binge” and pure serialization, and game developers have similarly experimented with staggered content releases to maintain audience engagement. These changes have not affected novels and novellas to the same extent yet, but the advent of the internet has resulted in several growing outlets for textual serialized fiction.
   In the past ten years especially, fanfiction and webfiction have revitalized textual serialized fiction in the public eye with digestible installments and a storm of free content. Stories like Worm, Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, and the infamous My Immortal captured audiences with each new post, leading to internet fame and (in some cases of original webfiction) financial success. John McCree, the author of Worm, supports himself through Patreon, whereas of March 15th, 2018, he earns $4,425 every month. The author of the less-known webserial The Wandering Inn, who goes only by the username “Pirateaba,” earns $2,878 as of the same date. This may not be as much money as authors like Stephen King and J.K. Rowling make from their wild successes, but this income is enough to support both webfiction authors as they continue to write for their audiences.
   Even more recently than the advent of webfiction and fanfiction, mainstream publishers have toyed with the idea of using serialization as a way to better market their books. In particular, Tor Books has made strides toward more serialization through its website/web imprint Tor.com. In one of the publisher’s most experimental moves, it announced the “Tor Labs” initiative last summer, debuting the audio drama Steal the Stars as a serialized podcast before collecting and publishing it as a novel. The publisher also provided a more traditional textual serialization of the first three hundred pages of Brandon Sanderson’s epic Oathbringer last fall before the full book’s release. In particular, the serialization of Oathbringer spurred fan interaction and anticipation to a fever pitch on both Reddit and Sanderson’s fansite, 17thshard.com. Although both of these projects were test-runs, they show a growing openness toward serialization, and represent possible future opportunities for mainstream serialization projects.
   A few publishers have hit this new ground running, such as indie publisher Serial Box, a company excelling with both e-book and physical serializations. Founded in 2014 by Julian Yap and Molly Barton, Serial Box has taken direct inspiration from the television model of serialization, creating teams of writers to facilitate faster content delivery and publishing schedules. These teams include some celebrated authors—Philip K. Dick Award Nominee Cassandra Rose Clarke and John W. Campbell Finalist Max Gladstone were part of the writing team on The Witch Who Came in From the Cold, one of Serial Box’s first productions. Serial Box’s approach has led to moderate success, with Boat Rocker Media (a television and film production company) leading a $1.65 million seed-funding round in February.
   While this revival of serialized fiction remains small for now, it proves an audience for serialized, ongoing content exists and is hungry as ever. The future is bright in this relatively untapped field, and up-and-coming writers may find it to their advantage to take part in serialized fiction’s rebirth.
  • About the Author
    Evan Doran is a senior creative writing student at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. He has lived in the Cincinnati area all his life but loves his excursions to far-off times and places. His short fiction has been published in Miami University’s Inklings and the Sigma Tau Delta Rectangle, with forthcoming publications in Bards, Sage Quarterly, and MU’s Happy Captive Magazine. Visit him at evanfdoran.wordpress.com.

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