Serialization in the Digital Age: A Makeover of the Traditional Novel

Dec 06, 2012

"Literature interprets the world, but it's also shaped by that world, and we're living through one of the greatest economic and technological transformations since-well, since the early 18th century. The novel won't stay the same: it has always been exquisitely sensitive to newness, hence the name. It's about to renew itself again, into something cheaper, wilder, trashier, more democratic and more deliriously fertile than ever."

So predicted Lev Grossman in a Time magazine article nearly three years ago. The changes Grossman imagined for the novel led him to believe that the novel would actually get longer, but, as 2012 comes to a close, do we see that prediction coming true?

It's true that with ebooks, we're no longer restricted by the traditional physical constraints. Rather than using this new found freedom to ramble incessantly, many authors have found that the serialization of a lengthy story actually implants the "hook" in a new reader's gills better than if the novel were to appear as a single narrative.

As our attentions become more absorbed by the overwhelming presence of consumable media, short may actually be what readers really want: as one self-published author recently blogged, "[readers] love quick reads that they can (a) read or listen to during their commute or at lunch, (b) read while waiting on the kids at soccer practice, cheerleading practice, music lessons, dance lessons, etc., (c) read while in a doctor's waiting room, and (d) read knowing that the characters they've come to love will be back very soon with a new adventure."

And don't think that authors are the only ones with antennae curiously tuned toward the blossoming phenomenon. Publishers, too, are beginning to cater to the culture of immediacy. Enter Plympton, a new literary studio dedicated to publishing serialized fiction in a digital-only format. The premise behind the Boston-based start-up was so popular that its Kickstarter campaign nearly doubled its $30,000 fundraising goal, and it gained national attention when it landed a deal with Amazon to partner in its new Kindle Serials program. According to Plympton's website:

"Settling down with a Plympton installment is a little like sitting down to watch an episode of your favorite show on HBO or AMC. Each installment will reveal more about the characters you've come to know, deepening your relationship with them and advancing the story in a way that leaves you both satisfied and wanting more. Installments range between 7,000 - 25,000 words and new installments are released bi-weekly or monthly."

Before digital, shorter works like these wouldn't have appealed to physical bookstores as they now do in the online marketplace, mostly because with the former, the consumer may have perceived the obvious physical smallness of the book as unworthy of their dollars-with print books, the weight and page count of a book is a major factor in a buying decision.

Jenka Eusebio, an MFA student currently working on a novel for her thesis project, shared her conflicting emotions about this shift on Appazoogle in response to the announcement of a 27-volume serial novel from author Mark Z. Danielewski:

"Does this mean that Danielewski will take two hellish years to write all of The Familiar, set it in stone, and then publish it in blocks over the course of seven years? But, but, but-I vigorously waved the Dickensian banner from my digital revolution outpost-doesn't that defeat the purpose of writing in serial form?"

Eusebio is certainly on to something, here. With shorter, quicker bursts of published story comes the opportunity for the author to absorb reader comments and questions, and answer them in real-time in future installments.

Then there are those authors who refuse to heed fandom's impatience. Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin is notorious for writing at his own pace without regard for the anxious cries of fans itching to learn the fate of his many characters. In an interview with the Denver Post this past summer, when asked when he would be finished with his characters, he responds:

"Who knows, I've given up making projections. The last two books were years late. If I make a projection and I get it wrong, I get thousands of people sending me angry e-mails. My main concern is not meeting my deadlines or getting the books out one a year, it's how good the books are. When I'm dead and gone, like Tolkien, hopefully people are going to look back and still read this and say, ‘Was it good or was it bad,' not, ‘Did he get them out on time on a regular basis.'"

Are writers like Martin a relic of an age past? Or will digital natives, like Eusebio, learn to uphold the traditionalism of their forebears?