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Dispatches from the Digital Revolution

Resurrecting the serial novel: An introduction

Source: Amazon.com

The mushrooming public interest in ebooks and their corresponding technology is heralding the dramatic return of the serial novel, or so I’ve heard. There’s been talk of a literary throwback with a modern kick. In proper steampunk fashion, the buzz surrounding this revival has been awash with a bizarre mixture of techy excitement and Old World nostalgia.

It should not be surprising that Charles Dickens, whose works helped to popularize the genre during the Victorian period, was resurrected as the poster child for the neo-serial novel.

In a December 2011 Forbes article, “From Dickens To iPads To Harry Potter: Why Backlit Is Bullish On Teen Reading” Michael Humphrey explores new publishing developments geared toward the YA market. He introduces Backlit Fiction, a California-based digital media publishing company that publishes digital novels in serial installments designated as “episodes.”

“Episodes!” I thought, cringing. “Isn’t that for…you know…television?”

As much as the cross-media nomenclature irritated me, I was willing to give this new setup the benefit of the doubt. Don’t I always?

In this same article Panio Gianopoulo, publisher and editorial director of Backlit Fiction, explains the format of the four YA ebook series produced by the company in an interview:

“Each episode is self-contained, so you can drop into the series without having go to the first book…With digital books it’s easier to add the element of surprise,” he said. “With a physical book, you know are coming to an end. But with a digital book, boom, you’re done, cliffhanger.”

This model works on two main assumptions:

  1. The YA market will eagerly take up reading ebooks, which does not come as much of a surprise. Those who were born digital might as well read digital (see New York Times article, “E-Readers Catch Younger Eyes and Go in Backpacks”). Digital teen fiction seems to be on the up and up.
  2. Harry Potter and Twilight aside, the YA market will be receptive to shorter spurts of fiction, reading in the same way they watch television.

Here is where the “modern kick” comes into play. Not only is the technology different from that of Dickens’ day, readership expectations have also been affected by a greater variety of media formats. Backlit Fiction’s Marketwire press release gives insight into the role of visual media in Backlit’s literary model:

Backlit has a first look film and television deal with Jack Giarraputo of Happy Madison. Jack is one of Hollywood’s most successful producers with films grossing over $2 billion domestically. He is Backlit’s strategic partner, creative advisor and lead investor. “Backlit is reinventing publishing by shortening the path from writer to reader,” said Giarraputo.

It wouldn’t take much for this trend to capture the literary fiction market, but changes in platform might spell out a shift in the way content (the actual writing) is produced…even brainstormed. How would the promise of a television or movie adaptation affect the planning of a novel? Is this “evolution” or “dilution” of literary form? What would it mean to be a novelist of serial fiction? How can the publishing industry fully take advantage of these changes?

In proper serial fashion, I will embark on a four-part article series exploring this fascinating, revived genre. Stay tuned for next week’s installation!

8 comments on “Resurrecting the serial novel: An introduction

  1. kosieeloff
    February 28, 2012
  2. Claudia Hall Christian
    February 29, 2012

    What I’m unclear on here is if you’re actually going to write a serial fiction – published as it’s written – in the form of Charles Dickens or if you’re planning on serializing a completely piece – ie, hacking it up for distribution.

    If it’s the former, good luck! There’s a large market of readers who are following current serial fiction. My serial fiction Denver Cereal has been going for almost 4 years. There are some Science Fiction serials that have been going for more than 6 years. And certainly the Diary of V went for 9 years at Redbook.

    If it’s the later, you need to remove all reference to serial fiction and Dickens and admit to simply distributing your book by chapter.

    • Jenka Eusebio
      March 1, 2012

      Claudia, thanks so much for reading the article and for your comments! The serial fiction market has definitely captured my attention and it has me thinking about how the genre would play out financially if major publishing houses were to allot both attention, budget, and technology towards that endeavor. Alas, I am not yet ready to embark on my own piece of serial fiction (I applaud you for being so dedicated to Denver Cereal!) so my objective for the moment is to analyze -in a series of blog articles- the idea of ‘serial fiction’ as a literary genre and how it will evolve as publishing/reading technology evolves.

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  6. Lisa L Greer
    May 27, 2012

    I write serials and love it! But I write novels and novellas and regular short stories as well. I offer these stories free and I have some up on kindle and some with a publisher. It’s a lot of fun, and I do think it’s one of the waves of the future.

  7. Lisa L Greer
    May 27, 2012

    I should say I offer them free from time to time and some are paid. Just wanted to clarify that. It’s an exciting genre.

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