Sunday, 9 September 2012

Serials: a whole new world of episodic possibility

As the Guardian reported this week, Amazon are releasing a new range of serialised books - spend $1.99 on the first installment, and you get the rest of the story free as it is sequentially released.

Of course, this isn't the most original of innovations.  Two of the titles with which Amazon are launching the range are Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist, which were initially released some 160 years ago in serialised form, along with many other Victorian novels.  It is also not true to say the practice has died out in the meantime, as anyone who tunes into Eastenders or Casualty (or indeed, any episodic television series) can attest to.

But what is really exciting to me about this announcement though is it's obvious relation to new technology.  The announcement was made alongside the release of the new Kindle Fire, which is more akin to an iPad than the first generation Kindle, and serialisation perfectly suits the new digital age - you can download and read a bitesize chunk, accessing more if you so choose, with neither reader nor publisher having to worry about the hassle of multiple printed documents.

However it would be a wasted opportunity if all that happened was that Amazon released the same types of stories as before, but in smaller chunks.  To call up a cross-genre parallel, a series of Doctor Who is filmed in its entirely before the first episode is shown - this makes complete sense with the practicalities of shooting schedules and editing time-frames.  With books, it would be far more possible for an author to write as he went along.

Such an idea becomes even more appealing when you consider the increased interactivity an e-reader offers, not to mention the communicative power of the internet.  This slightly alarmingly titled article describes the data that e-readers gather - publishers now know which bits of stories we read and which we skip, and can monitor which passages are highlighted.  With only the smallest amount of delving onto the internet they can also discover further details of audiences' reactions - within minutes of Benedict Cumberbatch's Sherlock's escape from death last year the internet was buzzing with ideas as to how it happened.

What these two factors mean is that authors have, if they choose to embrace it, a tremendously exciting new challenge.  They can start a story with no idea how it's going to finish, working readers' reactions to early episodes into their progress, developing a genuinely two-way reader/writer relationship.

Of course, some traditionalists will be up in arms at such ideas.  As a culture we implicitly separate artistic writing from commercial writing - you don't win a Booker Prize, so the idea goes, by caring about what readers think.  All of this ultimately stems back to a myth of artistic creation - true writers should be inspired by their talent, not their audience.

There might be some element of truth to this - if writers solely desired to attract the biggest possible readership there would be even more Fifty Shades knock-offs than their already are.  The challenge for writers, if they do attempt to write serials using audience feedback, will be to do so in a way that isn't just gimmicky, but really adds to the story.

Examples of forms this might take are endless.  Some moments will be small, resembling the moment in the fourth Harry Potter novel where J.K. Rowling has Hermione sound out her name to Viktor Krum, allowing her younger readers to finally realise why no one else was talking about hermy-own.  Serialised chapters might relate to current news events (bear in mind that on current publishing cycles novels are written upwards of a year before they are published), or might flesh out details which had attracted more than expected audience interest.

On the other hand, far deeper changes are possible.  Whole story-arcs could remained incomplete in the author's head for months after they are initially set out.  On a crude level this could simply be a way to get readers engaged - BT's ongoing advertising campaign had a public vote on whether one character ought to be pregnant or not, with the more popular option filmed and broadcast.  However there is no reason a more skilled author could not use adaptation with more finesse and artistic purpose.

All in all, for a little announcement this is very exciting news.  My limited speculation only goes so far, but this is an encouraging sign that the stage is set for talented artists to begin to engage with their new e-medium.

Do you have ideas about what you would do with serialisation if you were an author?  Or do you think this is just a marketing stunt from Amazon?  Let us know your views, or follow us on Facebook or Twitter for more views and reviews!

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