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Can Serialized Fiction Convert Binge Watchers Into Binge Readers?

Now that the latest season of Game of Thrones has ended, fans may be feeling a little untethered — and some publishers would like to fill that gap with serialized books. 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.

This year, FSG is trying something similar, publishing The Tale of Shikanoko in four parts over six months. Publishing this way feels very much like delivering a season of programming, says McDonald.

Julian Yap and Molly Barton are taking it a step further — they've just launched a company called Serial Box which aims to be "HBO for readers." Serial Box releases "episodes" (not "books") over a 10 to 16 week season. Each season is written by a team of writers.

"We're not just chopping up novels and sending out chapters," says Barton.

The process is directly modeled on writing for a TV series. "We begin with the equivalent of a showrunner and three or four supporting writers," Barton explains. Together, they break down the plot, talk through the characters, and map out current and future seasons.

Serial Box launched officially with four serials and a fifth on the way. Subscribers can buy one serial at a time in text or audio form, or they can buy a season pass. Each episode takes about 40 minutes to read, the same time as it takes to watch an average TV drama. Julian Yap says people do still love to read, but they don't have time a lot of time.

There's a lot of data that people are reading more than ever, but they're also reading shorter than ever. They have trouble fitting a whole novel into their lives. We wanted to produce fiction that fit into people's lives.

"There's a lot of data that people are reading more than ever, but they're also reading shorter than ever," says Yap. "They have trouble fitting a whole novel into their lives. We wanted to produce fiction that fit into people's lives."

Serial Box's episodes are designed so that you can consume them during a commute. But not everyone is convinced that present day reading habits are conducive to binge reading.

"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."

Friedman says interest in serialized fiction has increased since the advent of digital publishing, but it's hard to make money — even for Amazon.

"Most authors I talk to — and even Amazon — has said that every time they do a serial they make at least half their money on then selling the whole thing together as a bundle," Friedman says.

But the founders of Serial Box are confident that serialized fiction will appeal to both dedicated readers and TV watchers. And if you do binge read an entire season of episodes, well ... congratulations ! You've just read a book.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lynn Neary is an NPR arts correspondent covering books and publishing.