Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Return of the Serial

As electronic publishing is moving toward maturity, it has gone through many changes. The earliest attempts at electronic publishing were digital files on floppy disks or CD's, with the work remaining firmly wedded to the artifact. Needless to say, problems with distribution meant that they didn't succeed overly well.

As the Internet began to become well-nigh universal, the first experiments with completely non-physical books began, awkwardly at first. There were all sorts of concerns about copying, leading to cumbersome digital rights management schemes that in effect punished legitimate purchasers for the misdeeds of a small minority of dishonest people. And many people still found it unpleasant to read for pleasure on a computer screen.

Then came the Kindle, with its paper-like screen that didn't have the problems people associated with reading on a computer. It connected wirelessly to the Internet, so that readers could acquire books wherever and whenever they wished. Purchasing a book became as easy as tapping a few buttons.

But the Kindle was still in many ways an enclosed garden, where users could only go to the places Amazon.com decreed they might. The tech savvy might be able to jump the walls and wander at will about the Internet, but the average user would not be so eager to risk voiding the device's warranty by unauthorized alteration.

That changed with the rise of the smartphone and the tablet computer. Suddenly people had a computer in the palm of the hand, a device that could be taken anywhere and which could do almost anything a regular laptop or desktop machine could do. As a result, a number of new e-publishing platforms have began experimenting with forms beyond the typical model of the novel, the anthology, and the magazine, translated from print into digital format.

Among those formats is the serialized novel. During the Nineteenth Century serialization was a very popular option for both writers and publishers, since it enabled the release of small portions of a longer work on a regular basis over a period of time. Writers liked it because they didn't have to have an entire novel written before they could start publishing it and get some reader responses. Publishers liked it because they didn't have to commit to publishing the entire novel before they had a reasonable assurance of success. A serial that turned out to be a dog could be dumped, or at least wrapped up with a hasty ending.

And readers liked them. The growing literacy of the working classes meant a large population of people who were beginning to read for pleasure, but couldn't come up with the money to buy an entire hardbound novel. However, they could afford the weekly or monthly periodicals in which these novels were serialized, and were soon learning to eagerly await each installment as it came out. Charles Dickens often published his most famous novels in serial format, and one of them was so popular on both sides of the Atlantic that people were literally waiting at the docks in New York, Boston and Philadelphia for the ships bringing the latest installment.

During the twentieth century serialization began to fall out of favor. Part of  it may have been the association with cheesy contrived cliffhangers, many of which involved playing stupid tricks on the audience (this was especially true in the cinematic serials). But at least part of it was an economic shift, such that people became more able to afford to buy the entire novel as a single volume.

Recently the serialized novel is coming back on the Internet. Several well-known novelists have serialized upcoming novels on their blogs, keeping interest high by dribbling out one chapter after another. However, the average beginning writer is apt to see little success from that method, for the simple reason that when you're an unknown, your blog isn't likely to get much traffic, and you end up posting to an empty room.

But if you could provide a central location where people could come to find serialized novels, similar to the old "penny dreadful" broadsheets of Victorian England and Gilded Age America, might serialization be a way for unknown writers to get their start? Instead of needing a complete novel in hand (with all the attendant problems of maintaining focus and momentum through to the finish), you would only need to have that first chapter in acceptable shape to begin presenting your novel to an audience.

This is the philosophy behind JukePop Serials. Authors write their serials at their own pace, and after their original chapter is accepted, they can put subsequent chapters up without needing further editorial permission. For the most part the stories are free to read, but many authors set up a "support the author" button, similar to the street musician's open guitar case. Support the arts on a personal basis, giving as much as you feel moved to give.

But the real metric of success at JukePop Serials is the +vote. This is an audience response metric -- as the readers complete each chapter, they have the option of rendering a vote in favor of that chapter. As serials accumulate +votes, they move upward in the rankings. Some of the most popular serials have thousands of +votes, since people who enjoy a serial will spread the word and soon the buzz becomes self-sustaining.

JukePop is only a few years old, and at this point it's impossible to say whether it will produce a lasting paradigm for serialized novel publication, or if it will end up like so many companies of the earliest days of e-publishing, whose names are now forgotten by everybody except those few early adopters who fondly remember novels they can no longer access on unsupported equipment.

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