Novels, iPads and the State of the Serial

Don Quixote serial novel
The serial, popular during times of illiteracy was intended to be read aloud, we’re now seeing an IT resurgence of the serial

Did you know that almost every single novel by Charles Dickens – over a dozen of them – was published in serial? If you had been around in the mid-19th century, would would have read Bleak House, or The Pickwick Papers, or A Tale of Two Cities chapter-by-chapter in weekly or monthly installments in such periodicals as Master Humphrey’s Clock and Household Words,

Earlier Don Quixote The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha (El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha), a Spanish novel by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra was published in two volumes.  Don Quixote is considered the most influential works of literature from the Spanish Golden Age and the entire Spanish literary canon. A new film version will begin shooting in September of 2014. Don Quixote regularly appears high on lists of the greatest works of fiction ever published.

What’s Old Is New Again

Today, it appears that what was good for Dickens, Tolstoy, Flaubert, Dostoevsky, Joseph Conrad, Balzac, Twain, Eliot and virtually every 19th century great is good for 21st century authors as well. But rather than reading installments in magazines, novels are being published in serial for tablets, smartphones, e-ink devices, laptops and desktops as well. And readers are gobbling them up, one bite-sized chapter at a time.

One of the biggest differences in the way serial novels were consumed in the 19th century and how we read them today was determined by the fact that illiteracy rates were still very high in those days. The stories were intended to be read aloud, and 19th century authors often toured Europe and Russia, reading in theaters and other public venues. In London it was common for folks to gather at the square and, for a ha’penny, listen to a narrator read the latest episode.

It follows that once radios became a common household appliance, serialized stories of all kinds: adventure, drama, horror, mystery, romance, thrillers – read live in the studio – soon became more popular forms of entertainment, though episodes of radio shows were rarely compiled as books. The episodic style of storytelling continued with TV, all but eliminating the publication of novels in serial, though chapters of novels would still often appear in magazines like Harpers, The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly and others.

And Virtually New Again: The Digital Age and Serials

Now that the digital age has conditioned us with content served up in bite-sized chunks, the re-appearance of serial novels – especially genre fiction – is being met with widespread enthusiasm.

Not surprisingly Amazon is setting the pace: their Kindle Serials program has released 30 auto-updated serialized novels at $1.99 each, with a new series coming out every week. Like the 19th century novels, as well as the soap operas that debuted on TV in the fifties, each chapter or episode ends with a classic cliffhanger.

Other traditional publishers, are on the bandwagon as well. St. Martin’s Press published 5 serial novels including works of historical fiction, romance and erotica in 2013. Penguin’s romance and erotica imprint,  Intermix, is a player, as is Tor, which published 13 weekly episodes of a John Scalzi sci-fi novel. Margaret Atwood’s Positron can be read on Byliner,  Alexander McCall Smith’s, 44 Scotland Street was published in serial, and dozens more titles are on the way.

New platforms are emerging like JukePop Serials, which curates stories one chapter at a time from around the world. Readers then vote for their favorites which keeps the story going and also may result in a financial reward for the author.

Don’t worry, novels aren’t going away. In fact you can always wait until every episode of a serial novel has been published and buy the whole book…for the cumulative price of what you might have paid for each individual episode, unfortunately. Publisher’s are betting your reading habits will change, and before you know it you’ll be reading episodes of your favorite stories to the family after Sunday dinner. On your iPad.

Other articles by Jeb:

2013- Year of the Hack

Witches, Cheese- Advertising Creative Services


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