At a Los Angeles press conference last month, Amazon introduced what could be the most significant innovation in how we read books since e-readers first appeared: “Kindle Serials,” a new subscription-based book format. Harkening back to the days of Dickens, these new books are installed in segments. Once a customer subscribes to one of the serials, new updates or “episodes” appear automatically at the back of the book as they are released by the publisher.Amazon has already changed how books are sold, read and published, noted Sarah Kessler in an online article for Fast Web. Now, the “Serials” will even change how books are written. Thanks to the web, writers will get to see how readers react to each installment, adapting their writing along the way. According to Amazon, each serial book will have its own discussion board where writers can read comments from users. However, these discussion boards are just the tip of the iceberg. Already, several book analytic start-ups are off the ground, creating programs to track where readers highlight most often and where they lose interest. Amazon competitors, like Kobo, already use analytics to monitor the geographic locations of their readers. It’s only a matter of time before these start-ups become more sophisticated and fully integrated with Kindle products.
All good and well for Amazon, but what does this mean for readers and, more significantly, for writers? For readers, the “Serials” offer a change of pace. Remember how everyone would stay awake for the midnight release of Harry Potter and then binge read until the last page? The “Serials” will force readers to slow down and more fully engage with each released segment. Readers who would otherwise skim through unwieldy novels will carefully read each word. Not only will this ensure books get the care and attention they deserve, but it’s also well-suited for our contemporary lifestyles and the ways we now consume information — in Facebook status updates, text messages and 140 character tweets. No wonder the novel is becoming more and more daunting in the digital age. Acknowledging this trend, “Serials” updates the novel by breaking it into manageable, bite-size chunks easily read while riding the subway or taking a coffee break.
By adding time between installments, the “Serials” make reading a bit like watching T.V. Just as we eagerly anticipate the next episode of our favorite T.V. show, so too will we wait in suspense for our favorite “Serials” segment. (Indeed, many of the “Serials” authors are screenwriters). This makes reading more communal, more social. Not only will we speculate with each other about what will happen next, but (the most devoted followers, at least) will read (and react to) the next segment at the same time. And this interactive component, where audiences can directly influence the writer’s next installment, empowers readers. No longer passive consumers, the readers become participants who tell the industry the products they desire.
At least superficially, these “Serials” might bring some material benefit to writers, who can test out the commerciality of their products before sinking too much time into a risky (and time consuming) investment. But what happens when we think of writing in purely commercial terms, when we turn readers into “markets” and assign literary value through data analytics? Sure, writing is already thought of in commercial terms. Publishers want books that will sell regardless of literary merit. By publishing these books with mass appeal, they give themselves some leeway to take on riskier projects — books with true literary merit that perhaps appeal to smaller audiences. But with this onslaught of reader feedback midway through, these riskier projects might never take shape.“Serials” fundamentally alter the writing process and disempower the author. The writer must give his audience what it wants or have his serialized book cancelled. The author is at the mercy of his or her audience. And not just any audience but a contemporary audience, an audience wealthy enough to purchase e-readers, an audience loud enough and arrogant enough to post its opinions in web forums. Books that are too experimental or too critical might never make it past Chapter One.
Perhaps these concerns have no grounding. Serial fiction helped many great writers get their starts, including Henry James and Herman Melville. Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov were all serialized. Contemporary writers like Stephen King and Orson Scott Card have tried their hands at serial fiction, and Jennifer Egan has even published a short story entirely through serial tweets. The serial format could even help writers change up their writing process and explore new directions in their work.
The problem is when these new directions are undertaken merely to please. There’s nothing wrong with an empowered, enthusiastic audience — so long as writers and publishers alike realize when to disregard the message boards, unplug the internet and let the natural writing process work itself out.