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THE HUMAN DIVISION And The Digital Serial

I’ve already talked about the first instalment of John Scalzi’s serialised sf novel THE HUMAN DIVISION here.  I read parts two to five on the train into London today – I’ve been getting them auto-delivered every week, and intended to read a couple of parts on the plane, but got into David Byrne’s HOW MUSIC WORKS instead.  (Still on track for a book a week in 2013, if you squint at it.)  Anyway.

What I wanted to briefly note down is this.  This is a thirteen-part serial.  Each piece takes no less than ten or fifteen minutes to read, I think.  Some, like the first episode, are much bigger.  He’s taking a risk by varying the length of the episodes so dramatically, but I think he’s getting away with it.  Each piece is costing me 99 American cents, or 64p.  An mp3 runs me 99p on iTunes.  A tv episode costs £2.49 on iTunes.  Each episode of THE HUMAN DIVISION automatically downloads to my Kindle. 

In modern-day terms, this is the equivalent of a cable television show season happening – but in a deeply participatory “cool” medium, and with a greater informational density than other cool media like tv or even comics.

It’s the instant nature of the ebook, with its automagic form of broadcast, that’s the killer.  If there was a single serious misstep, it was that the publisher did not negotiate with Amazon (I don’t know if it’s true for other vendors) to create a one-click subscription for all thirteen parts.  Perhaps that was impossible.  I certainly would have liked it, though.

While companies like Netflix attempt to embrace the “novel for television” by making all thirteen parts of HOUSE OF CARDS available simultaneously, it’s interesting to see Scalzi and Tor go the other way by testing not a traditional serialisation but a “television season for novel.”  The walls of the current standard of container are getting bent a little.

You can’t help but wonder what would have happened if Stephen King’s forays into periodical serial had been taken in the spring days of the e-reader, tablet and smartphone.

Yes, doing digital-only or (in this case) digital-first still feels a little exclusionary.  But, honestly?  Is it any more economically exclusionary than publishing in hardback?  And it’s not like there’s not a substantial digital-first audience out there.

I don’t pretend to be informed enough to know if THE HUMAN DIVISION constitutes a signal suite of breakthroughs in publishing.  But it’s the one in front of me, and it’s gotten me thinking.  There’s a beauty to the idea of signing up to receive the digital broadcast of a prose serial.  Buying a season of book and having each piece magically appear every week.  And, conceivably, reaching an audience that won’t or can’t hit bookstores, through the developing momentum of word-of-mouth over thirteen weeks.  And, frankly, getting to talk to people for an entire season, one week at a time.

Not Fully Baked, as a thought.  But it’s nagging at me.  There’s more to unpack, but I wanted to get this down now.

Published in stuff2013 thinking

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