Can serialized fiction make a comeback? This company is betting on it

Simon Owens
Jan 24, 2018 · 21 min read
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Serial Box founders Molly Barton and Julian Yap. Photo credit: Adam Barton

It was 2014 and Julian Yap was feeling burnt out.

At the time he was working for the Obama Justice Department, serving as the point person on gun control in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting. “It was just sort of one of these long struggles,” he told me, “which at the end of the day, despite a whole bunch of kids getting shot, nothing changed. It was a little demoralizing.”

Yap loved his job and the sense of fulfillment he got working for the Obama administration, but that year he decided he needed to get out, lest he become permanently jaded. Upon leaving, he got a number of job offers from think tanks and other DC non-profit organizations, but he was determined to stay away from public policy, at least for a while.

So instead of starting a new job right away, Yap chose to take a break, living off savings while he explored other options. It was while he was on this break that he began thinking about something that had bothered him for a while: he didn’t read as many books as he used to. Growing up, he’d been an avid book reader, devouring dozens of science fiction novels a year.

But after he entered his career as a lawyer, the volume of his book reading decreased dramatically. It wasn’t just books, either; even though he was a lifetime film buff, he was watching fewer movies. “I realized I was watching much more television,” he said. “I was reading a lot more magazine articles and comic books, stuff that was easy to pick up.” He came to a theory that was crystallized one day when a friend visited and asked whether he wanted to watch a movie on Netflix. Yap lobbied that they should instead watch the first episode of an HBO miniseries. “And then she was like, ‘Well, then we’re committing to eight hours whereas the movie is just two hours.’ And I responded, ‘Yeah, but this is shorter now,’ and I realized that there’s a certain amount of psychological lift to reading anything long. The book just sits on your bedside table. You could finish it by reading for 10 minutes a day but for some reason you don’t pick it up. It feels intimidating. Whereas the magical thing that television does, that a lot of serial fiction does, is it makes it feel more digestible. It makes it feel like you’re committing to a much smaller thing.”

Yap looked around and saw that there wasn’t really anything that could serve as the reading equivalent of a TV show. There were short stories, sure, but they didn’t allow for the larger story arcs that could make watching a show so enthralling. Serialized fiction, where each installment had its own self-contained story but also fit within a larger narrative, hardly existed anymore.

It wasn’t always this way. Starting in 19th century Britain, serialized novels, delivered by way of weekly or monthly periodicals, became all the rage. Charles Dickens’s The Pickwick Papers is considered by many to be the first widely read serialized novel, and his later books proved to be so popular that, according to contemporary accounts, readers would literally wait on the ship docks to receive the latest installments.

This format eventually migrated to the States. Henry James’s first novel, Watch and Ward, was serialized in the Atlantic Monthly. Herman Melville turned to serializing his book Israel Potter after its predecessor was a commercial failure. Uncle Tom’s Cabin originated as a serial. But by the mid-20th century, magazines started publishing a lot less fiction, leading to the sharp decline of serialized stories. Though a few authors continued to dabble in the medium (Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities ran as a serial in Rolling Stone in 1984), the serial was all but dead by the turn of the century. My only experience with it growing up was anxiously visiting Stephen King’s website every day to check for new chapters of The Plant, his brief, early experiment in internet publishing.

So were serials poised for a comeback? Or, put another way, was there a market opportunity for a new publisher to enter and specialize in them? To answer this question, Yap “did what any good lawyer would do,” as he put it, and began interviewing everyone who would speak to him who either worked in publishing or TV. “One of the people I spoke to basically shot me an email and said, ‘Hey, maybe you want to talk to Molly Barton.’”

Barton had started in publishing as an editor, working with authors like Nick Hornby, Terry McMillan, and Meg Rosoff, and though she had assumed that her entire career would consist of editing fiction, she somehow found herself working in the digital strategy and corporate development area of Penguin Random House. She eventually became the global digital director, a position that oversaw a $300 million business in ebooks and audiobooks.

Perched atop this business, she began to notice some trends. “I went to 22 financial meetings a month where we looked at the performance of all the different divisions,” she told me. “And the pattern that stuck out to me was that every time an author sells a second book, their first book sells more copies, and every time they publish a third book, their first and second book sell more copies. This was consistent across all categories.”

Barton’s tenure happened to coincide with the explosive growth of both audiobooks and ebooks. Amazon’s launch of Kindle in 2007, its 2008 acquisition of Audible in 2008, and the ubiquity of smartphones and tablets created a market for ebooks and audiobooks that now generates over $5 billion in U.S. annual sales.

The rise of these digital mediums allowed for publishers like Penguin Random House to experiment more in the kinds of books it published and how it released them. “Publishers were starting to ask their more successful authors to write faster and faster so they could write two or three books a year rather than one book a year,” Barton recalled. “But obviously not every writer can keep up with that pace and still maintain quality … So I ran a couple experiments where I asked writers to write novels that were structured to be read two chapters at a time, being very conscious about structuring the story to have a satisfying episode of consumption.” The experiment worked; authors who typically sold 25,000 to 35,000 copies per book, a respectable midlist showing, were suddenly selling north of 100,000 copies.

In 2014, Barton left her job at Penguin Random House and worked as an industry consultant while she brainstormed a startup that would incorporate the learnings I outlined above. And in 2015, Yap came calling. “When you’re in this new space and you have an idea, you don’t just want to lay all your cards on the table at once,” Yap told me. “We hesitantly felt each other out. ‘What are you doing? Are we competitors?’ And I finally was like, ‘Here’s the deal. What I really want to do is build the HBO for readers.’ And Molly starts laughing.” Yap was momentary embarrassed until Barton explained why she was laughing. “She said, ‘No no no, I’m laughing because I have this deck I’m building right in front of me and on the front page it says ‘HBO for readers.’”

That conversation kicked off a collaboration that led to the launch, a few months later, of Serial Box, an app that’s distributed on iOS devices and will soon be made available on Android. Serial Box is an e-reading app, but it’s not simply a knockoff of Kindle or iBooks. It’s also an audio publisher, but it’s not just another Audible. To understand why it’s a truly differentiated product, we have to dive deep on both how content is created on the app and how it’s released to the consumer.

When Yap said he wanted to create the reading version of television, he didn’t simply mean he wanted to serialize books. The aim was to actually mimic the creative process of writing a scripted TV show.

For a prestige series like The Americans or Breaking Bad, the TV network doesn’t just send a lone writer into an office to give birth, singlehandedly, to an entire season’s script. Instead, it appoints what’s called a showrunner, a person who serves as a kind of team captain, who then amasses a group of writers. Using a show bible — a document that keeps track of characters and plot points — as a reference point, this team meets in a room and begins to hash out, very broadly, an entire season, starting with the themes and then moving on to major plot points and character arcs. Once this process is completed, the showrunner then assigns episodes to specific writers, who then go off to write their scripts.

The benefits to this process are many. Not only does it introduce more diversity of thought and creativity to the storytelling, but it also speeds up the writing. By introducing this formula to written fiction, Serial Box could produce book-length works ready for publication in at least half the time it would take a single author to do so. “Writers, as it turns out, love working together,” said Yap. “It’s an opportunity to talk and not just be alone in a room with your keyboard.”

To understand how the Serial Box approach works in practice and why writers choose to work with the company, I spoke to Max Gladstone, the showrunner for one of the app’s earliest and most popular series, Bookburners. Gladstone wasn’t a novice to publishing when Serial Box approached him (in fact, all the writers the company works with are already established). In 2012, Tor Books published his first novel, the success of which led to a multi-book contract and his ability to write speculative fiction full-time.

Gladstone was amenable to working with Serial Box because he had noticed the same publishing trends that had led to its founding. “As a writer, your fans only have a chance to pick up one thing of yours every year,” he said. “That means that, ultimately, you need a lot more fans and you need them to be channeled through this funnel of a single book purchase. And that’s weird because a year is a long time between touch points, especially when you don’t have a marketing department or sales department that’s really built around maintaining mindshare.” Serial Box, by speeding up the writing process, would not only bring those touch points closer together, but it would also, by releasing new episodes a week apart, prolong the consumption of the material, thereby increasing that mindshare even more.

I asked Gladstone to walk me through the Serial Box writing process for Bookburners (he would later go on to write for a second series called The Witch Who Came in From the Cold). The idea for the series came out of conversations he had with Yap about the Vatican and a library it maintains for banned books. What if, they posited, those banned books contained the keys to dark magic and were hunted down by a “Vatican-backed black-ops anti-magic squad” that stands “between humanity and the magical apocalypse”?

Those initial conversations led to Gladstone throwing together a show bible, and a few months later he found himself in a room with three other writers. “On the first day we spent four hours discussing theme and another four or five hours discussing each individual character by turns, and then all of their relationships,” said Gladstone. “It took us about two days before we even started thinking about what the plot of the first season of the serial would be.”

This might seem like a slow process, but this groundwork can sometimes take weeks to iron out for a single author, with a lot of time wasted following dead ends and plot points that ultimately don’t make it past the cutting room floor. “A lot of writing is a very lonely process,” Gladstone said. “So being able to throw out an idea and then hear instantly whether people like it or not — you can see it in someone’s eyes when you’ve got them. And you can also see in someone’s eyes when you’ve totally lost them. And all of a sudden, what in normal, traditional publishing corners is a long volley response process became very short and iterative and engaged and entangled.”

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Most of the communication after the in-person meeting occurs over email. Because the writers all have various work commitments and writing schedules, they, for the most part, work at their own pace, with the showrunner having to gently prod someone if they fall too far behind. As questions about plot and character traits come up, the writers will resolve them over email or through Skype calls. “The initial dream was to be publishing while we were still writing,” said Gladstone. “But we figured out that was more trouble than it was worth, and it was far easier to get the episodes written in advance, grind through all the editing we needed, and go public with them.” This cuts down on the likelihood of continuity errors; if the writers need to insert a scene in third episode to set up something that occurs to in the eighth, it’s a lot easier to do so if the earlier chapter hasn’t already been published.

After the first draft is finished, the editing and production process is very similar to what you’ll find in traditional publishing. Serial Box brings in a contract editor, someone who has experience working for one of the large New York publishers, and that person performs line edits and gives structural feedback that’s sent back to the writers for revision. From there, the serial is copyedited, formatted, and then sent to a professional narrator. In the case of Bookburners, Serial Box hired Xe Sands, an award-winning narrator who has narrated books for major publishers including Harper, Macmillan, and Scholastic.

For the first season of Bookburners, it took about four months from the initial writers meeting to the finished product. In September 2015, the app, along with the first episode of Bookburners, debuted on the Apple App Store.

By now you might be thinking, “So what? They came up with a different writing process that speeds up the production time for the book. But why launch an app?” After all, platforms like Kindle, Audible, and iBooks already have millions of users. Why reinvent the wheel and go through the gargantuan task of building a user base from scratch?

I put this question to Yap. He argued that simply releasing it as a series of standalone books and audiobooks would subtract from the user experience that the app creates. “If we released things on Amazon, you’d have to remember [a new episode] comes out every week. And you’d have to go and find it. Same with Audible.”

It’d probably help if I explained how the Serial Box app actually works. Upon opening the app, you’re taken to a menu of serial series that looks a lot like the screen you see when you log into Netflix or Hulu. When you click on a particular serial, you’re taken to a screen that lists each of the individual episodes. The first episode for every serial is free, and you’re given the option of buying each subsequent episode for $1.99, or you can buy the entire season for a slightly reduced price (the entire first season for The Witch Who Came in From the Cold, for instance, costs $18.99, which would save you about $5 off the pay-per-episode price). If you purchase a season that hasn’t yet been released in its entirety, then you’re simply given access to the new episodes when they come out.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Serial’s layout is the choices you have for consuming the fiction. You can easily toggle back and forth between reading and listening to the story. So let’s say I’m reading an episode on my couch, but then I need to head to the grocery store. I simply click on the audio version and begin listening at the exact point where I left off in the text version. According to data Serial Box has collected on its users, about a quarter of them only use the app for reading, a quarter use it only for listening, and approximately 50 percent will use both features.

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This approach certainly differentiates Serial Box from most other e-reader offerings. Though Amazon, through its Whispersync For Voice, does allow users to switch back and forth between audio and fiction, it doesn’t produce the same kind of seamless experience for serials released on a timed schedule. (it’s worth noting that Amazon did at some point have a product called Kindle Serials, which seemed to carry this kind of functionality, but I couldn’t find any articles written about it after 2013, and I couldn’t find a way to search for serials on the Amazon website. It may have discontinued the service). You don’t have to worry about having to search Amazon each week to check for new episodes; everything is packaged neatly within the app.

The question was whether there was a real appetite from readers for this type of experience, and if there was, how Serial Box could reach them.

As it turns out, there were both challenges and advantages to the Serial Box model when it came to marketing new series. In terms of obstacles, the staff realized pretty quickly that traditional book reviewers didn’t know how to approach the company. “Most of them don’t feel comfortable reviewing until they’ve seen the whole manuscript,” said Barton. “So we’re working on our schedule to accommodate that.” Early on, before the app became more established within the industry, this meant that they had to rely on bloggers and podcasters, many of whom were much more open to this kind of experimentation. Over time, however, the traditional press has warmed to Serial Box, especially after it began selling the rights to its serials to be packaged as traditional books (more on that later).

But the fact that there were multiple, already-established writers for any given serial was certainly a benefit. For one, these authors were able to cross-pollinate their fan bases, which not only helped increase the audience for a Serial Box story, but also had the added benefit of exposing their non-Serial Box work to more readers. “I know some of my fans have picked up [Bookburner co-author] Mur Lafferty’s books,” said Gladstone. “Some of the people who follow Margaret Dunlap from The Middle Man,” a TV series she produced, “have come into the series. We’re all sort of sharing our personal fan bases into Bookburners. And there will always be people who are just hardcore fans of one or the other of us, and don’t make that jump, but there’s also a substantial overlap of people interested in trying new things.”

What’s more, as more and more serials began appearing on the platform, authors for one serial started promoting serials they hadn’t even worked on. “When we launched our series Geek Actually this past summer, we saw writers from four other teams on social media promoting the series, because they feel like they’re part of this network, almost in this Saturday Night Live sort of way,” said Barton. “We’re a team, we’re supporting each other’s projects, we know what that room over there is doing.”

Another benefit to the multi-author approach is that there are simply more people to handle the burden that comes with any sort of book promotion. “One of the advantages of having three or four writers is they can do local signing events,” said Barton. “You get national spread geographically without having to fly people around.”

So how well do the series on Serial Box sell? Yap told me that, even from the very beginning, the traction the app got with readers outpaced his expectations. “The best thing was how every week our user base grew,” he said. “In our first few weeks we had hundreds of users, and I was thinking to myself ‘I’ll be amazed when we have a thousand.’ And by early 2016 we’d passed a thousand. And then I was like, ‘I’ll be happy when we have 10,000.’ And now we’re way past that in active users.”

I wanted to get a sense of what makes a Serial Box series a “success” and how it compares to a successful book in traditional publishing. Is it the equivalent, say, of what’s called a “midlist” book, which is typically used to describe a title that reliably sells copies in the low five figures? Or was Serial Box producing content that sold as many units as a New York Times bestseller? Barton told me it’s hard to create an apples-to-apples comparison, since the purchase of Serial Box episodes is spread out over several weeks. “You can get onto the New York Times bestseller list by selling a few thousand copies, depending on the time of the year,” she said. “I don’t look at that. We have 10 New York Times bestselling writers working for us, so we’re certainly working with established people with really huge audiences. So I would say we’re approaching that New York Times bestseller list, but we’re probably not quite there yet.”

One of the biggest advantages of selling its content on its own app is that Serial Box has access to more user data and can actually leverage that data to improve its product — something not available to publishers who distribute through Amazon and brick and mortar bookstores. It knows, for instance, that the average reader spends over $40 on the platform. “75 percent of our readers and listeners buy content in more than one series,” said Barton. “They’re not just coming in for one series and leaving. They’re moving across the content and the catalog.”

In some cases, user feedback can actually impact the narratives of the stories themselves. “When we launch a series, not every episode will be locked,” said Barton. “Meaning we’re looking at what readers are saying through social listening. And we have changed storylines based on that feedback. There have been characters we didn’t realize people would love so much, and we’ve amped up their role.”

Readers’ enthusiasm for Serial Box series wasn’t just evident from looking at the user data; large and vocal fan bases began to sprout up online. “It’s been very gratifying to see people make fan art,” said Yap. “I’ve seen some fanfic now of some Serial Box properties and I’m like, ‘Oh that’s fantastic. We have some super fans.’”

It’s not uncommon for the release of a new episode to result in a flurry of tweets as fans react in real time and speculate on what’ll happen next week. “It’s fun to see who’s reading on an episode by episode basis and getting excited about that versus who’s binging things all at once at the end of the season,” said Gladstone. Serial Box, he said, attracts a much more diverse audience than he’ll see with his traditionally-published books. “It’s been a much broader range of demographics. There are people who are traditional hardcore science fiction and fantasy readers who compose a lot of my readership. There are also people who just happen to be browsing through the app store one day. Or people who are really into audio books. The wonderful surprise of Bookburners has been how many people from different fan bases or fandoms are coming in, so finding myself stumbling into a conversation on a television blog about Bookburners is really exciting.”

Serial Box has launched, as of this writing, seven series, and several of its series have now spanned multiple seasons. Given the constant drama in the Hollywood trade press over which show is getting renewed or canceled, I asked what going into the calculus when deciding whether a serial would come back for a new season. “It’s a mixture of critical acclaim versus the number of readers,” said Yap. “If something is critically beloved, we’d try to keep it going.” Barton said the decision comes down to, in some cases, a gut feeling about whether a series warrants more seasons. “It’s really project to project. We’re certainly looking at the fan base and we’re looking at the story itself and whether we feel like there are satisfying additional seasons to explore. So it’s a combination of factors really.”

Gladstone, who’s now overseen three seasons of Bookburners and two for The Witch Who Came in From the Cold, told me that the stakes over whether a season will get renewed aren’t that high, at least compared to the decisions that go on in Hollywood. “This is not anybody’s sole full-time gig,” he said. “So there’s less drama of, OK, well, these 14 carpenters are not coming back to build the set next year, they need to find something new. It’s like, OK, I’m a freelancer, and if my work allotment for Serial Box next year is for so many months, and if one show I’m involved with is not moving forward, then that just gives me some time I can use in a different way. That flexibility I don’t mind. If this were a much larger percent of my income, I might start nail biting a little bit, but I think it’s in a pretty solid sweetspot now.”

What fascinates me about Serial Box is not only how it creates and distributes content, but also how it approaches monetization. For instance, when speaking to Yap, I wondered aloud why the only options for purchasing its series involved either buying single episodes or entire seasons. In an era when everyone from Netflix to the New York Times is charging for subscriptions, why not do more to lock users in? “A subscription model sounds great, but obviously we knew we were going to have a limited amount of content,” he said. “You can’t very well charge someone 11 bucks a month if all you’re doing is running one serial.” As the Serial Box catalog grows, however, a subscription product becomes more feasible. “We’d certainly consider the idea of having one price for the platform,” said Barton. “But we wouldn’t do that until we had a catalog that warranted it and provided enough value for our customers.”

What I find particularly impressive is how well Serial Box has diversified its revenue in such a short period of time. It aggressively pursues deals, often with already-established players, that will allow it to distribute its IP in different mediums and venues. For instance, it entered into partnerships with Simon and Schuster to sell seasons of both Bookburners and The Witch Who Came in From the Cold to be published as traditional books. It’s also sold foreign language publishing rights for several of its serials. It recently began experimenting with releasing the first season of its Remade series as a free, serialized podcast, racking up over 90,000 downloads. Right now, the podcast mostly serves as a loss leader to help promote the second season of the show, but given the explosive popularity of serial fiction podcasts, it’s not hard to see how Serial Box could add an advertising business model into the mix.

Perhaps its largest revenue stream will stem from Hollywood. When I spoke to Barton, she was in Los Angeles where she was meeting with television producers who wanted to adapt a Serial Box series (she couldn’t yet tell me which one). “When we started the business we were aware of the fact that structuring the story in this way would lend itself to adaptation for television,” she said. “But what I didn’t expect was there’d be interest from Hollywood to use the platform to extend existing storylines and characters. We’ve got partnerships with four studios now to take very high profile shows and films and develop original series in those story worlds.” In other words, studios for already-existing TV shows want Serial Box to take their IP and adapt it for the app’s audience, writing serialized stories set within those shows’ fictional worlds.

And that’s just the beginning. In the coming months, Serial Box will begin running serials that originated from outside publishing companies, and it’s also partnered with the Associated Press on what it calls a “month-by-month, immersive account of the American colonies in 1776 and the people and events that led to the founding of the United States of America.”

It seems clear that an app that launched two years ago on little more than personal savings and small investments from family and friends is already punching well above its weight in an industry that is dominated by five major publishers, most of which are owned by global conglomerates. It’s also succeeding in two mediums — ebooks and audiobooks — that Amazon, perhaps the most aggressive and well-funded tech company of the early 21st century, has been competing hard in.

Does Serial Box represent a new evolution in publishing? Or is it a simply a callback to an earlier era when Americans anxiously awaited new issues of The Atlantic Monthly or their favorite pulp fiction magazine to find out whether their favorite character survived the last issue’s cliffhanger? Either way, it certainly has traction, and it’s well on its way to changing the way the book-reading world, however shrinking it may be, consumes and purchases its fiction.

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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.

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