February 12, 2014

Impatient readers lead to rapid-fire series release

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shutterstock_131134097On-demand services have not only changed the way we watch television shows, they’ve affected our expectations of all media. Instant gratification and binge-watching have affected the consumer model, and the publishing world is taking notice. Julie Bosman reports in The New York Times on a new trend in the industry: publishing release dates for series are getting shorter. Editors like Farrar, Strauss & Giroux’s Sean McDonald are catering to the ravening hordes of but-I-want-it-now readers by shrinking the release dates between installments from a year to a few short months.

According to McDonald, these readers are more than just Veruca Salt imitators—they’re scared. “You can end up with angry and perplexed fans,” he said. “I think people are more aware of series storytelling, and there is this sense of impatience, or maybe a fear of frustration. We wanted to make sure people knew that there were answers to these questions.”

That sound you hear in the distance is George R. R. Martin laughing diabolically. Probably while killing a beloved character. Fans of serials have long been subject to the perfectionist whims of their favorite authors. Who can forget J. K. Rowling’s extra months of work as each successive Harry Potter book took an incrementally longer time before release? Who, even now, is on the edge of their at-this-point-worn-down seat for the last installment in Robert Caro’s Lyndon B. Johnson biographies, a five-book project that has been in-progress since 1982?

Ironically, Bosman attributes one of the causes of this trend to the popularity of series like A Song of Ice and Fire (that’s Game of Thrones to the folks who only watch their books on TV), Harry Potter, and Hunger Games, books that both keep readers emotionally and financially engaged and attract Hollywood attention. However, the real culprit for the slowly-shrinking release dates according to Bosman is everyone’s favorite fan fiction turned poorly researched erotica super-hit. Bosman explains:

“But it may have been the blockbuster “Fifty Shades of Grey,” the erotica trilogy by E. L. James, that showed the merits of publishing all the books quickly, before readers can catch their breath. The series, which began as fan fiction, was first printed by a small press in Australia. Vintage Books, part of Random House, acquired it in March 2012, and released the books in paperback in the space of less than a month. They became a word-of-mouth sensation and have sold more than 90 million copies to date worldwide — Random House’s fastest-selling series ever.”

It’s hard to argue with success. Editors at St. Martin’s Press are taking the “TV approach” even further, scheduling an upcoming series by Megan Hart for “five installments, published in e-book format every two weeks.”

Some are concerned by this change, however. Berkley’s executive editor, Cindy Hwang, says “There’s always the fear that you’re saturating the market, that the reader demand isn’t as great as what you’ve foreseen.” Bosman also points out that the traditionally timed publishing schedule allows better-planned publicity, and allows new readers to make the plunge and catch up.

While the give-it-here fans are likely pleased at the prospect of being put out of their misery, those Patrick Rothfuss, George R. R. Martin, and Robert Caro fans who’ve been waiting for their perfect sequel are dug in for the long haul.

Sadie Mason-Smith is a former Melville House intern.

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