June 10, 2016
This week in the future of publishing
by Simon Reichley
This week, two publishing juggernauts rolled out a pair of innovative strategic initiatives. Little, Brown is unveiling BookShots, a new imprint from James Patterson devoted to “pulse-pounding thrillers under $5 and 150 pages or less.” (“All thriller. No Filler.”) Meanwhile, FSG Originals is publishing the last three of Lian Hearn’s fantasy tetrology Emperor of the Eight Islands in rapid succession, hoping to emulate the success of Jeff VanerMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, which was rushed out over the course of just eight months in 2014.
With BookShots (about which we’ve written previously), Little, Brown is making a big, hyper-minimalist bet on the demand for short, commercial fiction at rock-bottom prices. As the New York Times’ Alexandra Alter put it in her early profile of the project: “How do you sell books to somebody who doesn’t normally read? Mr. Patterson’s plan: make them shorter, cheaper, more plot-driven and more widely available.”
In many ways, this is exactly how we already get kids hooked on reading. Remember Scholastic Book Fairs? Pretty much everything there was affordable on a $10-a-month allowance and could be read cover to cover during recess (provided you were willing to be mercilessly taunted for sitting out the tetherball tournament).
From Patterson’s approach it’s not a huge leap to FSG’s, which proposes a more serialized publication schedule, inspired partly by the recent, massive success of serialized TV and radio. At Wired, Charley Locke summarizes FSG’s thinking:
Even when a book imprint has committed to publishing a series, they stick to a strict schedule of one title per year. This can lead to lost momentum, especially for work with a complicated plot and cast of characters. With a drawn-out series, many readers wait until the end is in sight to start; the Tale of Shikanoko series strategy skirts that nicely. Hearn wrote it as one long novel with a four-part structure, which allows her readers to engage with it as one extended work.
This style of episodic fiction hearkens back to waiting in line for the next serial installment from Dickens or Tolstoy or Dumas. In the 19th century, readers developed ongoing relationships with characters in episodic novels, reading a new chapter in the exploits of Oliver Twist or Anna Karenina each month. Similarly, and unlike a typical fantasy release… the rapid publication of the Shikanoko novels frames them as episodes of the same story. “It’s not an indefinite serial, eventually losing where it started from, which you do often see on TV,” says publisher Sean McDonald. “Hopefully, it feels like more of a single experience stretched out over a series of weeks.”
McDonald is also taking point on FSG’s experimental MCD/FSG imprint, a new project that aims “to create a space to publish work and experiment with publishing styles, forms, and genres that are at the edges of FSG’s traditions.”
The significance of McDonald’s and Patterson’s tactical adjustments, which are essentially modifications to the supply chain, would be easy to underestimate. But doing so misapprehends the possibilities they represent.
Imagine that either of these approaches is even a modest success. Patterson wants books in gas stations, next to the Swedish Fish and Red Bull. FSG wants a readership that anticipates a pub date with the slavering enthusiasm of a Game of Thrones junky. Can you imagine? All of that accomplished by lowering prices and speeding up the release cycle. How simultaneously unsexy and revolutionary would that be?
Best of all? Neither one of them requires an algorithm or a VR headset to take us into the future.
Simon Reichley is assistant to the publishers and office manager at Melville House.