May 5, 2015
Two For Tuesday: Should Books Be Snackable, Serialized, and Delicious?
by Mark Krotov & Alex Shephard
Topics discussed: Tim Parks, length, reader feedback (write to us!), Michael Schaub, Ben Carson, thinkpieces, Hillary Kelly, The Way We Publish Now, serialization, cookie cutting (metaphorically), Jonathan Franzen, Harper Lee, George R. R. Martin, Adam Scott, Scott Aukerman, U2, The Americans, Serial, Paul Boogards, Time, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Roberto Bolaño, Rachel Cusk, Alexander Chee, Harry Potter, Karl Ove, Knausgaard, Elena Ferrante, Jeff Vandermeer, Hilary Mantel, Cormac McCarthy, John Updike, Philip Roth, wow we’ve got too many proper nouns in this column, Stephen King, Gone Girl, economics, revenue streams, Sammy Hagar, The Minutemen
Mark: Hi Alex! What should we talk about this week? Should we subject our readers to a play-by-play analysis of our interview with Tim Parks? Should we record an audio commentary that they can listen to while reading the interview? Because that interview was really not long enough, and we should probably compel our readers to relive the experience.
Alex: Those are all terrible ideas! Though the Tim Parks interview was (I think) the longest piece ever published on this blog, which has been around for a very long time, so maybe we should find a way to commemorate it. Or better yet, we should send care packages to the 13 people who actually read the whole thing and, I hear, are now all in hospice care.
Mark: That seems like a fine idea. The only reason I don’t feel totally bad about subjecting our readers to an interview that long is that Tim Parks made fun of us a lot and compared us to Martin Amis, who is great, but Parks somehow made that comparison insulting, which is only something a literary critic of Parks’s caliber can pull off.
Alex: Speaking of length, the experience with Tim Parks was a galvanizing one and it’s something we’d like to do again in the future, with some regularity. So before we kick off this week’s column, we’d like to solicit reader feedback in two areas. First, if there are any publishing industry veterans, participants, partisans, or commentators, you’d like us to interview, drop us a line—shoot me an email at alex [at] mhpbooks.com or tweet at us @melvillehouse.
Second, we’d like to do a semi-regular “mailbag”-style column, where we respond to questions from readers. If you have a question about any aspect of this column (including why it is so long and terrible) or the publishing industry at large, drop me a line at alex [at[ mhpbooks.com.
I would also like to mention a third, unrelated thing: we did not mention Michael Schaub in last week’s column. This was a grave oversight that we regret. Michael, please call off your attack dogs. Mark and I haven’t slept in a week.
OK, housekeeping is done! What are we talking about this week, Mark? Taking over the world?
Mark: Yes! I’m proud to announce that we here at Two for Tuesday are going to be the only publishing-related bloggers to also be full-time employees of Ben Carson’s presidential campaign. It’s a huge thrill. As far as I know, no major (or minor) presidential candidate has ever hired one–much less two–commentators on the publishing industry to be part of his inner circle. What an exciting moment for both of us! I believe that Carson must have heard about us through the irony-free post I wrote about his plagiarism in January.
In the meantime, though, let’s talk about novels! Everyone says that the novel is dead, but everyone who says that is also boring and dumb, and I have no interest in discussing whether the novel is alive or not. It is alive.
What I do want to discuss, though, is this very interesting piece by Hillary Kelly, in the Washington Post. The title of Kelly’s piece, “Bring Back the Serialized Novel,” is somewhat self-explanatory, but what she’s written isn’t just a pie-in-the-sky cultural wishlist. (If she had written that kind of column, it would’ve been titled “Bring Back the Literary Feud.” People write those columns periodically, and they’re always silly.)
Kelly is arguing that the history of serialization in the nineteenth century is a precedent for the kind of landscape she’d like to see–namely, one in which novels aren’t just published in one fell swoop, but in which some of them are released to readers in chapters or parts over a period of weeks and months. The goal is to transform novels, which are long, into “snackable content,” a gross phrase for which I cannot blame Kelly.
There’s a lot of very smart stuff in Kelly’s piece. Alex, what did you think of it?
Alex: I thought it was a great piece, and a somewhat deceptive one. I’m not entirely sold on serialization after reading it (more on this in a moment), but I thought it was really exceptional in a diagnostic way about The Way We Publish Now. Two related things stood out the most to me. First, was this paragraph:
Today, when a novel is released, it relies on a series of tried (but not always true) advertising methods. The book is accompanied by a simplified synopsis targeting a specific audience, inflated with blurbs from “influencers” and dropped onto reviewers’ desks with the hope that enough serious critics will praise it that it will wriggle onto a prize list. Even greatness doesn’t always guarantee success. As the Telegraph noted in its look at “Why great novels don’t get noticed now ,” Samantha Harvey’s Dear Thief received universally glowing reviews — and sold only 1,000 copies in six months. Publishing houses have a brief window to push a work into the public’s consciousness. If the pilot doesn’t light, the novel doesn’t move. But with a constant stream of exposure over a period of six or 12 or 18 months, a novel would stand a far better chance of piquing the public’s interest.
This is a very perceptive indictment of the cookie-cutter approach most publishers apply to books, a kind of rinse and repeat model of sending out galleys, taking out ads that look like other ads, and then crossing your fingers that you get “The Big Review” or “The Big Prize.” There are obviously a lot of exceptions there—and we’ve written about those before—but I think that that paragraph perfectly encapsulates the status quo.
On a related note, Kelly’s clearly thought this through; she knows that, for serialization to work, it would require a Big Fish—a bold move by an author and a publisher or an author and a magazine or, perhaps, an author and an app. Here is Kelly on what’s happening now, and why those steps are too tentative for the practice to catch on:
Some sites are already trying this. Mousehold Words lets readers ingest Dickens and others in their original serialized form. Amazon introduced a Kindle Serial program about three years ago and stocks a variety of titles, mostly sci-fi and thrillers. St. Martin’s Press has also released a short list of books in serial form in the past few years. And DailyLit, which e-mails portions of books to readers on a daily or weekly schedule, was bought in 2013 by the serialized-fiction outlet Plympton.
But these enterprises all revolve around breaking up and digitally delivering old content or providing an outlet for niche writers. To reinvigorate readers and ignite conversations, beloved authors and notable magazines would need to set themselves to the task: Imagine a Stephen King novella terrifying the readers of Time, a new Jeffrey Eugenides epic unfurling through the pages of the New Yorker or Jennifer Weiner’s curious, energized female protagonists occupying a prominent section in Elle. Imagine if HarperCollins had slowly unveiled Harper Lee’s much-anticipated second novel over a period of six months. Novels wouldn’t be bulks to trudge through or badges of honor to pin to pedants’ chests. They’d be conversation notes, watercooler chatter, Twitter fodder. A part of the zeitgeist, perhaps, instead of a slowly fading pastime.
Those are enticing ideas! Most of all, I like the striving to find a way to turn literature into (sorry) something Serial—a show that everyone is talking about, even if everyone isn’t necessarily listening. Those books happen occasionally on their own—Go Set A Watchman will be such a book this spring, Jonathan Franzen’s Purity will be that book in the fall, and George R.R. Martin‘s The Winds of Winter will also occupy that space when it’s published in 2037. But publishers need to work harder to find a way for books that don’t have built-in interest to enter “the conversation,” so to speak, and serialization is an interesting possibility.
Perhaps most importantly, the form of the book hasn’t changed at all, even though the way we consume media has changed dramatically over the past two decades. This is where serialization makes the most sense to me—it seems to fit the 21st century a little better than the “traditional” novel does. But I’ve gone on for too long already—I’ll get into some of my misgivings later. Do you think the novel needs to be more “snackable”?
Mark: Personally, no, but I’m also not an especially representative sample of the Snackable Generation (you heard it here first!), because I’m still on season two of The Americans, never listened to Serial, and am listening to my favorite podcast, U Talkin’ U2 to Me, with Adam Scott and Scott Aukerman, about a year after its original release. (Maybe I should write a think piece about the virtues of Delayed Snackability.)
I agree that Kelly’s piece is strongest as an indictment of a particular kind of publishing, and as a provocation: here, she says, is what literary publishing could be. And I agree with her that novels can and should play a much more central role in the culture, and I implicitly support any way for that to happen. But infrastructures develop for a reason, and while that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be, ahem, disrupted (wow, this column is so buzzword-heavy that it may be the first Two for Tuesday to be entirely comprehensible to a venture capitalist), we have to take seriously what they tell us. In the case of the traditional book publication model, the reason for the long lead time, the push around publication, etc. isn’t just laziness or conservatism or an absence of good ideas (though there is plenty of that!)–it’s also a realistic, if not always imaginative, reflection on what can and can’t happen for a book in 2015.
This is why I think it’s very telling that Kelly’s examples of possible serializers fall into two categories. The first is publishers and new platforms, who would basically come up with a new distribution model for novels. These are the Big Fish of a higher order, and, to my mind, the likeliest candidates to actually take this on. The second is traditional magazines like Time and the New Yorker. But could you imagine even a powerful person in publishing–like Knopf’s Paul Boogards–pitching the editor of Time on the full serialization of a big fall novel? The editor of Time would then tell a long, sad story about advertising statistics and shrinking page counts and the increasing inability to do as much arts coverage as in the past, and that would be the end of that meeting.
The publications doing the potential serialization would have to be willing partners, and I doubt that that could happen on anything other than a singular, symbolic occasion. The Paris Review has serialized two novels, I believe, but they have the pages and they lack the financial pressure of some of the other publications on Kelly’s list. Plus, they would have published Rachel Cusk and Roberto Bolaño anyway. But for all other traditional media, this sounds more like the Franzen Time cover–a galvanizing, but ultimately anomalous one-off. In other words, what Kelly’s piece reveals, paradoxically, is just how hard it is to get publicity in the first place. Which is no excuse for a lack of ambition, of course, but much as I wish we could simply create a new reality, it’s not that simple. Maybe our new patron Dr. Ben Carson can help!
Alex: I just lost ten minutes of my day googling “ben carson favorite book.” I have never felt more dissatisfied with my life.
The multi-volume novel is having a moment right now, as Alexander Chee wrote in an excellent essay on LitHub that is something of a cousin to Kelly’s piece. (Kelly, in her piece, argues that the multi-volume novel is the heir to the serialized novel.) Over the last 18 months or so, the four authors I’ve probably spent the most time discussing with people inside and outside the industry are: Karl Knausgaard, Elena Ferrante, Jeff Vandermeer, and Hilary Mantel. I’ve talked about other books as much, perhaps—I’ve been trying to block out that time everybody was talking about The Goldfinch without much luck—but I think that list is fairly accurate.
All four of these authors, of course, are working in something that approaches the serial format, though that’s not quite accurate—these are series, and each work put out by each writer is a distinct novel. Of the four, Vandermeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy probably comes the closest to what Kelly is talking about here. Its publication was risky and ingenious—three paperback originals each published three months apart, before being collected in a (gorgeous) hardcover edition. As soon as you started the first one, you knew you needed to read the other two as soon as possible.
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why the multi-volume novel is so successful right now. It’s always been viable in genre—particularly fantasy and science fiction—and it’s possible that the slowly eroding lines between “genre” and “literary” are one explanation. Both Kelly and Chee see the Harry Potter phenomenon as an important influence.
An argument could be made that the kind of immersive experience of reading a succession of literary novels is an antidote to the rise of “snackable content”—that despite distractions, people, as Chee argues, want to spend time inhabiting immersive fictional worlds. It’s also wholly possible that this phenomenon isn’t quite a phenomenon, after all. Fictional series have existed for a while. Many of the Great White Male Novelists of the Post-War Generation—Updike, Roth, McCarthy—all wrote what could be considered “multi-volume novels,” after all. And it’s also possible that it’s not such a phenomenon after all. Knausgaard’s sales, despite the hype, have been rather modest, so this all may be somewhat inflated.
The internet may exaggerate the hype, but the success of these novels shows that Kelly has a point—audiences may not be demanding the return of the serial novel, but there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that they would welcome the right serialized novel from the right writer. But there are a number of barriers.
One reason why the serial novel hasn’t caught on again, as Kelly writes, is that the current offerings aren’t particularly appealing to most consumers—they’re either from unknown authors or are simply “repackaged” from books that have already hit the market (and, in most cases, not done particularly well, hence their second life as serial content). But books from well-known writers—books that are that rarest of commodities, a commercial sure thing—are expensive.
Serial, for instance, had one thing going for it that it’s fair to assume a serialized novel wouldn’t: it was free. It’s unlikely that a serialized novel would have that going for it. Charging a fee—especially from the first installment—would effectively kill it as a water cooler conversation starter. Even serializing a novel in a magazine with a large circulation, like The New Yorker, would likely have the same effect, especially when one considers the fact that these magazines are often only on newsstands for a short period. I first heard about Serial in the middle of its run; if it was serialized in a print publication with a paywall, I would probably be shit out of luck. (I didn’t care much for Serial though, so I’d probably have been better off.)
That brings me to another issue: economics. Not only would serializing a novel be expensive, it would also be a risky economic decision, and it would undoubtedly be one that most agents would balk at. The economics of publishing have changed drastically since when Dickens made his name as a serialized novelist. Now, royalties are incredibly important; for a serialized novel to work, it would have to offer a radically different payment structure. Kelly has a novel solution to this: subscribers would receive a copy of the book (which would presumably reach sales minimums/pay out royalties). I like this, but I doubt that most agents would—I fear, instead, that this fact would just make serialized novels even *more* expensive to produce, perhaps prohibitively so.
The biggest question I have, though, is what kind of fiction is suited for this? Kelly offers Gone Girl as an example, and I think that would work perfectly; she also mentions Stephen King, who I think would probably be game (The Plant may have been a failed experiment, but King’s restlessness and willingness to experiment and embrace the new have always been his best qualities). I agree, but I fear that there are too few works of fiction a year that would actually work here—works that are either suspenseful (like Gone Girl), or from known quantities with nothing to lose. It’s, of course, possible that fiction would emerge that fit this model perfectly—the way that Serial controversially fit the serial podcasting model—but I’m not necessarily sure that’s a great thing, though it would probably be a great thing for the thriller genre.
But weirdly, none of this lessens my enthusiasm for this idea, which probably says something about how taken I was with the essay itself. I want serialized fiction! My best bet, looking ahead, would be for a young start-up with deep pockets to make a splash with this model, and I hope it happens. But I don’t think it’s particularly likely—it’s most likely a major (i.e. Big 5) publisher would have to be involved, and, as we discuss regularly, those publishers are particularly risk-averse. But I want to take risks! Let’s take some fucking risks, Mark! I feel like a teenager! Let’s see how fast this car can go!
Mark: Well, you’ve basically said everything there is to be said about this, which makes sense, because I was on a plane for part of the writing of this post, and though I love you, our readers, and Two for Tuesday, I was unwilling to pay $19.95 for the privilege of co-writing this column at 30,000 feet.
I’ll just quickly reiterate what you said about economics. There’s so much about Kelly’s column that’s persuasive and appealing, and she makes a strong case that a return to serialization would be in the reader’s interests, though ultimately I agree that a) not many books would qualify and b) even more importantly, what examples like Serial actually tell us is that even if this were to work exactly as Kelly has suggested, we’d be talking about a handful of books every year. Those books and authors might benefit, but the industry wouldn’t be upended.
But even so! This really would represent a different model for a number of different reasons, and many of the stakeholders who make publishing the big and weird ecosystem that it is would it is would have very valid grievances! As you say, agents and publishers would have to negotiate entirely new kinds of contracts, and especially with magazines in the mix, there’d be a tussle over rights. But what about bookstores? Can you imagine if you’re a bookseller and you’ve been told that the next Gone Girl will be released online, piecemeal, and that word-of-mouth will be strongest in the months before publication, rather than after?
I worry that this edition of Two for Tuesday has made me sound like the Defender of the Status Quo, which I don’t think I am. But I do think that, though Kelly’s piece was a marvelous provocation, I’m not quite sure of its programmatic value. And on that note, with me feeling at my most square, I turn it over to you to bring us some hip, happening tunes.
Alex: Before I do, I’d like to say that the thing I find most attractive about this idea is that it hints at where I think the status quo is already heading: towards more diverse revenue streams. I’d like to see a publishing economy where serialization of the right books was accounting for some revenue, alongside subscription and bundling and whatever other demon technologies the 21st century gives us.
Speaking of demons, I want to hear some motherfucking Sammy Hagar. But since we’ve already used Hagar once (shoutout to Montrose, his best band), I’m going to mix things up a bit this week. In this week’s twofer, we’re gonna get one track from Hagar and one from The Minutemen.