Amazon’s Best News Has Nothing to Do with Devices
Amazon’s best bit of news today was easy to miss.
It was buried beneath the tech specs and price lists of Kindle’s new devices. It was far down the publicity agenda, below the Bezos hardware pitch and self-publishing endorsements. And even if you heard it, you likely thought it was only about the creative reissue of a Dickens novel.
The best news to my ears: Amazon’s getting into the serial novel business.
It may sound like a quiet bit of news, less flashy than the back-lighting and and 4G. But if you’re in the business of writing or publishing fiction, it was the most exciting part of the day.
The idea is simple: like the serials of publishing generations past, readers can encounter a work of fiction in installments. In classic Dickensian fashion, the long story is fragmented and sold in episodes. A consumer pays one price one time, and each installment is delivered upon its release.
For those who haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about this or trying to figure out how to make this work–like we have at Movable Type–it might a surprise that this wasn’t possible before today. We’re now just a few weeks away from the launch of our virgin serial effort with St Martin’s: Jamie Brenner‘s serial novel The Gin Lovers, an inventive story set against the turbulent and glamorous backdrop of Prohibition and the rise of the jazz age. Over the past few months, while the gifted Jamie Brenner, her agent Adam Chromy and her talented editors were working on the special craft of writing a serial, we’ve thought a great deal about how to market one.
Prior to this announcement, you could sell serial novels, of course, but you had to sell each piece individually. As a traditional or indie publisher, that’s a anxiety-producing prospect. It takes an incredible amount of effort to persuade a reader to buy your book. But what if you have to persuade the reader to buy the book six times? Or ten? When each installment is a separate sale, there’s a lot of room to lose a reader. Wooing them back for each subsequent release, however well-timed, is a serious challenge. But without a retail channel that offered the technology to take a one-time payment and deliver installments to a buyer over time, publishers basically had to rely on marketing efforts independent of retailers: namely, email lists.
And of course, they had to rely on the craft of serial novel writing. We’ve seen Jamie write some of the most innovative fiction we’ve read. Lengthy episodes with complete and fulfilling arcs, with gripping cliffhangers, with a narrative structure that’s simply a work of art. I’m standing close enough to The Gin Lovers to tell you what I’ve come to believe: the serial novel can be a thing of beauty and a commercial success. And what Amazon announced today says that they believe that too. The most successful ebook retailer in the world is now offering a technology that supports this promising publishing strategy.
Observers have been fond of saying that serial novels have “fallen out of fashion.” This simply isn’t true. Like short stories, or long essays, the form didn’t fall out of fashion; rather, the venues for its publication evaporated. The literary publications that once featured these forms have disappeared.
What today’s announcement affirms–more than the device offerings: we can always expect those advancements in hardware–is that Amazon is continuing to open up markets for new forms of storytelling–even if they’re old forms that we’d forgotten. They did it with the Kindle Singles program, which has sprinting toward 3.5 million short ebooks from a standing start. They did it with Kindle Direct Publishing, which continues to surface quality storytelling from the self-publishers. And now Amazon again endorses a new market, this time for the serial work.
Make no mistake: this move by Amazon is far from a no-brainer. The technology that enables serial delivery and supports it across the platform is not simple, the data we have on reading habits is inconclusive, and there is no guarantee that readers will buy in and grow the new serial program the way they have clearly endorsed the Singles program. But Amazon proves itself again as a company will to try something new. Soon, I imagine, we’ll see the same kind of technology for serial delivery from Barnes and Noble and Kobo and others, and we’ll welcome. And one or two or three years from now, when the hardware’s outdated and tossed into the dustbin, the serial novel will have been rescued from it.