A manifesto for serial publishing

A manifesto for serial publishing

"One of the reasons many of the greatest novels ever published are so long," writes Len Epp, "is that they were already hits while they were being written." Serials, writes Leanpub co-founder Epp, are the true approach to traditional publishing. Only in the last century, he contends, did we come to think of "doorstopper" books as the natural form for novels. "Let’s bring back traditional publishing by stepping over the doorstopper."—Porter Anderson

'Between the novel and the book'

What do Hard Times, Middlemarch, Crime and Punishment, War and Peace, and many more of the greatest novels ever published have in common?

When they were first published, they were not published as books. They were published serially.

People unfamiliar with the history of something tend to assume that what they’ve always known is the way things have always been. That’s why most people think the 20th-century model of publishing, which favoured the publication of novels in book rather than serial format (I call it the “Doorstopper Model”), is a “traditional” form of publishing. It’s not.

It’s also why we’ve more or less abandoned the basic ontological distinction between the novel and the book. They are not the same thing. The Brothers Karamazov (also published serially) is a novel; like all novels, it’s a book only in a secondary sense, if and when it happens to be produced that way.

Serial publishing offers authors and readers many advantages over the “Doorstopper Model” of all-at-once text-dumping. It lets authors release their work before the text is entirely finished, which most people find both inherently rewarding and motivating. It lets them engage with readers as they write, which can inform what they write (of course, they can still ignore everyone and act like they’re hiding in an isolated cabin if they choose to).

For readers, serial publishing lets them engage with a text they know is still being written, which profoundly influences how they read and respond to it. It opens up avenues of anticipation and community engagement around a text that unfold over time in a particular way.

From the publisher’s perspective, serial publishing offers many unique paths to a text’s success. It means publishers can make a smaller individual investment in a broader range of texts and focus their time and money on texts that are succeeding.

This is good for authors too: instead of toiling away for years on a text that no one is ever going to read, you can find out after just a few months.

This is a particularly powerful form of publishing for works of non-fiction, especially texts by experts on the cutting edge of their fields, who should not be held back by the doorstopper production timeline.

One of the reasons many of the greatest novels ever published are so long, is that they were already hits while they were being written. Authors were excited by their readers’ excitement and publishers could enjoy having a hit on their hands for a longer period of time, essentially monetizing the time a text would otherwise have been sitting in a writer’s desk.

With contemporary publishing technology, the opportunities presented to writers, readers and publishers by serial publishing are even more exciting than they were in the past, inviting new forms of creativity and engagement.

Let’s bring back traditional publishing by stepping over the doorstopper and into a future better informed by the industry’s past.

This is another entry in our series of "Five-Minute Manifestos" for The Future of the Book Business. In his article Those magnificent manifestos, The Bookseller editor Philip Jones revisited his call for the FutureBook community to reflect on five years of the digital dynamic, "to challenge the customs we have begun to adopt." The response has been robust, and we thank all our manifesto writers. See their articles here.

As we add more in this series, our most recently published #FutureBook15 manifestos are:

Main image - iStockphoto: Ondine32