Serialised book platforms have a patchy history, but this white-hot American publishing startup believes that the time is right.
Serial Box takes the good elements of modern TV (easily digestible episodes, team written, new content every week) and combines them with the best bits of books (well-crafted stories, talented authors, enjoyable anywhere).
Like TV, the Serial Box team releases a new 'episode' of each serial every week, with seasons typically running for 10-13 weeks. Each episode works as a standalone, but they also build over the course of the season to tell a bigger story. Each episode is available in both ebook and audio and takes about 40 minutes to enjoy.
Molly Barton is c.e.o. and co-founder of Serial Box Publishing, based in New York. Previously she was global digital director at Penguin Random House where she led the global ebook business, digital product innovation and content strategy, in addition to building the community-curated self-publishing platform Book Country. She’s spoken about digital media and the future of publishing in over 15 countries and at Harvard, Yale and Columbia.
Her co-founder Julian Yap, who acts as c.o.o., previously served as senior counsel in the Department of Justice, after clerking for the Supreme Court of Texas. He received his B.A. from Yale University, a Masters from the University of Pennsylvania, and a J.D. and L.L.M from Duke University School of Law.
C.t.o. Eric Rosenfield previously worked for Amazon/comiXology as a developer, dev manager, and product manager, and helped build the company from a seven person start-up to a 100-person Amazon acquisition.
Lydia Shamah, the production coordinator, comes from literary agency Carol Mann Agency where she represented a wide range of nonfiction and fiction titles, including novels that started life as Wattpad serials.
The team also works with a large pool of freelancers (notably Jeff Umbro, who previously worked in digital marketing and PR at Goldberg McDuffy, and Carrie Dirisio who heads up social media). They are currently working with over 50 authors, among them NYT Bestsellers and award winners.
What's the gap in the market?
Barton believes that a generation of time-poor, boxset-weaned millennials are craving a different sort of reading experience.
"So many people say ‘Oh I love reading but I just don’t have time anymore, I wish I did'. But then they’ll spend hours binge-listening to S-Town or binge-watching Sense 8," she explains. "Novels feel daunting for many people – committing to an unknown length of story on your own? Serialisation gives the reader a wonderfully predictable (and more social) format and schedule – 40 minutes to read or one hour to listen, once a week. If you’re reading/lisetening in season, you can keep up to date week by week and talk with friends about what’s happening. And if you’re reading after a season has ‘aired’ you can have that delightful experience of being able to say, oh just one more episode before bed... and ‘binge’ read."
Serialised book platforms are nothing new. But Amazon's Kindle Serials failed to take off and independent sites such as Tapas have yet to prove their worth. So what makes Serial Box team think they can corner the market?
"We produce wholly original serials that are crafted for the form," Barton insists. "We’re not just chopping up existing works into chunks. We work with teams of writers, like a TV writers room – and we focus on delivering scifi/fantasy, mystery/crime/thriller, and women’s fiction stories that are very well plotted but also have great characters you want to come back and spend time with every week.
"People have been enjoying the episodic nature of television for decades, and now with the increase in popularity of podcasts they're consuming audio episodically too. This is the right moment for serialized publishing, particularly with the ability to toggle back and forth between the audio and the ebook versions.
Talking about the new TV adaption of American Gods in the Telegraph back in April, Neil Gaiman wrote that “Serial narratives have their own power…It’s something that comics exploit, that Dickens would exploit, that JK Rowling did with Harry Potter. If you serialise a story then make people wait for the next thing, there is a level of investment which is enormous.”
In the same month, Margaret Atwood told the New Yorker: “Installments on a phone—those, the brain can handle. War and Peace, maybe not. Though War and Peace was first published in installments, by the way.”
So Barton's team might just have found the right offering at the right time.
Success so far?
Serial Box currently has five series, some in their second seasons, with a sixth releasing next week. The new series is called Geek Actually and is "a sexy, genre-busting series about a group of five diverse, nerdy, female friends," Barton reports. "We started out wanting to create something like Sex & the City with geeky women of color (who also aren't all straight) and it's turned into a sharp, funny (and hot) no-holds-barred portrait of modern friendship, feminism, and fandom." You can read a sneak preview here.
The platform has secured press in The New York Times, Wired and NPR. The serials are receiving strong reviews from outlets like Publishers Weekly and the Washington Post, and receiving award nominations.They are also coming to print. Tremontaine and Bookburners are already available as print books, and The Witch Who Came In From the Cold will be released on June 13th.
"Next we’re going to start announcing international publishing partnerships," Barton says. "Subscriber retention for our serials is really strong – it’s 89% on average. And we’ve figured out how to get paying users to the platform affordably, though we do also distribute to Amazon, iBooks, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, Google and co."
"When we first launched, the biggest challenge was making sure we could generate truly excellent series with teams of writers. The next challenge was getting our first thousand paying customers," Barton laughs. "Happily that’s behind us and now we’re focused on identifying publisher partners in various markets who are truly effective marketers and have direct to consumer ambitions."
The Serial Box team simply wants to get more people reading, however they want.
"We’d have a better (more empathetic) world if more people read character driven fiction," Barton insists. :To do this effectively, we’d like Serial Box to become known to readers and listeners worldwide as the ‘HBO for reading’."
Advice to other publishing entrepreneurs?
"Make your idea as simple as possible, bootstrap or self-fund at least until you hit your initial proof-points, then know what you want to do next once you’ve established the fundamental mechanics of the business."