Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes might be an unlikely Messiah. But when news broke earlier this year about Belgravia, his novel-cum-app, that’s what I thought he would be.
“Finally,” I said to myself, “we have a big-name author teaming up with big-budget publishers (Grand Central in the US, Orion in the UK) in a holy union that will bring about the resurrection of written fiction in the digital age. At last, technology and the way we live today will begin to empower and enrich the publishing industry – rather than erode its profits and diminish its cultural capital as it has done until now.”
Well, that was the gist.
But with the last of Belgravia’s 11 weekly instalments due to be published tomorrow, I’m not as confident as I once was. It doesn’t seem to have either captured the public’s imagination or had the commercial success that it might have done. Apart from people like us, who spend a not insignificant amount of time thinking about the future of writing, publishing and The Novel, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who has even heard of it.
Twitter followers are not the only measure of success in this world, but in the absence of sales or download figures they will have to do. Belgravia has just 854 of them. Downton Abbey and the podcast Serial – which both obviously inspired Belgravia (the story is upstairs/downstairs historical fiction; users have the option of listening to an audio version, rather than reading) – have 578,000 and 291,000 respectively.
Where Belgravia went wrong
One of Belgravia’s two main shortcomings stems from the fact that its creators have thought of it as too much like Downton and not enough like a show on Netflix. They realised, correctly, that generating revenue through advertising wasn’t the right way to go, but the all-important pricing model still isn’t right. The first ‘episode’ was free to read and listen to – after that users could choose whether to buy the 10 remaining episodes one-by-one for £1.49 each week or save themselves a fiver by “subscribing” for £9.98.
It would have been better to employ a three-tiered model, like Netflix, which offers users a basic version of the product, a super-duper version and, in the middle, a goldilocks option which balances functionality with price. (For a brilliant blog on the psychology of pricing, read this by Tom Whitwell.)
For example, perhaps the basic version of Belgravia would have allowed people to read the episodes when they were published each week. The goldilocks option would have also included audio and the super-duper version would have given users access to the entire story – text and audio – whenever they wanted, without having to wait for it to be published each week.
It’s clear that by only publishing chapters on a weekly basis, the app’s creators were trying to spark the zeitgeist-y water-cooler conversations that propelled Downton and Serial into the public consciousness. But each of these had a good reason to be released on a weekly schedule: Downton because it generates revenue primarily through advertising, which people will tolerate when watching ‘live’ TV, and Serial because it was reporting on an investigation as it unfolded in (almost) real time.
Fellowes had finished writing the book before the first episode of Belgravia came out, so there was no similarly compelling reason for it to be released only in weekly instalments. Why, then, would you prevent people from buying your product when they wanted to? It makes no sense.
Imagine the busy professional who, unusually, has some time to read when she gets delayed at an airport while travelling for business. She downloads the first chapter and loves it. She wants to read the rest straightaway – and would gladly pay extra for the privilege – but she is told she must wait until next week, when she knows she may not have time, or may have moved on to something else. In a climate when binge-watching and on-demand services of every kind imaginable have become the norm, people don’t just like the ability to consume the entertainment they want, when they want – they expect it. And, importantly, they’re happy to pay for it.
This brings us to Belgravia’s second major failing: Its creators didn’t realise the best thing about it. By publishing the book as an app, they had the opportunity to build something that was tailor-made for a device that most of their customers have with them every waking minute of the day. To take advantage of this, they might have broken the story up into little chunks that could have been read (or listened to) in small bursts whenever people had a spare moment – on their commute, for example.
Instead, they divided Belgravia into parts that take about as long to consume as an episode of a box-set and, in the process, eroded the competitive advantage that it could have enjoyed over Netflix and TV. (People with more time on their hands could have always read several small chunks in one sitting.)
In the modest buzz around serialised reading apps and platforms there is enough to suggest that the basic concept has legs. But as Chris Sacca, an early investor in Uber and Twitter, says: “Ideas are cheap; execution is everything” – and none of the contenders that we’ve seen so far appears to have nailed it.
Serial Reader lacked the initial investment that could have helped it to take off; Serial Box suffers from the same too-long, too-rigid weekly chapter model as Belgravia; Wattpad has (apparently) zero quality control and The Pigeonhole has an incredibly high-friction on-boarding process – in non-tech speak: it’s one hell of a faff.
I’ve now changed my mind about Julian Fellowes; he’s not the Messiah... and neither is any one of the people behind these other attempts. But there’s still hope.
I believe that, one day, it will be the norm for works of fiction to be published as standalone apps (think of them as more refined versions of Belgravia), and/or we will see the emergence of a polished, user-friendly digital platform that allows people to discover, read and share all in the same place. It could look something like Instagram or Pocket, but for books rather than pictures or articles.
That’s why, despite its shortcomings, we should view Belgravia not as a failed experiment but, instead, as a crucial step in the right direction.
Edwin Smith is working on a piece of serialised fiction that he hopes will be published as an app or on a digital platform – and would like to hear from anyone who might be able to help him do it better than it has been done to date. Potential collaborators can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or find him on Twitter @EdwinSmith.