So I finally finished watching the first season of House of Cards this weekend. Which is crazy, right? It’s been a full month and a half since all 13 episodes went live on Netflix. How could I wait so damn long to finish the story, especially since traveling to South by Southwest meant that I had to wait two whole weeks before I could find out what happened to [REDACTED] after [REDACTED]?
After all, there’s been so much writing about how the show represents the future of distribution, especially with the audience’s binge-watching habits. And it’s part of a broader conversation around how media consumption is changing, with no one willing to wait for anything anymore. At least, that’s what I keep hearing and reading: Everything will be released everywhere immediately because waiting is so 20th century, man.
Yet when I watched House of Cards, I really enjoyed the space between the episodes, when I could wonder about what happens next and anticipate the next time I’d have an hour or two to catch up. That’s not a new idea — in fact, it’s one of the main pleasures of television. But I think it’s something people lose sight of when they talk about bold new distribution models.
There are tech companies pushing in the other direction. For example, Amazon announced a new Serials program last fall, in which novels are published an episode at a time, rather than all at once. A startup called Plympton ran a successful Kickstarter to support its own serialized fiction efforts (it’s also partnering with Amazon). And serialization is part of the model at another digital publishing startup called Coliloquy.
Now, these are still early, experimental efforts. Plus, comparing TV and novels is a bit apples-and-oranges, because TV is much more expensive to produce and therefore needs a much bigger audience. But I was still impressed by the mere fact that companies want to experiment with giving audience members new ways to wait.
My friend David Schwartz is actually part of those efforts — he’s writing a Kindle Serial called Gooseberry Bluff Community College of Magic: The Thirteenth Rib (which is being published by Amazon imprint 47 North). I emailed Schwartz to ask why he believes there’s still an interest in serialized fiction, and he said:
The part of the serials program I’m confident about is that we’re putting out a good story, and that there are readers who enjoy the anticipation of built-in suspense. It’s not as though we’re completely re-inventing the wheel, because comics and TV still do serial storytelling.
The instant gratification faction is definitely out there; a social media consultant analyzed the forum feedback thus far on Gooseberry Bluff and found that while the reaction was overwhelmingly positive, the main negative that was mentioned was that the episodes were too short, which leads me to conclude that they wanted to read more right away. And just like there are people who would rather wait for a DVD set of Doctor Who or a trade collection of last year’s Avengers comics so they can consume them all in one sitting, there will be some readers who opt to wait until the full e-book is done, or to buy the physical copy. That’s fine! I’m determined to put something out that works no matter whether you read it in chunks or all at once.
Besides, I’m not Dickens, but I’m guessing he had readers write in to complain about waiting to find out what was going to happen to Nicholas Nickleby, too.
I’ve been rediscovering the pleasures of serial novels myself, primarily through a science fiction novel called The Human Division. It’s set in author John Scalzi‘s Old Man’s War universe, with a new chapter is coming out every week, and the full book scheduled for print publication in May. Scalzi is a New York Times-bestselling author (as well as one of the teachers when I attended the Viable Paradise science fiction workshop in 2008) and The Human Division is coming out from his regular publisher Tor, not a startup — though, yes, as an experiment.
Not everything about the serialization is perfect. I have to admit I feel a little annoyed when I get a particularly short chapter that doesn’t include any of the book’s major characters. And the model fits a bit awkwardly in Apple’s iBookstore, where every chapter is released as a separate book. Nonetheless, it’s become a nice ritual for me every Tuesday, when I download the latest episode and revisit the setting, characters, and story in bite-sized chunks. I actually like stretching the experience out over a few months. It’s almost like … watching a television show. And sales seem to be strong.
To be clear, I also enjoy a good binge watch, and I think Netflix is smart to experiment with new models. But I’m also grateful that someone else thinks there’s something worthwhile in waiting.