exposedThis is a little amusing, or possibly ironic. I don’t know. A few months ago, I mentioned new publisher “Serial Box,” who wanted to try to hook people on reading e-books using some of the same techniques as TV series—serial publication, cliffhangers, one installment posted per week. At the time, I noted that this was happening right as Netflix was demonstrating that people like to binge on serially-produced TV shows.

Well, here comes Harlequin doing its own serial publication format. The Tough Justice mystery-suspense series is made up of eight 30,000-word installments, each ending with cliffhangers and written by different authors. The first installment is free, and subsequent ones will cost $1.49 each. But these installments are all available right now, so people can “binge-read” them. Seriously, “binge” is right there in the Publishers Weekly headline.

You know what you call a literary work that’s released all at once so it can be “binge-read,” divided into sections that end with cliffhangers? A novel. A regular old, plain-vanilla novel. (Nate Hoffelder calls this a “themed box set of novellas” but I’m not quite sure that’s right. You don’t call a TV series a themed set of tele-movies.) Granted, this novel has the gimmick of being ensemble-written, and sold by individual chapters, but those are just gimmicks, and there have been both kinds of novels before. (For serials, Nate mentions Stephen King’s failed The Plant experiment, but he doesn’t mention that King also successfully published a six-part serial novel in print, The Green Mile, back in the ‘90s.)

At least they’re not gouging on the price. The total cost of all seven paid installments would be $10.43, which isn’t too far distant from Amazon’s preferred $9.99 new-book price point, and considerably cheaper than the agency pricing points where the major publishers are selling their new works now. For a 240,000-word novel, that’s not bad—especially since you can quit partway through and not have to pay for the whole thing if you lose interest along the way.

I do have to wonder, though, whether Harlequin was able to come to some kind of special arrangement with Amazon for selling it. After all, if it goes by the same rules as self-publication, a $1.49 e-book would only get the publisher 35% of revenue, not the 70% promised for works that cost $2.99 and up. On the other hand, when you take those works together they add up to one $10.43 novel, so…who knows? (But then, if they were counting the whole thing as $10.43, that would still be outside Amazon’s 70% price range.)

But the thing that struck me most about this story was its overall silliness. I mean, you’ve got this ridiculous quote from a Harlequin exec:

“We are emulating the experience and enjoyment people receive from binge-watching a television series on one of the streaming platforms like Netflix, Amazon or Hulu,” said Loriana Sacilotto, executive v-p of global editorial at Harlequin.

It’s puzzling how she got to be an executive VP without realizing that people can “binge-watch” books all they  want, just by reading the whole book at once instead of stopping after just a chapter or two. That’s why writers tend to end chapters with cliffhangers—to lure people into starting the next chapter instead of putting the book down to eat or go to bed. Binging is the normal way of reading a book, whereas the thing that got binging so much attention on services like Netflix is that it’s an unusual way of watching a TV series which you usually only get to see one episode at a time.

So, for the sake of selling a “serial book” that people can “binge-read,” they’re creating a meaningless distinction by chopping a book up into individual chapters and selling the chapters separately but simultaneously. They are using a pool of writers, like Serial Box is, but at least Serial Box is actually doing something unusual by doling the chapters out one a week!

But whether it’s silly or not, it is at least getting them some publicity, and publicity is everything in the book-publishing game. It remains to be seen, however, whether this gimmick will prove useful over a longer term.


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