Literati – “Serial publishing” ( 2 May 2015)

Jaya Bhattacharji RoseMy monthly column, Literati, in the Hindu Literary Review was published online ( 2 May 2015) and will be in print ( 3 May 2015). Here is the url http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/literati/article7164472.ece. I am also c&p the text below.

Published over 20 years ago, Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, a single-volume hardback at over 1100 pages, was bulky to hold though printed on Bible paper (a thin grade of paper used for printing books with a large number of pages). It was not unheard of to rip the novel into two or three volumes to read it easily. It inevitably triggered conversations about Victorian England when serial publishing was fashionable and lending libraries in Victorian England preferred to lend three-decker novels to members.

This practice was instituted by Mudie’s Lending Library and Mudie’s Subscription Library. Charles Mudie, known for his sharp business acumen, introduced the guinea yearly subscription allowing a customer to borrow an unlimited number of volumes at any time. He also profited from simultaneously lending different parts of a novel to different customers. Of course publishers and authors benefited immensely from Mudie’s select list of books since an order from the library/retail usually meant buying up print runs, certainly a substantial number of units that helped boost sales.

With the Industrial Revolution, rapid technological advances had a tremendous impact on book publishing. With mechanisation it was easier to produce cheap books for a mass audience. Printers too had acquired new technologies, notably the practice of stereotyping — casting a metal plate based on an impression from hand-set type — which permitted both quick reuse of the type for other pages and multiple copies of the metal plates for even faster printing of multiple copies. Writers like Charles Dickens managed to be financially secure by catering to working class audience sensibilities, weaving in characters in his serial and monthly stories that endeared themselves to readers up and down the social ladder. For instance, with Pickwick Papers, the monthly print run rose from 400 (March 1836) to 40,000 (November 1837). As Claire Tomalin, Dickens’ biographer (2011) points out “the sales of each of the last three numbers of Dombey, in January, February and March 1948, were around 34,000, and people continued to buy back numbers for months afterwards. In 1847 he earned £3,800, and for the first time ever he had enough money in the bank to be able to invest.” (p.200)

Suddenly there were a flood of books available, a first since moveable type had been invented some centuries earlier. In the 20th century, it was Allen Lane’s introduction of the paperback edition that made a significant difference to book publishing.

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Self-publishing

Fast forward to 21st century. Technological advancements, especially with the introduction of smartphones and e-readers meant that in less than a decade, e-books were easily available to access and download — most cheaply priced or for free! This fuelled the exponential growth of self-publishing as people discovered how “easily” books could be produced and sold at a reasonable price directly to customers. Like in Victorian England, new reading communities were discovered/created. At the same time, digital long reads came into vogue, usually standalone commissioned articles. Slowly the impact of this form is becoming discernible in the crafting a novel.

Instead of the long story being “complete” and polished equally from beginning to end, it is obvious to a trained eye that portions of the story are given more care, probably to be offered as extracts to digital and print media or to be read out at author interactions. This is affecting the form of a novel with experiments in interconnected stories being considered as a novel. Serial publishing too is making a comeback with authors offering their e-books as serials or intentionally writing serials, testing it on readers and later converting it into a book — mostly seen in self-publishing programmes. A deluge of books has resulted in the creation of monthly subscription models such as Oyster and Kindle Unlimited offering readers an unlimited number of e-books. Given the paucity of time but increase in commuting time and variety of handheld e-devices the rise of short fiction (flash fiction and short story) as a popular form of writing is inevitable. Yet I wonder if it is not time for serial publishing to make a comeback. It will engage a reader; the author can gauge the reader’s reaction to the story and tweak it accordingly, so the book’s sale is assured, ensuring writers and publishers benefit.

2 May 2015

An update ( 8 May 2015) 

Coincidentally, two days after my column was published I read a fascinating post on Melville House blog on serial publishing. “Two For Tuesday: Should Books Be Snackable, Serialized, and Delicious?” ( 5 May 2015,  http://www.mhpbooks.com/two-for-tuesday-should-books-be-snackable-serialized-and-delicious/)

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