When I was small, a weekly treat would be a copy of ‘Bunty’, a comic, filled with the usual girl centric activities and stories, most of which seemed to revolve around boarding schools and animals. Much like other comics of its day, and of those from generations before, the publishers needed an incentive to keep the little darlings spending their pocket money on that indulgence, and they did it through the continuing story. Will Tabitha Kitten be rescued? How will Jemima avoid that evil headmistress from discovering her midnight feast? Don’t forget to order your copy and find out what happens in the next thrilling edition of ‘BUNTY’!
I wanted to know what happens next, just as a generation before me wanted to know what happened to Grace Archer, or when 30 million viewers tuned in to find out if Den will tell Angie he’s divorcing her on the Christmas day edition of ‘EastEnders’. These radio and television continuing dramas want us to invest in the characters. They want us to become engaged and hanker for the next episode.
But that’s all changed now hasn’t it? Aren’t we all binging these days? There’s no waiting until next week, or the next episode, we want to know what happens next, now. So is there any call for serials, particularly when it comes to the consumption of novels?
Serialisation became popular in the early to mid-19th Century, with Dickens releasing ‘The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club’ in 1836. Over the channel, and a year earlier, Honoré de Balzac’s published ‘Le Père Goriot’. These more accessible serialisations mark the start of the ‘novel by instalment’ phenomenon.
The ability to read and write in the Victorian world was a privilege reserved for those who could afford school fees or hire private tutors and governesses. It wasn’t for the masses. Reading was a luxury. With only a limited audience, becoming an author was not the route to riches. So serialisation was a win-win situation. Penny instalments meant a regular income for authors and those on modest incomes could access reading material. Bear in mind that a printed novel in 1850 could cost the equivalent of two weeks’ pay for the average worker.
Many novels, now considered as classics, started out as instalments, and syndicated through newspapers and magazines. Along with the likes of Wilkie Collins, Thackeray and Eliot, there were many hundreds of other writers whose continuing gothic melodramas enthralled their weekly readers. It wasn’t limited to the United Kingdom, across the globe, authors saw a way of developing readership through affordable instalments, such as Alexandre Dumas, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevesky and Henry James, to name a few. Stories need readers, and with increasing literacy through the Education Acts of the late 19th Century, so the opportunity to reach a wider audience for these authors also improved.
The novel by instalments continued through the first half of the 20th Century with such notable novels starting out as a serial as, ‘Ulysses’, ‘Tender is the Night’ and in the 1970’s, ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’. However, with increased prosperity, reduction in printing costs, and access to libraries, the serial novel was becoming irrelevant. We wanted to binge the story, just like we want to binge watch ‘Dark’ or ‘The Crown’. What is the point of serialisation in these instant gratification times?
In a word – engagement.
Just as those Victorian writers expanded their readership to those who otherwise would not have the means to access the novel, so 21st Century writers can develop a fan base without the input from a major publisher’s PR department.
When Andy Weir’s previous novels were rejected by agents, he decided to release The Martian one chapter at a time on his own website. His fan base quickly grew. The novel was then released on Kindle where it shot to the top of the bestseller lists. The agents and publishers took note, and before long, The Martian was traditionally published with the film released in 2015. To be fair, Andy Weir did have a stonking good book, but I wonder how many good books are a ‘not for me’ by the traditional publishing route. It is a subjective and ultimately brutal industry. And this is where I turn my attention to WattPad.
Launched in 2006, WattPad is a social media site for writers and readers. It doesn’t matter who you are, or what your chosen genre is – assuming you have one in the first place – anyone can upload their story for readers to discover – serialisation, social media style. With over 80 million users, the chances of an Andy Weir type success is remote, but not impossible. According to their website, over 1000 WattPad stories have gone on to be published or turned into film/tv adaptations. They even have their own awards – The Wattys – and their own publishing division. Given only a fraction will see that sort of success, what does it provide to other writers. It is a chance to experiment with your work, get readers engaged with your story and offer you feedback, before you begin the arduous, and at times, soul destroying, querying process. If your work has already developed a fan base, an agent would be a fool not to take note. Alternatively, you can test your novel ideas before incurring the costs, both in time and financially, prior to self-publishing.
Up to now, I have only looked at the written word, but the whole reason I came to write this essay is because of the spoken word. Today, consuming a book does not necessarily involve reading words, listening to others read has regained its popularity. Personally, I enjoy audio when I am gardening or ironing, as long as I can keep the headphones on my head! Audio books are great, but expensive, both to produce and to buy. There are alternatives, and you can get audio books from the library, but the increasing popularity of podcasts could herald the return of serialisation.
According to OneFinePlay.com, in 2019, 165 million people have listened to a podcast with 90 million Americans regularly tuning in each month. I recently listened to a podcast from The Script Department, who turn yet to be produced screenplays into a series of podcasts. (They also blog about script-writing). This made me think, I can’t afford the cost of producing an audio book but maybe podcasting would be a good starting point. And so the idea for The Third Magpie Podcast was born.
Unlike the Victorian writers, my barrier to getting my novel out there is not the price of the book, when the e-book is less than a cup of coffee. We live in an age of cheap and sometimes free books. Undoubtedly, the most expensive part of producing an audio book is the human input. I am incredibly fortunate and have the collaboration of professionals, in the guise of actress, Hannah Timms, and concert pianist, Dr Elena Vorotko, so I am left with cost of equipment and setting up a studio – spare bedroom and loads of cushions against hard surfaces. Then comes the time required to learn how to use Audacity, plus the running costs of the Podcast host, in my case, Podbean.com. I may have very little time for anything other than ‘real’ work and podcast work, but I hope it will be worth the effort.
At a time when the traditional means of publicising a book is severely hampered by the social distancing of COVID19, being able to say, ‘Hey, I can’t do a book talk at the local library or bookshop, but you can listen to the story for free on our podcast means, I can reach new audiences, and who knows, maybe even develop a fan base, just like Dickens, Balzac and Weir.