This Ebook Publisher Doesn’t Have Authors. It Has Writers’ Rooms
Matthew Cody began his new book ReMade with a premise sure to be a hit with fans of dystopian YA fiction: In a post-apocalyptic future, 23 teenagers wake up to look for answers in the wreckage of human civilization, all while being hunted by machines. But beyond its initial chapter, he didn’t write the details of the rest of the book. He didn’t have to—he’s just the showrunner.
ReMade, which debuts today, is the fifth series from Serial Box. The company is essentially a book publisher, but instead of releasing whole novels by lone authors, it rolls out stories like a TV network: one “episode” a week, each penned by a different writer. Every installment, much like every episode of The Night Of, will take a little under an hour of your time, and for those who keep up with their shows on iTunes, the options to buy will be familiar. Readers can purchase an episode at a time for $1.99, subscribe and get each of the 13-15 episodes for a discounted $1.59, or buy a season pass for $19-22. For subscribers and pass holders, a new episode arrives in their Serial Box app each Wednesday, in both written and audio form.
Other companies—Wattpad, Crave—have experimented with serialized digital storytelling, but Serial Box hews much more closely to the TV model than anything that’s come before it. That’s intentional. Co-founder Molly Barton, who was previously the global digital director at Penguin, wanted to start an ebook company that borrowed not only from television’s release schedule, but from its marketing and creative process, too.
“When I was at Penguin, I was going to more and more dinner parties with literary agents who were just talking about TV,” Barton says. “With TV, I can figure out where you are, but if we’ve read the same novel, it’s a more dense thing to access.” Through episodic release, Barton hopes to offer a reading experience that’s easier to speculate and obsess about, through books that you can read in sync with your friends.
Writing Novels Like TV Seasons
Serialized book publication, of course, requires a quick turnaround. When FSG Originals tried it, Lian Hearn wrote all four Tales of Shikanoko before publication; Jeff VanderMeer wrote the second two books in his Southern Reach trilogy in rapid succession. Serial Box has a different approach: do away with the idea of the lone author.
“Traditionally, it takes 24-36 months to get a book written and published,” says Barton. “With a team of writers, we can turn out a serial from idea to publication in six months.”
First, Serial Box finds a lead writer, or showrunner, who writes the initial pilot episode and a show bible. Then they bring together four or five scribes for a story workshop. That group then gets to work on future installments just like a TV writer’s room—right down to the bulletin board covered with notecards. The writers—mostly novelists, but some TV writers, as well—spend three days on plot and character development in person. At the end of the workshop, each author has a few episodes to write; over the next few months, they share ideas and collaborate on Slack.
According to Barton, the collaboration is a welcome change for writers used to long days alone with nothing but a blinking cursor. She hopes the variety of voices appeals to readers, as well. “If you’re a fan of a TV show, and they’ve got a great guest writer, you can see their hand in the episode, but the characters still feel true,” she says. “One chapter might feel different from that of another author, but characters are collaboratively conceived.”
With each writer responsible for a few different episodes, Serial Box can release the first installment after just three months as authors leapfrog each other to publish subsequent chapters. Rather than rushing the writers, Barton has found that the quick timeline offers them an unanticipated way to interact with readers. “We see how readers and listeners respond to early episodes, which affects how we end the season,” she says. Matthew Cody may have written the premise of ReMade, but the rest of the story is up to his writing team—and, perhaps, even up to his fans. Let’s see The Night Of do that.
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