What the Dickens? How Plympton Plans to Revive Serial Fiction

Blending TV cliff-hanger with the instant gratification of the Kindle.

Little Nell, the Bella Swan of her day. (Public domain image via flickr.com/circasassy)

When Amazon flipped the switch on its Serials program last Thursday, it also served as the debut of a new startup: Plympton, founded by journalist Jennifer 8 Lee and novelist Yael Goldstein Love. The company is contributing three of the eight titles inaugurating the initiative: The Many Lives of Lilith Lane, a paranormal YA mystery; Hacker Mom, dubbed a “mom thriller”; and Love Is Strong as Death, a mystery.

Plympton’s founders describe the company as a “literary studio,” functioning a little like a publishing house and a little like a movie studio. Their mission? Nothing less than using new technology to  reinvigorate a storytelling form that publishing left for dead decades ago. (Naturally, there’s a Kickstarter campaign.)

“What we care about is actually just bringing back this format, because we do think it would be good for literature,” Ms. Love told Betabeat. “It’s good for writers, it’s good for readers, it’s good for the state of American literature.”

Ms. Love believes that the market has shifted in such a way to open up a space for the form. It’s not that the cost of producing a book has suddenly skyrocketed, but publishers are under cost constraints that lead to pruning of their fiction lists. “They’ll take risks every now and then on a newbie novelist,” but most of the deals go to established writers or sure-thing concepts like vampire romances. “The startup cost of actually publishing a book, for whatever reason–it’s more expensive in terms of the risk and what publishers are willing to do,” she said.

Back in the 19th century, serial fiction was pretty much the hottest game in town. The story always used to illustrate this fact is that, during the serialization of Charles Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop, an unruly crowd of Americans once met a British ship at the docks, demanding to know whether the heroine Nell was alive. Think the Victorian version of Twihards lining up for Breaking Dawn screenings days in advance, and you’ve got the picture.

The form’s ubiquity was due to the economics of publishing in a day and age where manufacturing was far from streamlined. “The reason that serialized fiction was so popular back when it was, in the nineteenth century, was that it made really good economic sense for publishers and for writers,” explained Ms. Love. “Books were incredibly expensive to print, and so this was this wonderful way to test the commercial viability of a story and, hopefully, to build an audience before you laid out that expenditure.”

Nor did the form fall out of fashion simply because people lost interest, she insisted. Rather, newspapers and magazines shifted so the content simply had no place. “They started gearing more toward reporting the news,” de-emphasizing entertainment. She cited the enthusiasm over densely plotted television shows like Breaking Bad and Mad Men as evidence of the enduring appeal of the serialized narrative.

“It’s actually that space between the episodes, where you’re sort of waiting and anticipating and you’re speculating, that makes it all feel so much more alive and vivid,” she said, adding, “It makes the experience a lot more similar to everyday gossip, which I think is sort of the instinct that makes us love fiction in the first place.”

“Serialization becomes this really great way to get writers experimenting again and to be able to work on things that aren’t that sure thing,” she added.

And the beauty of the modern serialized novel is that, these days, the technology is far more streamlined and convenient. (Frankly, the process sounds simpler than getting the latest episode of Game of Thrones.)Kindle Serials will automatically update with new content, meaning there’s no need to meet the boat for the latest installment in The Pickwick Papers.

There’s also the matter of monetization, and the simple fact that recurring billing is an attractive proposition for a publisher. As Ms. Lee, Ms. Love’s cofounder, told us via email: “The economics for this works because even though it’s a modest price point for one episode, you have an audience that comes back again and again because they love the story.”

She also pointed out, “Note that all the great powerhouse franchises have been series: Harry Potter, Hunger Games, Twilight. There is something compelling about going back into the same universe.”

As for what the future looks like, Ms. Love isn’t interested in laying out a formula they’ll be adhering to–two parts mystery, three parts romance, one part YA, season to taste. She hopes to publish ambitious literary fiction and thinks Plympton’s lean business model means they can afford to give it a try: “We can actually take the risks that the big publishing houses can’t take right now” she said, offering the example of “very heady books, very complicated novels where you have to remember a list of dozens of characters.”

“At the end of the day it always comes down to the same thing–does this piece of fiction feel alive? Does it feel exciting? Do you want to keep reading?”

Installments range in length from 8,000 to 25,000 words. Some will arrive every two weeks, others once a month. At the moment, most of their series run five installments, but Ms. Love expects that to change. “I’m very open to publishing much longer pieces,” she said.

This Jane Eyre obsessive will keep her fingers crossed for a sprawling historical novel–perhaps The Secret Diary of Nikola Tesla? What the Dickens? How Plympton Plans to Revive Serial Fiction