One of the most striking things about the shift in music consumption from LPs and CDs to mp3s is the way that digital technology has once again placed the emphasis on individual songs rather than albums as a whole. Before the late 60s, when the likes of Pet Sounds, Blonde on Blonde and The Beatles post-Rubber Soul defined the concept of the album as a unified artistic statement, the focus, from the industry and consumers alike, was on singles. Whilst the move to digital has allowed for new methods for musicians to find fans – witness, for example, the boom in free-to-download mixtapes from emergent hip-hop artists – this reversion to a pre-album mindset within the mainstream increasingly makes the 40 years or so where the album reigned seem like an aberration: the real money is in the methods of the past.
Intriguingly, the just launched Boxfiction appears to be doing something similar for e-publishing. Modelling itself after television drama, the service offers one ‘episode’ per week of an ongoing story, each of which takes roughly 30 minutes to read, available for download as part of a paid subscription.
Once you get past all the spin about it being ‘TV series you read’, the concept is to the novel what the move towards individual songs is to the album: a reversion to an earlier mindset, in this case that of the serialised novel. Hugely popular in the 19th and early 20th century – we’ve all heard the stories about the great wailing and gnashing of teeth that accompanied the death of Little Nell in the final instalment of Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop – the format died out as magazines shifted focus from literature to current affairs, with periodic revivals since from the likes of Tom Wolfe, Stephen King and Michel Faber.
It makes sense, however, that it would be revived in the digital age. The comparisons to TV might be simple PR hype, but they’re not entirely inapt: the structure of serialised drama borrows heavily from that of serialised novels, and the idea of an episodic instalment of a novel that can be downloaded at a set time each week and read in 30 minutes – the length of many TV episodes, but just as crucially, the length of many commutes – certainly has an in-built appeal.
Boxfiction is launching with spin-offs from pathology procedural Silent Witness, but is also publishing its own stand-alone series (‘pilots’, it rather too cutely labels the first instalments of each), priced at 99p per episode and £7.99 for a whole series, with the first part of each available for free as a taster.
Rather than TV shows, the more apt comparison here may be podcasts: a digital only product whose regularity of release and ease of consumption encourages return downloads from subscribers. Whether it can attain the same zeitgeisty cache remains to be seen, but if it can get beyond the ‘TV you can read!’ gimmick, Boxfiction may yet point towards a sustainable business model for digital publishing by, ironically, resurrecting the past.