Following quickly on the heels of Boxfiction and its attempts to
revive the concept of the serialised novel pioneer TV that you read comes the news that Knopf Doubleday imprint Pantheon Books has paid an advance reputedly in the millions of dollars to House of Leaves author Mark Z. Danielewski for the first ten instalments of a proposed 27-volume serial. That’s no small change to throw at a risky concept that demands audience loyalty and continued satisfaction over a substantial period of time in order to succeed, and suggests no shortage of confidence on the part of Pantheon that a return to serialisation will indeed be a profitable way forward for publishers of novels.
Starting in 2014, a new volume of Danielewski’s The Familiar will be published every three months. For the benefit of those whose maths are a bit rusty, that means that, if all goes to plan, the final instalment will finally see the light of day some time around 2021. With so many variables at play over such a lengthy period of time, however, you might want to hold off before slapping down money on a complete series pre-order (or, indeed, a potentially life-threatening collected edition). 27 volumes over seven years is an awfully high number for what is effectively a test of the viability of this kind of strategy in the age of digital publishing, and only ten of those have been paid for – the fate of the remaining 17 will presumably come down to how well those initial ten are received.
Naturally, Danielewski, whose name doesn’t get any easier to type with repetition, is confident in the format’s success, claiming ‘literature is capable of being a subject that people want to catch up on or discuss, whether at a coffee shop or a watercooler’, a claim that takes a similar tack to Boxfiction by evoking serialised drama and the concept of ‘watercooler’ or ‘appointment’ TV.
Whether Danielewski is a big enough name (in sales, at least. As far as number of letters goes, he’s up there) to grab the attention of the reading public with such a risky gambit remains to be seen – cult-friendly he may be, but in terms of sales he’s hardly Stephen King, and when King serialised The Green Mile in the mid-90s he restrained himself to a comparatively modest six volumes. Then again, King didn’t have the benefit of instant downloads, viral marketing and social networking to help his cause (although he also didn’t have much luck when he did try online serialisation). Whatever the outcome, it’ll be interesting to see how the novel turns out – and whether other publishers will follow the leads of Pantheon and Boxfiction over the coming months.